Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Notting Hill and Hollywood Values

What a grim day yesterday was! Blue Monday, apparently, and it lived up to its name here with a dark sky and periodic blizzards, which ‘got’ me more or less every time I was caught between places with no shelter. Umbrellas are useless in Edinburgh. I don’t even know why anyone stocks them in the shops. None could have survived yesterday’s crosswinds.

So, last night after 9pm, I was tired and fed up and in no mood to write or read and there was nothing worth watching on the TV, so I decided I would watch ITV2’s millionth repeat of Notting Hill, Roger Michell‘s 1999 movie starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, partly because I had never before actually watched it through to the end. Here was my chance and I took it with three small bottles of Stella Artois by my side to blunt the edge of the blizzard that made me feel cold even watching it churn the air beyond  the windows.

The plot of Notting Hill is simple. The most famous actress in the world, Anna, (Julia Roberts) goes into a travel bookshop and meets the proprietor, William (Hugh Grant). They fall in love and the movie progresses like any romcom: hurdles present themselves and are overcome, only for yet steeper hurdles to appear. Can an ordinary bloke like Hugh (sic!) and a huge celebrity like Julia find eternal happiness amid the PR personnel and paparazzi fighting for a piece of her? Well, there can only be one answer in a successful, feelgood, Hollywood movie, but that in itself asks difficult questions, which I will come to shortly.

The script is sharp and witty. Grant is his usual bumbling self, the engaging twit who always gets the girl. I found it astonishing that Anna could fall for him, let alone continue to want a relationship with him, but – as a guy – that’s probably how I’m supposed to feel. If she can fall for that twit, well, she could fall for anyone... Roberts delivers the comedy with perfect timing. She convincingly asserts her ordinariness by enjoying an evening over dinner with William’s eccentric family and by appearing in some scenes without any make-up. Or, perhaps, she is made up to look as if she isn’t wearing any make-up, especially when she’s hiding in William’s house from the journalists out for a scoop story, and she does succeed in looking quite average – at least until every time she smiles, which she does frequently. There’s no other smile like Julia Roberts’s smile.

I kept asking myself how much of herself Roberts was putting into the movie. Basically, she is playing someone like herself, the most famous actress in the world at the time. Round the family table, she confesses how she’d been through a series of terrible relationships, had been hounded by journalists reporting her every move, and had been on a strict diet for 10 years. This is Anna, not the real Julia Roberts, but we can apply the principles to many famous Hollywood stars. There’s a longing to be ordinary, contrasted with the fawning adulation she’s subjected to by William’s family all through the meal. They don’t even take her confession too seriously.

But how seriously are we, the audience supposed to take it? Hollywood does this all the time. It presents values to us that it in no way espouses and yet presents them as vital for an authentic life. The most famous quote from the movie comes from Roberts telling Grant, “After all... I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” But Hollywood cultivates the very opposite ideals. Actors are celebrities, untouchable, privileged, our age’s gods and goddesses. Their disastrous marriages and relationships are picked open in unsparing detail by gossip mags, often from material released by the actors’ own PR people. They advertise beauty products offering ordinary mortals the illusion of comparable, soft-focus beauty, images designed to widen the real gap.

At one point, Roberts says that there will come a time when she will age and her looks will go and Hollywood will dump her with as little conscience as it once celebrated her. I wonder how she felt while performing those lines. Was it just a professional job for her? Or did she sense acutely the disconnect between the values set forward by the film and the reality she was speaking into? How deep is the pool of celebrity depression and unhappiness? There is a fair chance that Julia Roberts would have thought critically about the dialogue she was acting. As it is, Roberts is now 45, still beautiful and still making movies and, it appears, happily married for 11 years - one of the lucky ones, perhaps. The film celebrates the value of love, the vitality of relationships and the emptiness of money without those things, while at the same time raking in $247,000,000 at the box office (from a mere $42,000,000 budget). Just as ‘You’ve Got Mail’ celebrated the small bookshop owner over the corporate chain and yet found time for product placement and grossed over $250,000,000 on commercial release, so the fantasy at the heart of Notting Hill plays on desire just like an average advertisement. We want it to be true, true in our lives, true in the way the world works. But Hollywood itself, with its emphasis on commercial success, big money, celebrity status (even dividing celebrities into A, B and C listers), doesn’t even remotely espouse the values of its own products. The message of Notting Hill is the exact opposite of the message Hollywood gives in the way it goes about more or less everything. 

It is a soul-less machine. The political equivalent would be David Cameron and Michael Gove telling us that that full equality is the aim, that love is the answer, that small is beautiful, and then carrying on with their current right-wing agenda. It’s just more entertaining when made into a movie like Notting Hill.

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