Genre and Stars in Notting Hill

Emma Farley

Talking Pictures alias






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Romantic comedies used to be a genre hybrid (romance and comedy) but over recent years they have become a genre of their own, with its own hybrids. Typical romantic comedies include films such as When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) and How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days (Donald Petrie, 2003), where the film is equally romantic and funny. However, there are some that overlap with other genres, such as Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) with drama, Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986) with teens and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) with fantasy, to name a few. In the 1990s, the Brit rom-com was developed, which I will go into more detail with later, and Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999) is a romantic comedy which falls into this sub-genre. 

The common denominator of all of these films is that they are considered to be ‘women’s films’, or ‘chick flicks’ as they are now more commonly referred to. Audience is an important part of genre. The viewer has to recognise genre elements because, like film stars, genre is used to sell a film. Although genre films often seem too formulaic and audiences tire of seeing the same film over and over again, no-one can argue with the success of such films. 

I chose Notting Hill as my film of focus for this essay as it is a typical romantic comedy featuring actors who frequently star in romantic comedies, written by a screenwriter/director who is known for his work on rom-coms and financed by a studio that often funds romantic comedies, particularly Brit rom-coms. 

Genre study is a concept that works well with so many others, such as ideology, audience study and authorship, but I chose stars because actors are so often typecast, and appear in the same genre, that some stars have become part of the iconography of the genre. Notting Hill is an interesting film to use when studying stars as one of its main characters is a film star, so all of the concepts I discuss relating to stardom and star theory can be related to Notting Hill. 

Genres are easier to recognise than define. Everyone can recognise a horror film or musical when they see one and can tell that Alien (Ridley Scott, 1971) is a science fiction film and Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005) is a period film. Some genres stand out through their subjects or themes whereas others are defined by the emotions they create. 

The romantic comedy has become a bit of a cliché. Everyone has come to know what to expect when they see one. The narrative, generally speaking, features a couple who get together but are torn apart by circumstances beyond their control, then, come the end of the film, one realises that it isn’t as hopeless as they first thought and goes on a mad dash to catch the other before they get on a plane to leave the state or country. And, of course, they live happily ever after. However, romance features highly in most popular genres. Many films contain elements of both romance and comedy but romantic comedies are defined in terms of the balance of the two factors - romance is the central element of the narrative and comedy plays a secondary role. This is true of Notting Hill. The narrative revolves around the relationship between a film star and a bookshop owner and as they go through the obligatory highs and lows, comedy is used to highlight the happiness and soften the blows. 

The film begins with multiple shots of film star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) on the red carpet and on set. In each one she is smiling but it seems to imply that she puts on a front when she is in the public eye and isn’t really happy. The song that plays over the top of this sequence is She (a cover version by Elvis Costello) and one particular lyric, ‘She who always seems so happy in a crowd, whose eyes can be so private and so proud, no one's allowed to see them when they cry’ hints that this film star is not happy. Then the spectator is introduced to William Thacker (Hugh Grant). He is as normal as people get – he owns a not-very-successful book store, lives in a nice house with his housemate and has a group of close friends who have regular jobs. A lot is revealed about him in the voiceover and the spectator is immediately asked to identify with him. The opening voiceover has become increasingly common and is used in other rom-coms such as The Holiday (Nancy Meyers, 2006), Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) and Hitch (Andy Tennant, 2005). Typically, with romantic comedies, the spectator is asked to identify with a female protagonist, as the target audience is usually female, but as the female lead is a film star, it is easier to identify with the male lead. 

It is the difference between the two characters that creates the comedy. The second that William walks into Anna with a cup of orange juice their relationship becomes a complete disaster with his nervous ramblings and mistakes and her superiority and snobbery. When they first meet, she keeps her distance and doesn’t get close, but as the narrative progresses, it is Anna that drives their relationship forward. It is her needs and her vulnerability which determine the course of the film. 

After the couple bump into each other on the street corner William apologises and offers Anna his house for her to get cleaned up in, explaining ‘I’m confident that in five minutes we can have you spick and span and back on the street again; in a non-prostitute sense, obviously’. This is a good reference point for both genre and stars. This reminds those familiar with the genre and/or Julia Roberts of Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990) where Roberts played a prostitute. 

Roberts and Grant, like many other film stars, such as Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock and Colin Firth, are known for their work in romantic comedies. Roberts has had a huge career and until recently was the highest paid female film star. She has starred in the rom-coms My Best Friend’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1997), America’s Sweethearts (Joe Roth, 2001) and Closer (Mike Nichols, 2004) as well as dramas such as Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000), for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress. Grant has had a very successful career in the romantic comedy genre too including Two Weeks Notice (Marc Lawrence, 2002) and the highly successful Brit rom-coms Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003), Four Weddings and A Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001), although he also starred in Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 2005) and About A Boy (Chris and Paul Weitz, 2002). They have both been typecast as the leading man and lady in their films, although Grant’s roles are more similar than Roberts’s. He often plays a floppy haired, bumbling idiot, which is what makes his nickname in Notting Hill so funny – ‘Floppy’. 

The Brit rom-com has become more and more popular since the release of Four Weddings and A Funeral. This genre hybrid is not as complex as it sounds as these films are more clearly defined than romantic comedies and the number of films in this genre are few, at least when compared to broad genres. Because genres evolve over time, it is expected that sub-genres will evolve from them. Notting Hill is similar to Four Weddings in the sense that they are both written by Richard Curtis, set in England, have a narrative that centres on an Anglo-American relationship and has a similar time span. 

More recent Brit rom-coms such as Love Actually and Bridget Jones’s Diary also star Grant as he has become part of the iconography of this genre. In each film he looks the same and plays variations of the same character. He is one of many stars who have become typecast and has found very little success outside of these roles. Richard Dyer wrote about the star’s performance style, explaining that stars have a particular performance style which, through its familiarity, will inform the performance she or he gives in any particular film. Spectators have certain expectations when they go to see a film starring Hugh Grant. His acting style rarely changes and he seems to be cast in the same roles because of this (or it could be argued to be the other way round). Studios and producers know that by putting him in a certain film and telling him to play a certain character they can guarantee that people will see the film. He has an instantly recognisable image and performance style - the floppy hair in terms of the appearance and the nervous, slightly posh man in terms of screen persona. 

In the beginning of cinema, the names of actors weren’t released for fear of them becoming known and demanding more money. Now their names are used to sell films (star vehicles) and they can command $20million per film. Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts have come to work within the same genre of films for the majority of their careers as stars face difficulties when it comes to escaping any genre they have become identified with. Some try and fight the system whereas others give in and stick to what they are considered by the viewing public to be best at. 

Notting Hill represents many aspects of the star lifestyle – red carpet, press junkets, fans stopping them in stores for autographs, being followed by tabloid journalists, etc – but it is also portrayed somewhat negatively, especially when compared to life in Notting Hill. Realism, or verisimilitude, is generally an important part of film, yet it is hard to believe that a film star would fall in love with a regular person and give up her entire lifestyle to live a quiet life in Notting Hill. It is an essential part of genre films as it is usually the verisimilitudinous ingredients of a film that lay the foundations of its pleasure which in turn attracts audiences to see the film in the first place. In the case of Notting Hill, the appeal is in the wanting. Suspension of disbelief allows the spectator to believe that anything is possible and the film star of their dreams is within their reach. It is a seemingly attainable lifestyle. 

Stars are important to society as they have a major control over the representation of people and their films tend to reflect the dominant ideology of Western society’. This is why bad press is such a disaster, both for their careers and whatever film(s) they have due for release. Luckily for Grant, the tabloidisation of his incident with a prostitute wasn’t too damaging to his career, in fact, people laugh at the prostitute reference in Notting Hill and his bad boy/playboy image in About A Boy and Bridget Jones’s Diary. 

Notting Hill is typical of the genre in terms of narrative (opposites attracting, falling in love, torn apart, one chasing the other, living happily ever after), characters (close group of friends to pick you up when you’re feeling down, another love interest to either end the relationship for a short amount of time or create a love triangle), setting (Brit rom-coms tend to be set in or near London), music (popular music on the soundtrack and use of instrumental score to create/build on audience emotion) and cinematography (prolonged close ups on protagonists’ faces during moments of intense emotion). It also features a reasonably accurate representation of stardom in the narrative and stars actors who have become iconographic in terms of the genre.
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