The rise of the Every Boyfriend, from Hugh Grant to Nicholas Galitzine

As romance movies evolve, a handful of actors are widening their appeal by playing both queer and hetero roles

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 11, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Jacob Anderson, Jonathan Bailey, Nicholas Galitzine Josh O'Connor and Andrew Scott (Photo illustration by Salon/GEtty Images)
Jacob Anderson, Jonathan Bailey, Nicholas Galitzine Josh O'Connor and Andrew Scott (Photo illustration by Salon/GEtty Images)

Rewind romantic movie history frame by frame and you’re bound to spark up debates about which characters are most influential. Is it John Cusack, holding that boom box aloft in “Say Anything” or curating mixtapes in “High Fidelity”? Do you picture Ryan Gosling squeezing the hearts and flowers out of Rachel McAdams’ face in “The Notebook,” or any of the problematic dudes who strung along Molly Ringwald in your pick of John Hughes movies?

Or . . . does Hugh Grant come to mind? For a while in the 1990s, he was the male face of romantic comedy. We loved him as the stammering bookseller who captures Julia Roberts’ heart in “Notting Hill” or the feckless non-marrying type in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” We loved to hate him in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” while understanding why Renée Zellweger's titular heroine wasted so much time on him.

But those keen on connecting the genealogy of his character type from then to now must look back further to the movie that first suggested his appeal – “Maurice,” the 1987 Merchant-Ivory classic casting him as Clive, a gay aristocrat who has a torrid affair with his best friend. Clive cycles out of Maurice’s life, but he can’t stop thinking about him. Neither could we.

Nearly four decades later you might say actors like Timothée Chalamet or Nicholas Galitzine owe Grant something of a debt – he was one of the earliest mainstream straight actors who made a gay romance before becoming king of the rom-com.

Times were different enough for that to be a career risk. Ask Rupert Everett, who came out in the late 1980s. Ever since he's insisted that disclosing his sexual orientation all but withered his chances to play romantic leads. 

Red, White & Royal BlueRed, White & Royal Blue (Prime Video)That history may inform Galitzine's “uncertainty” about being a straight actor playing queer roles, as he admitted to British GQ. In Starz’s “Mary & George,” he’s a courtier who seduces his way into King James’ bed. In 2023’s romantic comedy “Red, White & Royal Blue,”  he plays a British prince who falls for the son of an American president.

He’s also the boy band idol who falls for Anne Hathaway’s divorced art gallery owner in “The Idea of You” and the psychotic egotistical football star in “Bottoms.”  Although he’s admitted in several interviews that he resents feeling like “a cut of beef at a meat market" he has demonstrated, through talent and omnipresence, an ability to seduce everyone regardless of sexual orientation. 

Maybe he shouldn’t feel entirely guilty. Queer actors like Jonathan Bailey, Matthew Bomer and Andrew Scott soared into the mainstream as straight leads in roles either written for expressly romantic series (“Bridgerton,” in Bailey’s case) or in series that made them heartthrobs. 

The rise of the Every Boyfriend is not without its blind spots and gaps.

Bomer’s path to leading shows propelled by gay characters and stories like “Fellow Travelers”  – alongside fellow Every Boyfriend Bailey – began with him playing a straight con man whose girlfriend broke his heart on “White Collar.”  Scott, currently starring in “Ripley,” became the fallen priest of our fantasies in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag.”  (Who doesn’t get slightly weak in the knees, three years later, at the memory of him growling, “Just kneel”?) 

BulletproofJonathan Bailey as Tim and Matt Bomer as Hawkins "Hawk" Fuller in "Fellow Travelers" (Courtesy of Showtime)This moment, for lack of a more concise description – calling it a trend suggests it’s fleeting or entirely new – may be the effect of TV and film catering to younger generations who identify as more sexually fluid than members of Gen X or Boomers. A 2023 Gallup survey found that 1 in 5 members of Gen Z identify as queer, with the greatest share in that group identifying as bisexual.

With half of movie theater visits being made by patrons ranging between 14 and 34 years old, according to the U.K.-based Screen Advertising World Association, assuming straight consumers won’t watch gay romances starring their favorite heartthrob leaves money on the table.

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Chalamet isn’t any less magnetic in “Little Women” than he was in Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name.” The latter is more intensely erotic, in fact, and likely contributed to his eventual casting as this year’s most problematic love interest, Paul Atreides in “Dune.” Not a romance, but the point stands.

The rise of the Every Boyfriend, let’s call it, is not without its blind spots and gaps. Consider the way that Josh O’Connor’s profile exploded between playing a decidedly unsexy Prince Charles in “The Crown” and his current role in Guadagnino’s “Challengers.”  The actor has played several queer roles such as in "God's Own Country," and will co-star with Paul Mescal in “Mary & George” director Oliver Hermanus’ adaptation of “The History of Sound.” O'Connor is also reportedly in talks to reteam with Guadagnino for the gay romance "Separate Rooms."

God's Own CountryAlec Secareanu and Josh O'Connor in "God's Own Country" (Picturehouse Entertainment)Mescal, who is straight, played opposite Scott in 2022’s “All of Us Strangers.” To TV viewers he’s the sensitive co-lead of “Normal People,” in which he won notice and acclaim for both his performance and the natural carnality he brought to its love scenes. Echoes of Everett’s argument about the unequal opportunities for gay actors can be heard today in the social media discourse surrounding these movies, asking why these meaty roles aren’t going to gay actors. 

It doesn’t escape notice that these actors presented as equal opportunity heartthrobs are all white – and mostly British, but let’s keep this tirade focused.  Salon’s culture team struggled to come up with any non-white actors ascending with these others. 

The closest we could get is “Interview with the Vampire” star Jacob Anderson, and even that’s stretching it; he had a largely chaste heterosexual love affair on “Game of Thrones” before falling in love with Sam Reid’s Lestat.

Sometime soon we’ll see him as the man a woman falls in love with over and over again through various reincarnations in an indie called “Timestalker.”  Meanwhile, Mescal is bulking up for his starring role in “Gladiator 2.”

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Time will tell whether this is a passing phase in movies and TV or the start of a more open period for romantic comedies and the men cast to star in them and our imaginations. 

For his part, Grant upended the industry’s urge to keep casting him as the box office’s dream lover by leaping into what he characterized as his “millennium of bastards” in a 2000 interview. His widest-loved role in recent years was in 2017's “Paddington 2,” where he played a vaudevillian fraudster. (He also hated being in Chalamet's "Wonka," which is . . . on brand?) The following year he starred in "A Very English Scandal" as closeted British politician Jeremy Thorpe, who went on trial in 1979 on charges related to the attempted murder of his lover Norman Scott.  

Yet he still expresses affection for the movies that made him famous and shaped unrealistic expectations for finding true love for Gen X and geriatric millennials who, like him, grew out of those fantasies. 

Younger consumers know better while enjoying the benefit of seeing more screen versions of who they might be or love or be loved by. There’s room for expansion and evolution, as is true of all affairs worth pursuing and nurturing. If it leads to lasting satisfaction, we'll love that for all of us. 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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