Firth has learned to live with the wet shirt. Patiently, politely, and good-humoredly, he tells me, “I say this all the time, I know—but basically for me it fell off the minute I walked off the set.” For him, maybe. But not for the rest of us. In hindsight, it was an admirably mature career decision (and harder than you might think) to reprise the strong and silent smolderer for Bridget Jones’s Diary. Paid off, too. Never mind the heinous reindeer—who can forget Mark Darcy snarling, “Cleaver! Outside,” and triumphantly winning the ensuing half-assed brawl.
Offscreen, Firth has a quintessentially British reserve; doesn’t at all relish being a sex-god screen idol; and shies away from flashbulbs and Brit Pack parties, preferring downtime in Italy and London with wife Livia Giuggioli and their year-old son, Luca. He’s a serious-minded man—both his parents were teachers, and Livia, he says, is a dottoressa with a degree in lettere (“um, humanities, basically”). His older son, eleven-year-old Will, from a previous relationship with Meg Tilly, lives in California, but Firth is “dotty about him” and sees him frequently.
He opens next in Oliver Parker’s film of The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s frothiest play. As Jack Worthing, a buttoned-up country landowner who adopts the name Ernest on his louche visits to London, Firth is straight man to Rupert Everett’s Algy Moncrieff (who gets all the best jokes). Parker filmed another Wilde play, An Ideal Husband, which wasn’t terrific, but his version of Importance is brilliantly done and had me transported (not to mention reaching for Kleenex in an empty screening room). Outwardly, it has all the seductive Miramax trademarks: British leading men, non-British actresses (Reese Witherspoon, Frances O’Connor), lush sets, sweet music, et cetera. But as Firth points out, “Wilde is at his most profound when he seems at his most trivial,” and Parker’s film pulls out all the sexual tensions and darkness that underlie the play—Wilde’s last work before he was drummed out of England for his homosexuality. "Earnest was Victorian slang for gay,” says Firth, who is famous for doing his homework for each role. People would say, “I hear he’s frightfully earnest.’”
Apart from Darcy (which was TV) and Valmont (which hardly anyone saw), Firth hasn’t quite broken out as a major box-office leading man. Will Importance do it for him? The industry buzz is good, but it’s a two-hander with Everett, and maybe a big little film rather than a blockbuster. Firth’s résumé is still that of a classically trained British theater actor, with a posh accent and a lock on supporting roles. Hey, speaking of supporting roles, why wasn’t he in Gosford Park, by the way? He says, “I know, I know. My excuse was I was doing Importance at the time. But I’m a fan of Altman, and when I looked at that cast list . . . .” So what about Harry Potter? Or Lord of the Rings? Or anything with Cate Blanchett? “I know, I know.” He laughs. “Did you hear Billy Connolly asking why he wasn’t in Braveheart?” Faux-gloomily, he gives a big, theatrical sigh and says, “I seem to have spent much of my career losing a woman to someone called Fiennes.”
I think his next movie, Hope Springs, might be The One. Just wrapped, it’s based on a recent novel, New Cardiff, by Charles Webb (who wrote The Graduate). “The novel’s brilliant,” says Firth. “It’s about a guy, an Englishman, who shows up in a tiny town in New England called Hope, in a desperate state. A couple of friends of mine had spotted it and thought of me.” One of the friends was Nick Hornby. It’s a torn-between-two-women love story. “The kooky girlfriend is Heather Graham; the ex is Minnie Driver,” says Firth, who says he’s “really thumbs-up about this one. The character’s even called Colin. It did sort of feel like it was waiting for me to step into somehow.”
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