Published May 1, 1999
I confess. When I was a callow youth—even, let it be said, a moony adolescent, I occasionally had fantasies like that which lies behind and beneath Notting Hill. I guess I always knew that neither Sophia Loren nor Elizabeth Taylor could ever be mine—not because they were superstars or married to other people but because they were the age of my mother. But one of the younger female stars—Julie Christie, say, or Cher—whom I (and every boy of my acquaintance) lusted after would one day find herself, improbably as it seemed, in my neighborhood. We would bump into each other on the street, or she would find herself alone and in need of some such trifling service as I might render her. Our eyes would meet and suddenly she would realize that all those Hollywood phonies she had been dating lacked the one thing that I had to offer in abundance: real life!
Recognizing that real life was better and, well, more real than Tinseltown, Julie—or possibly Cher (when they were young, I thought that even Geraldine Chaplin and Shelley Duvall were terribly sexy)—would blush and smile and I would ask her out for coffee and the next thing I knew we would be in one another’s arms. Soon we would have a lavish wedding and start our family far from the meretricious charms of La La Land. My bride would give up acting and all that was associated with it and settle down with great contentment to be a loving housewife to me and mother to my children. For the rest of my life, my friends would talk about how lucky I was, but the gorgeous pouting starlet who had consented to be my very own would always say to me: “No, no, darling, I’m the lucky one. . .”
Oh dear! I blush now to report it. Yet neither grown man, Richard Curtis the writer or Roger Michell the director, seems ashamed to base Notting Hill on a similar fantasy. The movie is said to be a sort of “sequel” to Four Weddings and a Funeral—if only because it was written by Curtis and stars Hugh Grant in the same sort of role—the role he was born for and has also played in real life, the King of Embarrassment. This time the glamorous American who walks into his life (he plays Will Thacker, an improbably impecunious bookshop proprietor in Notting Hill, London) and provides non-stop embarrassment is the fictional Anna Scott, a Hollywood megastar and endlessly fascinating subject of the gossip industry. Or is it the real Julia Roberts, who plays the part and who, more even than usual, is really playing herself? According to the cover story in this month’s Vanity Fair, such was the frequency of the real Julia’s objections to the fictional Anna’s scripted words and deeds that Mr Michell’s watchword on the set was: “Anna Scott: different person.”
But the functional identity of real Julia and fictional Anna is what gives the film its postmodern piquancy. In one scene, Bernie (Hugh Bonneville), yet another embarrassed Englishman who is supposed to be so troglodytic that he doesn’t know who Anna Scott is, is lamenting the poor pay of struggling actors and actresses. In defiance of the one English convention that, so far as I know, is never broken (Mr Curtis must have been spending too much time in Hollywood), he asks her how much she made on her last picture. She tells him $15 million. He does a pretty reasonable double-take and then says, “So that’s—fairly good, then.” It is an excellent embarrassment joke; but it is made even better by the fact that Julia Roberts probably made more than $15 million on her last picture, and they had to reduce the amount slightly to make it more believable.
Longtime readers will know that I am no fan of Miss Roberts. The terrifying width of her smile is not, to me, the only thing about her that suggests too much space between her ears. Yet I must also confess that for the first time I found her charming in this film. Either because the acting didn’t involve stretching her meagre talents too far or because she didn’t have to pretend, as she so often does in the Hollywood pictures she usually makes, to the toughness and omni-competence that Hollywood feminism demands of her generation of starlets, she seemed merely sweet and vulnerable as she was meant to seem, and therefore believable. The point is that Anna Scott really isn’t a different person, and perhaps Mr Michell should have listened more often to her objections, as when she quotes Rita Hayworth on how men “go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me.” Just doesn’t sound right coming from her.
But plenty of things do sound right. The jokes are often sharp and funny and Mr Grant’s embarrassment schtick is in fine fettle. In addition, Rhys Ifans as his incredibly grotty roommate, Spike, though he may be a little over the top nevertheless reveals a real talent for comedy and is always a welcome presence. Above all, the film’s comedy works because it does not take itself too seriously. Perhaps the best scene comes as Will and Anna and a group of Will’s friends are playing a very English game of who can be most pathetic, for the prize of a brownie. When Anna’s turn comes she says, with just the hint of emotion in her voice: “Some day, quite soon, my looks will go, and they will discover I can’t act and I’ll just be a sad, middle-aged woman who looks a bit like someone who was once famous.” At first there is a stunned silence—and then everyone else at once speaks up to say that her effort to be pathetic is itself pathetic. She doesn’t win the brownie. Like my younger self, we are all pathetic in love, just as all romantic movies are to some extent wish-fulfilment. But as long as you recognize the fact, you can make a movie like this one, both funny and genuinely affecting.