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Notting Hill

Director: Roger Mitchell
Cast: Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, Rhys Ifans, Gina McKee

(Universal Pictures; 1999)

The Fame Thing

“T


he fame thing,” says fictional megawatt movie star Anna Scott, “isn’t really real.” And she should know, since she’s played by real-life megawatt movie star Julia Roberts. The fame thing often does seem unreal to people who don’t live it, so it’s comforting to hear from Anna (or Julia) that it seems unreal to her as well. It makes her seem more human.


Anna’s seeming humanness — her realness — is the quaint and seductive premise of Notting Hill, wherein she falls in love with a mere mortal named William, who happens to be played by Hugh Grant. He’s a fan, but when he actually meets her, he falls in love with Anna, not the luminous image he sees on multiplex screens, wall-size posters or sides of buses, but the really real person. Or rather, the really real person he wants and asks her to be. It’s the perfect fantasy. The unreal star becomes real — or at least comes down to earth for a minute — at the behest of the fan.


William, an adorable travel bookstore owner who lives in London’s trendy, culturally diverse Notting Hill section (never mind that only white people have speaking parts), achieves near-miraculous access to Anna the really real person after he spills orange juice on her one sunny day, conveniently across the street from his house. Unbelievably and inevitably, she goes home with him to “clean up,” whereupon she suddenly kisses him in his tiny foyer. She smiles, suggests they don’t mention it to anyone and, poof!, she’s gone. William is startled and smitten. Was he dreaming or what?


So far, the premise is intriguing, however contrived. The prospect of a ravishing celebrity descending from on high to bestow a desirous kiss on Joe Nobody’s lips is certainly a popular fantasy, encouraged by movies like this one. Written by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and directed by Roger Michell (Persuasion), Notting Hill nimbly runs through a familiar romantic comedy formula: the couple-to-be runs into initial difficulties owing to her celebrity and his relative obscurity: can the two worlds come together, British and American, rich and middle class, polished and rumpled? They then share a series of moments — comic, tense, frothy, serious, tender — that pass for relationship development.


This development is based on the idea that Anna has something to learn from William, who embodies the film’s point of view and includes a stern judgment about the fame thing, namely, that it’s a corrupting force that makes super-rich and fabulous-looking people unhappy. For their first “date,” she goes with him to a party of his eccentric English friends — including his goony roommate (Rhys Ifans, who plays Spike like he’s Scooby Doo made human), idealized ex-flame now in a wheelchair (Gina McKee), and socially challenged sister (Emma Chambers). After dinner they play game where everyone makes a case for being the biggest “loser” at the table. Everyone has sad stories, about being unemployed, unable to bear children, and unlucky in love. Anna’s gilded cage story doesn’t exactly win the prize, but her telling of it makes for a weird moment, in part because she seems so sincerely self-pitying and in part because she looks so perfectly lit and costumed and made-up while she’s doing it.


This performance reasserts the point that her perfection is unreal, in need of William’s realness. The movie’s best trick is its complex manipulations of this real-unreal continuum. On one end you have William, real because you identify with him, but also the most clearly fictional character (partly because it’s the same one Grant always plays, sheepish, precious, but also self-assured in his rightness). On the other end you have Anna, unreal because she’s an American movie star, but also real, a version of what people think Roberts is really like, which is, basically nice, as well as winsome, willful, slightly spoiled, and often confused about her personal life (indicated by brief glimpses of her exorbitant-hotel-room-existence and especially by her boorish movie star boyfriend, played by an unbilled Alec Baldwin).


Roberts has always seemed readable in ways that stars who seem to be more adept self-managers — say, Sharon Stone or Madonna — do not. She’s also always seemed particularly vulnerable to the sensationalism machine, publicly scrutinized to the point of personal assessments: what’s up with her screwy love life anyway? and what possessed her to play Tinkerbell or Mary Reilly? Notting Hill makes clever use of Roberts’ reputation for bad choices and occasional petulance.


At one point in the film Anna is hounded by reporters who have discovered some nude photos taken before she was famous (that this event causes her major trauma suggests how old-fashioned this girl is, or more likely, how hard-up the film is for a trauma). The whole thing makes her so freaking frustrated, that she’s actually mean to William. Oh! Because they’ve spent a blissful night together previous to her selfish display, you’re ready here to be miffed at her and rooting for William to set her straight. Anna — or is it Julia? — must come to her senses, recognize William’s warm and vital worth and find a way to get over herself. Or is it that she needs to find herself? And how different are these goals anyway? Is there a self possible for a movie star? Is there a self that the rest of us can never see? Have you imagined everything? The film plays so loosey-goosey with who the real Anna might be that when she finally pleads with William to take her back, you’re wondering if it’s not another performance. Ouch.


Then again, maybe you’re not so cynical. There’s no argument that Roberts plays this character well. And there’s no argument that in making Anna a wild unreal creature in need of taming and realness, she follows a roadmap established by the best of previous romantic comedy heroines, like Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Molly Ringwald, Meg Ryan, and Roberts herself: as the Pretty Woman, after all, she was nothing if not independent, vulnerable, knowing, naive, erratic, and beguiling, not to mention, eager to give it all up for the man of her dreams. Clearly, Roberts can play the version of herself with which you’re familiar and happy. Where that leaves you on the real-unreal continuum is a little less clear.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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