Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Essay: Mr. Nice Guy

I became aware of Hugh Laurie, the 47-year-old British actor when his hit show, House M.D., went on the air in late 2004. Although he’d been known in England for years a comedic actor, he was somewhat unknown in the U.S. until House became a hit. The character of House that Laurie plays is disabled and acerbic, damaged in body and soul. The way he treats patients—brilliantly but with snide contempt—can be downright hilarious. And House is an American. If you don’t already know Hugh Laurie is a Brit, you wouldn’t guess.

My husband recognized Mr. Laurie right away and said, "It's Bertie Wooster!" I hadn't seen Jeeves and Wooster, the early 1990's Wodenhouse adaption for the Grenada TV that Laurie had starred in with his long-time collaborator Stephen Fry, so I ordered it up on Netflix. I was absolutely flummoxed by how different a character Bertie Wooster is from House. Bertie was standard stock for Laurie, though, who also starred in the Blackadder series. Jeeves and Wooster is quite a delightful show, and I’m happy that seeing House prompted me to see it.

Seeing House also prompted me to learn a lot about Hugh Laurie. There are great web sites with all sorts of pictures and articles, most of which I have now read. I feel I know as much about him as one can about a celebrity.

The more I find out about him, the more I like him. I think he's a fine actor; he's great as House, and his comedy work is brilliant. But given all that, I like him even better as a person than as actor. As one of the articles says, he is one of life's good guys. He's smart, funny, and modest, and he comes across as real human being who fell into acting, rather than the ego-maniac model of star we are used to here on this side of the pond.

It also sounds like he is very hard on himself, though, which makes me a little sad. He is self-deprecating to a fault, downplays his considerable talents (musical as well as theatrical), refers to himself as not being very bright. According to reports from the set of House, he's despondent every day because he believes he hasn’t done a good enough job. He's had some issues with depression (sorry Hugh! I know you don’t like it being made a big deal of). He seems to be a tortured soul.

Must that be, must one be a tortured soul, in order for someone to be nice? First I must explain what I mean by nice, since to some people that’s not a compliment. What I mean is being kind, gentle, and thoughtful of others, rather than being bland or mediocre. From what I can gather, this description fits Mr. Laurie to a tee. (Not to mention he's very funny.)

To answer my own question, I don’t think being a tortured soul is required for being a nice person. It doesn't necessarily follow that nice people browbeat themselves regularly. And many people who browbeat themselves do the same to others, and therefore cannot be considered nice by my definition.

So what is it about Hught Laurie? The Australian paper The Age attributes it partly to his being English, in that it is very English to be modest about one’s accomplishments. But Mr. Laurie almost seems a little out of touch with reality when it comes to himself. Perhaps something he told the reporter for The Age sheds some light. "I don't want to think I may be doing something right. I'm too scared to admit the possibility of that. Because then the game is over. Isn't it?"

Hmm, the game is over if you think you're doing something right. Interesting. It could be the thrill of the hunt, or the enjoying journey rather than the destination. But it doesn't sound like he enjoys the journey. He's just afraid it won't continue if he lets down his guard (maybe God will notice and exact retribution?). So he doesn't. Last I heard he was still putting off buying real estate because it's a sign of permanence and refusing to admit House is a hit. "I'm superstitious," he says. No kidding.

I'm sure it would be much to his chagrin to hear it, but I think Mr. Laurie’s "affliction," if I may call it that, is touching and makes him more attractive. (Of course he thinks he’s not good looking.) It’s not that he's unattainable, he's inconsolable. He’s not rationalizing bad behavior, he's dismissing his own good qualities. It makes you want to soothe him because he doesn’t deserve such criticism. People behaving badly need to be told to stop. People behaving well or doing good work should be complimented. Mr. Laurie, doing such good work, should be allowed to enjoy his accomplishments. But he doesn't; it seems it's not in his makeup.

Aimee Mann’s song "Beautiful" comes to mind. In it, a woman is talking to a man she has broken up with but still loves, and she laments, "You're beautiful... I wish you could see it, too, baby, how I see you."

And that’s what I wish for Hugh Laurie. That he could see himself as we see him, if only just a little bit.


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