I'm not going to pick a greatest performance by an actor in a Romantic Comedy.
As I so constantly have to remind myself:
It's not a contest!
Nevertheless if the subject comes up a couple names are going to leap to my mind. Obviously there's Nicholas Cage's astonishing performance in Moonstruck. Kevin Kline in French Kiss is pretty great as well. But because last night I watched Notting Hill for the 35th time I'm going talk today a little bit about Hugh Grant's understated and wonderful performance there.
Actually, let's talk about Kevin Kline first.
There is a moment in French Kiss where he is on a train with Meg Ryan, trying to get at a stolen necklace that has ended up in her purse. They've been through a great deal together already, and in her sleep she dreamily kisses him, taking him for someone else.
In the immediate aftermath of this kiss you literally watch him fall in love with her. It's the quiet, dazzling center of the movie. It happens without dialogue or action, through the expression on his face and by the quality of his posture. You see him fall in love with her, and it is counter to everything he has set his life up to be and threatens to change everything he believed or told himself about himself, which you can also see in his face. He has no way to deal with it. He is floored (literally, he is sitting on the floor).
It's a magical piece of acting.
There is something similar in Notting Hill. There is a point Hugh Grant, having moped for months about things not working out with Julia Roberts, tells his friends that he is over it, and that hence forth he will be happy.
But his face tells us that he will never be happy again. He will never recover and all he can do now is lie to himself forever.
There are a lot of wonderful ways to play a Romantic Comedy, and male leads often work with a lot more outward, forceful charm. Whether it be the operatic fight for true love that we see with Nicholas Cage's character, or the antagonistic sparring of Kevin Kline with Meg Ryan. But Hugh Grant has, in Notting Hill, only to work with the character of a nice man hopelessly in love. He plays a character besotted with someone who should be impossible for him to be with. And yet he plays through that simple line something so endearing, and charming, and human that it all seems effortless and full of life. He plays at the heart of the very contrast of prospect of true love; that he will be either saved or destroyed by how it goes. He is in almost every moment of the movie glum and delightful, broken and a sweepstakes winner, an idiot and effortlessly clever.
He plays virtually a whole movie as that look on Kevin Kline's face.
It's a joy to watch and a brilliant piece of work.