No film captures celebrity allure as it stood in the 1990s, at the end of the first cinematic century, quite like Notting Hill. For one thing, this was arguably the pinnacle of the 90s romcom, made by two actors who were at the very peak of their celebrity powers. Ask anyone to name a film with Julia Roberts, or a film with Hugh Grant, and nine times out of ten they’re likely to come up with Notting Hill. Yet Richard Curtis’ spiritual sequel to Four Weddings and a Funeral is also explicitly about celebrity in the late 90s, since it revolves around a regular guy, Will Thacker, played by Hugh Grant, who falls in love and eventually ends up with Anna Scott, a superstar, played by Julia Roberts, when she visits his small bookstore in Notting Hill.
Throughout the 90s, the tabloid media was steadily increasing its power to intrude into celebrity lives, thanks to the expansion of digital media, which gave the press hitherto unimagined abilities to bring celebrity into the lives of everyday people. In the early 2000s, a series of media events, most notably the wave of celebrity sex tapes, along with the rise of celebrities on MySpace and other social media sites, would demystify celebrity somewhat – and force celebrities to cultivate a new kind of hand-held, lo-fi, “unadorned” immediacy to continue their mystique. I found it fascinating to watch the scathing press reactions to the recent “Imagine” video for just this reason, since this kind of contrived “immediacy” – little to no make-up, no production values, off-key singing, an affectation of vulnerability – would have been lauded as courageous, novel and disruptive if it had occurred two decades before.
Before forcing celebrities to resort to this new immediacy, however, the rise of tabloid social media actually augmented their allure. For a short while at the end of the 90s, the closer we got to celebrities, the more distant they seemed – a paradox that had perhaps always been a part of celebrity culture, but crystallised with a new intensity in Notting Hill, released on the very cusp of the millennium. Like so many films made at this time, Notting Hill is obsessed with celebrity immanence – the last stage before celebrity immediacy – and connects this celebrity immanence, this tantalising fusion of proximity and distance, with the impediments and obstacles of an older kind of literary romance. It’s no coincidence that Will and Anna meet in a bookshop, or that Will encourages Anna to relinquish blockbusters for a Henry James adaptation, since “literature” was often used, at this time, to symbolise a romantic celebrity distance, and a romance of celebrity, that was on the verge of becoming a thing of the past.
For that reason, Notting Hill is remarkably dynamic and fluid in the way it choreographs its two romantic leads, continually drawing them close only to separate them, and confounding Will’s attraction to Anna with his attraction to her star image. When they first meet, she’s working on a science fiction film called Helix, and the film as a whole follows the same spiralling pattern, weaving them around each other but never – quite – bringing them together. To even say that they “meet” is a bit of a misnomer, however, since they meet for the first time several times, in an opening act that outlines one fleeting connection after another. Although they first physically encounter each other in Will’s bookstore, Will is always approaching and reapproaching Anna, always caught between her person and her celebrity presence. As soon as they kiss for the first time, we cut to him watching her on a video, and then seeing her on a bus, while much of the comedy stems from him approaching her through celebrity thresholds, most memorably a publicity session that he initially mistakes for a date.
During the middle act of the film, Will does indeed get to “know” Anna as a real person, but part of the delicacy of Richard Curtis’ script is how dexterously he avoids ever dismantling Anna’s allure either. In possibly the best scene in any 90s romcom, Will brings Anna back to have dinner with his family, who are all awed by her, and especially awed by her “realness,” just as the audience are clearly supposed to be awed by seeing her, and seeing Roberts, in the middle of this quotidian scene. You’d think that seeing a film with Anna would be the best way for Will to divorce her from her celebrity image, but Curtis navigates this brilliantly as well, since a lost pair of glasses means that Will has to wear a pair of prescription scuba goggles for their first movie date. She may be beside him in the cinema, but she seems as distant as an underwater creature, allowing her to maintain her celebrity allure even as a member of the audience. And, even when Will and Anna sleep together for the first time, Curtis opts for delay and prevarication – she has to approach him tentatively as he sleeps on the couch – before shifting back immediately to her celebrity presence the next morning, when they rehearse lines together for her next film, which she’s planning to shoot in America.
Looking back at reviews of the film, there seemed to be a bit of a consensus that third act was rambling, and not as good as the first two acts, albeit still very memorable. Many critics pointed to the impediments that emerge again in this final third of the film as the problem, and yet for me this is what makes Notting Hill so beautiful and memorable. For, after tentatively normalising Anna, Curtis removes her to a celebrity distance again in this final act, while still keeping Will’s romance with her open as a possibility as well. The first stage in this process occurs when Will accompanies Anna to her hotel room, for what initially seems like their first sexual encounter in her personal space, only to rudely discover that she has a boyfriend, played by Alec Baldwin, who mistakes Will for service staff, and asks him to bring them some food and to take away some rubbish, before manhandling Anna in front of him.
From this point on, Will and Anna get further away from each other – and Will barely sees Anna again outside of a celebrity milieu. Shortly after, a nascent version of the 2000s sex tape emerges, in the form of video footage of a nude shoot that Anna did early in her career. It’s still a bit early for this footage to totally demystify Anna’s celebrity allure, so it goes the opposite way, reiterating her celebrity distance as she teeters on the verge of a new kind of immediacy. Will next glimpses her across the set of a Henry James film she is shooting in London and hears her disparaging him to another actor when he’s given a headset to listen to the action, leaving before she can catch up with him. The very last time they speak in private he rejects her, confessing that her celebrity is too much of an impediment, and while Anna reassures him that fame is nothing, she can only affirm her normality by quoting one of her recent films back to him: “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”
This is quite an incredible last conversation for a romantic comedy – a rejection, and a confession, from both parties, that the romcom genre is a fantasy. The next and last time Will sees Anna, it’s in the midst of a press conference, amid a sea of reporters, and a proliferation of mediated images of Anna. They never have another private encounter – instead, he can only confess his love to her indirectly, while pretending to be a reporter, while his family huddle around a television to watch the press conference, as if it’s just another one of Anna’s films. Nor do we see Anna and Will come together, apart from a shot in which two adjacent televisions show them gazing at each other – mediated but separate, close but distant, real but fantastic, the perfect closing image for this most beautifully bittersweet of 90s romcoms.