Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, ...
Credit: Clive Coote
  • Movie

TRUE, THE CHARACTER Julia Roberts plays in ”Notting Hill” is a world-famous movie star who’s paid upwards of $15 mil a picture and who endures her fair share of scandal, but she’s not based on Julia Roberts. “I’m not having fun at the expense of my life, I’m having fun at the expense of her life,” says Roberts, 31, who uses this comedic chance to take on the paparazzi, plastic surgery, bad boyfriends, nude pictures, and the price of fame.

The latest romp from the writer and producers of ”Four Weddings and a Funeral,” ”Notting Hill” pairs Roberts with Wedding alum Hugh Grant, who stretches himself a bit more than his costar, playing a low-key bookstore owner with the outrageous fortune to wake up with a major actress in his bed and his face on every London tabloid. While the story has echoes of ”Four Weddings” (the central characters’ eccentric best friends, including Ifans in a memorable turn as a Welsh wacko of a roommate; Grant in full-on hapless, what-am-I-doing-here mode), the glossier ”Notting Hill” has much better teeth than its predecessor, namely those of Roberts.

While she isn’t playing herself — really! — the parallels between Roberts and her character are ripe for comparison: The actress whose love affairs have made a headline or two plays a woman who tries to win a who’s-the-most-pathetic contest at a dinner party by recounting her bad luck with men; the character also overhears a man in a restaurant talking about her rumored drug abuse, gets mistaken for Demi Moore, and worries that by the time she’s 40, her looks will be gone and everyone will realize she can’t act.

This is sweet irony for Roberts. Whether or not audiences take to the film’s insider jokes about press junkets and the downside of celebrity, advance screenings have generated some interesting buzz, suggesting that Roberts’ send-up of herself might be her best work. “Julia’s part was underwritten at first,” says Kenworthy. (There were about 10 drafts of the screenplay, according to director Roger Michell.) While it was in good enough shape to show Roberts two years ago, the actress requested one more pass. “She said, ‘I love it, but can’t I be funnier?'” Kenworthy remembers. “She went off to Borneo to make a documentary about orangutans, and I knew the cameraman who was working on it, so I sent her a gift and a note saying ‘Please pack your bags for ”Notting Hill.”'”

Once she arrived, the atmosphere became “a bit surreal,” remembers Grant, particularly during a scene in which the paparazzi discover the pair after they spend the night together. When Grant opened the front door, “there were 100 extras playing paparazzi, being filmed by 100 paparazzi.”

That particular scene may have been the most tricky, since Roberts’ character — cracking under the pressure — behaves like everyone’s idea of a spoiled celebrity. Before Roberts had signed on, screenwriter William Goldman warned Grant that “you have to get the girl to be that nasty, but you’ll get a star and she won’t want to do that.” “I mentioned that to Julia when we were shooting,” says Grant, “and she said, ‘Oh, God, that’s the scene I dreaded the most.’ She actually behaved very frighteningly all day.” In fact, Michell believes “the survival of the film was that very issue. You have to believe she’s vulnerable and real, but also the most frightening person in the world. Julia didn’t have to do a lot of research, but that’s not her.”

In the end, though, Roberts claims she’s game for the inevitable comparisons. Her character, she says, “does have a great sense of humor, but there are things I didn’t like about her. If she was my friend, I would say, ‘Man, get a grip.'”

Notting Hill

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Roger Michell