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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<em>Notting Hill </em>brought two rom-com titans together

Notting Hill brought two rom-com titans together

If romantic comedies are our modern-day fairy tales and celebrities our modern-day royalty, then it’s a little surprising that we don’t have more rom-coms about glamorous celebs sweeping everyday folk off their feet. With all due respect to Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!, the best of these remains Notting Hill—a gender-flipped riff on Cinderella by way of a Roman Holiday homage. The film reteamed Hugh Grant with Four Weddings And A Funeral scribe Richard Curtis. And it capped off the ’90s rom-com renaissance by pairing two of the genre’s biggest stars for a meta riff on their public personae: America’s sweetheart meets Britain’s stammering soft boy.

By 1999, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant were the reigning queen and king of romantic comedies. She’d kicked off the genre’s renaissance with 1990’s Pretty Woman and deconstructed its tropes in 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding. He’d launched an entire British rom-com wing with 1994’s Four Weddings And A Funeral and been plugged into lackluster American comedies like 1995’s Nine Months. Casting Roberts to play a world-famous movie star was an obvious choice. And while Curtis briefly considered selecting an actual unknown for the male lead, after auditioning a round of people, he conceded, “Oh fuck, it. Let’s go with Hugh.”

In many ways, Notting Hill is a spiritual sequel to Four Weddings And A Funeral. Both films give Grant an eccentric group of close-knit friends and an aloof American woman to shake up his humdrum existence. And both are interested in long-term dynamics rather than whirlwind romances. A-list American actress Anna Scott (Roberts) first meets unassuming divorcé Will Thacker (Grant) when she wanders into his Notting Hill travel bookshop. She’s charmed enough by their initial interaction that she’s willing to get cleaned up at his apartment when he accidentally spills orange juice on her. The “surreal but nice” experience ends with Anna impulsively kissing him, which kicks off a complex on-again/off-again relationship that lasts over a year.

Curtis claims he came up with the idea for the film while imagining what it would be like for a normal guy to randomly bring a movie star to a dinner party, which ultimately became a standout sequence where Will takes Anna to his little sister’s birthday celebration. Grant, however, has always maintained that Curtis really did know someone who started an on-again/off-again fling with a world-famous celebrity—he just kept the true inspiration mum so he wouldn’t have to reveal the celebrity’s identity.

The most obvious appeal of Notting Hill is its wish fulfillment angle. The fantasy of having your favorite actor fall for you after a single chance encounter is the sort of thing most people have probably daydreamed about at some point. Yet Notting Hill is more interested in the downside of celebrity than its glamorous advantages. As Anna explains in something between self-deprecation and genuine vulnerability, “One day, not long from now, my looks will go, they will discover I can’t act, and I will become some sad middle-aged woman who looks a bit like someone who was famous for a while.” The film delivers several grueling scenes that dig into the way Anna is dehumanized by the press and the public, including an ever-timely sequence where the paparazzi hound her after nude photos leak to the press.

Elle’s R. Eric Thomas has already reclaimed Notting Hill as a quarantine classic thanks to the lovely sequence where Anna and Will hole up in his flat while she’s hiding from the paparazzi. Yet for as much as Curtis is a softhearted romantic, his first two rom-coms are largely about how miserable it is to be in love when you’re not sure if the other person loves you back. As Will puts it the first time Anna’s complicated life drives him away, “It’s as if I’ve taken love-heroin and now I can’t ever have it again.”

Notting Hill is a stepping stone between the melancholy that characterized Four Weddings and the cloying earnestness that would define later Curtis projects like Love Actually. It’s a much sweeter, more conventional film than Four Weddings, but it still has an air of sorrow to it. That’s epitomized in a brilliant season-changing montage set to Bill Withers’ “Aint No Sunshine.” It’s a beautiful bit of cinematic storytelling that takes us through a year of Will’s post-breakup blues in a two-minute unbroken sequence. As Mike Newell did with Four Weddings, director Roger Michell tackles Curtis’ script with real pathos and artistry, rather than writing it off as something fluffy and inconsequential.

The most interesting thing about Notting Hill is the way it uses Anna’s celebrity to upend conventional male/female power dynamics. There’s a version of this story where Anna is a broken bird for Will to free from her gilded cage (think something like The Bodyguard). Instead, she has almost all the power in their relationship, both because of her celebrity and because Will clearly falls harder and faster for her than she does for him. If the prototypical romantic comedy is one where the man takes the woman on an emotional rollercoaster ride before finally winning her back once and for all, Notting Hill offers a gender-flipped variation.

Anna spends most of the movie being fairly awful to Will, something it takes her a long time to fully own up to. Her famous “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” speech is the rare rom-com big gesture that comes from a woman and the rare one that utterly fails. Will kindly but firmly turns down Anna’s offer, giving Roberts her best acting moment in the film as she smiles through the pain of rejection. It’s the moment Will finally reclaims some of the power he’s given over to Anna. And it allows Notting Hill to use its hyper-specific “boy meets movie star” premise to craft a love story that still feels emotionally relatable—one about commitment, betrayal, and forgiveness.

What eventually gets Will to reconsider are his friends, particularly his scruffy, shameless, yet ultimately rather wise Welsh roommate Spike (Rhys Ifans, who became a bit of a breakout star thanks to this performance). As in Four Weddings, Curtis excels at creating a friend group that feels like it exists beyond what we see on screen. The aforementioned birthday party scene gives Notting Hill a chance to explore all the different ways people react to Anna’s presence—from Will’s sister, Honey (Emma Chambers), immediately asking to be her best friend to baffled stockbroker Bernie (Hugh Bonneville) not realizing who she is until halfway through their conversation.

In another echo of Four Weddings, Curtis also takes a lovely, low-key approach to disability representation. In that earlier film, Grant’s character had a deaf brother who got his own sweet romantic subplot. In Notting Hill, Will’s friend and one-time flame Bella (Gina McKee) uses a wheelchair after a recent accident left her paralyzed. The focus of her storyline falls equally on the pitch-perfect domestic bliss she’s found with her husband, Max (Tim McInnerny), and how much Will envies what they have together.

Elsewhere, however, the film’s approach to diversity is severely lacking. Both at the time of its release and since, Notting Hill has been criticized for whitewashing its titular neighborhood, which is home to a large British Caribbean population and a famed annual Carnival celebration. Local filmmaker Ishmahil Blagrove even accused Michell and Curtis of purposefully editing out the diverse array of local extras he’d gathered for the film. Notting Hill put the London district on the map in a global way, creating a major tourist industry centered around the movie. But it also painted a limited portrait of the area and drastically sped up the process of gentrification. (Curtis actually lived in Notting Hill at Will’s blue-doored home, which he sold after the film’s release.)

Curtis’ depiction of British life has never been particularly inclusive. The downside of the age-old “write what you know” philosophy comes when you don’t realize just how limited your perspective actually is. Where Curtis’ commitment to pulling from his own experiences does pay dividends is when it comes to digging into the world of movie stardom. One of Notting Hill’s best sequences involves Will getting sucked into a press junket while posing as a journalist from Horse & Hound magazine. Notting Hill let a mainstream audience in on one of the more bizarre bits of Hollywood machinery, mining both laughs and character context from Anna’s strange, carefully managed world.

Although Notting Hill is told from Will’s perspective, Anna’s celebrity at least offers an explanation for why she’s so tentative and flaky when it comes to her personal life—something Four Weddings never tried to justify with Andie MacDowell’s Carrie. Like Roberts herself, Anna has spent her entire young adulthood in the public eye and has to decide whether Will is someone she can truly trust or just another person who wants to use her in some way. Will, meanwhile, has to decide how much of her indecision he’s willing to put up with.

This being a Richard Curtis film, love wins out in the end, of course. Notting Hill pulls off the neat trick of allowing both its leads to deliver big romantic gestures—Anna in her speech and Will in his race to reach her at a press conference before she leaves town. Remarkably, Curtis claims he hadn’t seen Roman Holiday when he wrote an ending that plays like a purposeful homage to that Audrey Hepburn classic.

Notting Hill’s mix of melancholic relatability and fairy tale wish fulfillment made it a huge hit and a long-lasting rom-com favorite. It grossed $116 million domestically and $364 million worldwide, making it Grant’s biggest box office success by a wide margin. Although Notting Hill isn’t my favorite Grant or Roberts rom-com performance (he’s better in Four Weddings and she’s best in My Best Friend’s Wedding), there’s an ineffable magic to seeing them together in a story that brushes up against aspects of their actual lives. Notting Hill isn’t realistic, but it is specific, which can often be the biggest key to a romantic comedy’s success. As 20th-century fairy tales go, this lightly meta take on movie star romance is a little bit surreal, but mostly very, very nice.

Next time: Denzel Washington explores interracial love in Mississippi Masala.