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Put the Blame on Fame

It's celebrity that brings together the characters in 'Notting Hill,' and who would know the pressure of that life better than Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts?

May 02, 1999|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a frequent contributor to Calendar

LONDON — There are a handful of districts in this city known even to people who have never set foot in them: super-chic Chelsea; upscale Mayfair; Westminster, home to the abbey and Britain's Parliament. Starting this summer, add Notting Hill to that list.

Notting Hill? It's an intriguingly mixed district a couple of miles west of central London that includes affluent homes inhabited by celebrities and low-income housing. There's a large number of successful professionals in Notting Hill, a smattering of various immigrant groups, a small bohemian literary scene and a youngish, self-consciously hip crowd newly enriched through working in the media and broadcasting. Think Los Feliz with a lot of rain.

The area has restaurants, boutiques and bookshops galore, as well as London's famous Portobello Road street market. In short, it is emblematic of the country's "Cool Britannia" image, which established itself with the accession of Tony Blair's Labor government in 1997.

Now Notting Hill is the title of a film to be released at the end of the month, and it's the most talked-about movie in Britain in a long time.

"Notting Hill" is a romantic comedy with Hugh Grant as the male lead, a character with a group of loyal and quirky friends who live in this funky/hip part of town. Grant falls for a gorgeous American movie star played by Julia Roberts--a combination described by one of the film's producers as "the two biggest romantic comedy stars in the world."

The Universal Pictures/Working Title film was written by Richard Curtis, produced by Duncan Kenworthy, and the two leading lights of Working Title, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan, are (with Curtis) executive producers. To those who know their film lore, there's a familiar ring about that premise and constellation of names. All were involved in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," the British low-budget romantic comedy that swept all before it on its release in 1994.

Made for around $5 million, "Four Weddings" became an enormous global hit, grossing some $250 million worldwide. Until "The Full Monty" it was the most successful British film ever made, and it turned Grant into an international star.

No one could have foreseen the success of "Four Weddings," which became one of the great surprise hits of the decade. But the stakes are considerably higher for "Notting Hill," which is looked at as potentially the summer's big romantic comedy. The budget is substantially higher, too; no one will officially disclose it, and Kenworthy insists that "by far the majority of the money" has been spent on securing Grant and Roberts. But another on-set source mentions the sum of $40 million.

It's a different proposition from the earlier film, then; so is it useful to regard "Notting Hill" as a sequel to "Four Weddings"? The answer from all parties is a resounding "no," with minor qualifications.

Curtis concedes there are definite links between "Notting Hill," "Four Weddings" and "The Tall Guy," his 1989 London-situated comedy starring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson: "I just hope once people get into the cinema, they'll get swept away with the story and won't think about other films. I wouldn't say there are no connections, but on the other hand I don't want lots of connections made. Hugh's playing a different character from 'Four Weddings.' It's a different story, different people."

Yet he agrees that "Notting Hill" will almost certainly be marketed as a film "from the people who brought you 'Four Weddings.' "

"Oh, sure," he says and sighs, "and from the people who brought you the last 'boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-wins-girl-loses-girl-gets-girl' movie. I'm not sure why I write those stories. It just seems to be the rhythm of keeping the film interesting, I think. That seems to have been the plot of three of my films. Though not "Mr. Bean,' " he adds wryly. "That was a radical departure."


In "Four Weddings," Grant played an eligible bachelor who attends a series of friends' weddings but is himself reluctant to commit to a long-term relationship or marriage. In "Notting Hill," the emphasis is different. He plays William, who owns a chaotic and slightly shabby bookstore in Notting Hill. One day a famous, glamorous American film actress, Anna Scott (Roberts), wanders in, thus kick-starting an unlikely off-and-on romance. On Golborne Crescent in Notting Hill, where a scene between William and a restaurant owner friend was being shot, Curtis mused on fame and celebrity and how it affects relationships.

"A lot of my friends have become famous," he noted, citing "Mr. Bean" star Rowan Atkinson, British TV comic Harry Enfield and TV personality Angus Deayton as examples. "They're small versions of the dilemmas writ large in this film--the way [famous] people are protective in their initial dealings with others and have too strong alarm systems. And there's the problems of the press, which come up a lot.

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