The cornerstone of actor, writer, director and all around bon vivant Richard E. Grant distinctive writing style is mad, frenetic CAPITALIZATION of key words for emphasis, rhythm and intensity. In the hands of another writer this literary tic could easily come across as a headache inducing mannerism if not the deranged ravings of a lunatic intent on SCREAMING FUCKING EVERYTHING AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS with little regard for the delicate sensibilities of his readers.
Yet in With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant such crazed capitalization seems not only appropriate but weirdly charming. For Grant is a creature of almost comic intensity and neuroses. He seems forever on the brink of a panic attack, if not outright heart failure. In the book Grant's friend and L.A Story co-star Steve Martin nicknames him Relentless, or rather RELENTLESS, which seems apt.
In With Nails, Grant comes off as both droll and mildly deranged. He is a consummate outsider welcomed into the innermost circles of fame, a fan who became a star yet retains a wry sense of detachment amongst the glittery madness of movie-making. The book begins, as any book about Grant must, with the lead-up to Withnail & I, the cult classic that gives the book its title and transformed its author from a struggling actor into a hot property. Grant so indelibly embodied the jaundiced, drunken soul of his Withnail & I no-hoper that it's a little disillusioning to learn that the real-life Grant doesn't drink or smoke though heavens knows it wouldn't kill him to mellow out a little. I suspect that hanging out with Grant would be both wildly entertaining and mildly exhausting.
With Nails is effervescent and witty yet darkness hovers just under its bubbly surface. There is a wrenching passage early on where Grant's pregnant wife, having endured numerous failed pregnancies, gives birth prematurely only to watch in horror as the baby dies minutes after being born. A grief-stricken Grant then drive to the countryside early in the shooting of Withnail to bury his newborn in an unmarked grave. Grant's vagabond existence flying all around the world for location shoots undoubtedly puts a huge strain on his marriage but this is Grant's Film Diaries, not his Marital Difficulties Journal, so his personal life inevitably takes a back seat to his half-glamorous, half-tedious career as an international movie star, or at least in-demand character actor.
After his star-making turn in Withnail Grant oscillated between the arthouse and the multiplex, from the sexed-up debauchery of Henry & June to the mindless, soul-crushing excess of Hudson Hawk, a comedy of errors characterized by insane budget overruns, a constantly recast female lead (you don't really think Andie MacDowell is anybody's first choice for anything, now do you?) and a film-destroying culture clash between Heathers veterans Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters, who send out a distinctly post-collegiate slacker vibe, and monsters of machismo Joel Silver and Bruce Willis, both of whom ooze testosterone, money and power.
As a reward from the movie Gods for surviving Hudson Hawk's endless, disaster-prone Budapest shoot Grant gets to fulfill every actor's dream by working with Robert Altman (The Player), Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker's Dracula) and Martin Scorsese (The Age of Innocence) in quick succession. Along the way Grant meets just about everybody. With Nails doubles as a sociological treatise on the rare genus known as the movie star in which out intrepid guide documents their curious ways and strange rituals with anthropological zeal. If you were to do a shot every time a super-duper-extra-famous person compliments Grant on his filmography you'd be drunker than Withnail.
As he moves through the rarified air of the super-famous Grant provides thumbnail sketches of his friends and collaborators at once dishy and revealing. Here's a segment from a dinner with a pre-stardom Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley:
Hugh orders a vast plate of oysters, which provides the cue for talk about aphrodisiacs. It is impossible to take anything he says seriously as everything is 'ironicized'. "Do you like anal sex? I bet you do. You have that 'look' about you!" "You must be telepathic," I reply, trying not to choke on the poised oyster, which elicits great guffawings from both of them. 'I can spot an ex-public schoolboy from a mile off. Bum bum and buggery. You must be ever so rich?" "Rolling, Hugh, Rolling.' 'Little bastard! Must be ma'v'lous to be as rich and famous as you are.' 'I wish.' 'Don't pretend to be modest with me. You are rich, aren't you? Out with it!' 'Loaded.' 'Bastard!' 'Hugh, do you ever talk and say what you mean at the same time?' enquires Ralph. 'Of course not you stupid ignorant working-class person!' Hugh manages the precarious feat of insulting you up, down and sideways, without your wanting to lay his dentals on a platter. Too busy laughing. Too busy wondering if he means anything he utters. 'I hate you! Always getting these jammy jobs. Getting even more famous with the same surname. I've got better hair though. Did you want to sleep with Elizabeth when you did that appalling advert together? I should jolly well hope so.' 'How can you even ask? Of course yes!' 'Well I'm sure she wouldn't mind'.
Yet despite the plum roles and accolades he remains at heart a star-struck boy from Swaziland, a "country" I'm half-convinced Grant made up. Here's Grant (Richard E. that is) prostrating himself before his boyhood idol Barbra Streisand at a fabulous party for famous people:
Petite, in a black hat and antique black lace dress with boots, she offers a hand and I 'platz'. What comes out of my mouth is a garbled, high speed 'Alan Corduner from Yentl, Joan my wife, since I was twelve years old so pleased I can hardly believe this please forgive me but this is twenty years in the dreaming, oh my God,' which she rightly cuts short with 'Are you stoned?' Then a slightly slower less garbled apology and attempted explanation that 'No, I am allergic to alcohol' fa-la-fa and to forgive the intrusion please and verbals.
For the sake of his own public mortification Grant is kind enough to include the totality of a letter he sent Streisand as a boy:
Dear Barbra Streisand I sincerely hope this reaches you personally. You don't know me yet, but I am writing to offer you an idea you might like to consider. My name is Richard and I live in a small African kingdom called Swaziland in south-east Africa. Since seeing Funny Girl we, my family that is, and I have been very big fans. I have followed your career avidly. We have all your records. I am fourteen years old. I read in the paper that you were feeling very tired and pressurized by your fame and failed romance with Mr Ryan O'Neal. I would like to offer you a two-week holiday, or longer, at our house, which is very beautiful with a pool and a magnificent view of the Ezulweni Valley. Which the Swazi people call Valley of Heaven. I think you will agree when you see it. Here you can rest. No one will trouble you and I assure you you will not be mobbed in the street as your films only show in our one cinema for three days, so not that many people will know who you are, so no chance of being mobbed. Please consider this respite seriously. You will always be welcome. Yours very sincerely, And in anticipation of a hasty reply, Richard. P.S I am studying Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night's Dream and hope these lines will reassure you: Theseus–'For never anything can be amiss when simpleness and duty tender it', or Puck–"If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended. That you have but slumber'd here, while these visions did appear.' Yours, Richard
The book ends with Grant working with and being fondled by his eight-year-old daughter's heroes: The Spice Girls in Spice World. Once again Grant is in his element, comfortably uncomfortable in the three-ring circus of fame and stardom, at once a spectator soaking in the absurdity and a devilish ringmaster orchestrating another surreal scenario for his readers' amusement and edification.