There was a point in the 90s when Hugh Grant reigned on the romantic comedy market. He had a streak of about 5-7 years when people would flock to the theatres to see the latest affair of him wooing a timelessly beautiful actress, messing up and then winning her back again. Even when he hit a roadblock getting arrested for soliciting a prostitute while dating Elizabeth Hurley, it wasn’t enough to hold him down. There was something ineptly likeable about Grant that I can’t really put my finger on. He withholds a certain British demeanor that can sometimes come off as haughty, has a habit of awkwardly stuttering in a Woody Allen-like staccato, and while conventionally handsome, I’ve never heard anybody say they had a sex dream about him. Ultimately, the best I can position is that his witty charm, often the centerpoint of his 90s rom-coms, was the key to his success and likability.
My parents love Hugh Grant movies. It’s not a thing where they sit there and say “we love Hugh Grant movies” but rather, if you were to ask them what are their favorite romantic comedies, I’m willing to bet that multiple Hugh Grant movies will come up in that conversation. By nature, this affinity for his movies was passed on to my brother and me. We were too young when I sawFour Weddings and a Funeral for it to have the same effect on us that it did for Kumail Nanjiani, but Nine Months was one of the first non-kids movies I remember watching over and over again. Bearing that in mind, our parents took us to see Notting Hill.
Notting Hill is nearing it’s 20thanniversary this year and had it not been for Barry Jenkins’ twitter thread about watching it on an airplane via the woman seated next to him last year, I might have forgotten how much I loved this movie. It’s the story of a bookstore owner played by America’s most famous Brit of the 90s, Hugh Grant, who falls for a huge celebrity played by America’s Sweetheart of the 90s, Julia Roberts.
He struggles dealing with being an accessory to her fame and they have a breakup, she returns to him in an iconic scene where she pours her heart out to him and gives the timeless line “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her.” You don’t watch romantic comedies for profound lines and often, most rom-coms fall victim to its own shtick entering a world of contrived cheesiness that is hard to take seriously. It comes with the territory but is easy to get over. However, to this day, watching Julia Roberts deliver this line on the cusp of teary eyes always seems to get me. It feels real and even as a kid, I just wanted to hug her and tell her that everything was going to be okay.
I was 11 when this came out, and I can’t remember a movie that made me feel the tension of a relationship before. I wanted them to be together, not because I felt they were a perfect couple or because I thought they looked good together, I just never wanted Hugh Grant’s character or somebody, anybody to do something so that the pain in Julia Roberts’ character never comes out again. I think this is what good rom-coms do. Sure, there are aspects of escapism people enjoy knowing that real life is nothing like these movies, but beyond all of that if a rom-com can convince me to care about the well-being of the couple then that’s a winner to me.
Hugh Grant went off to do several other romantic comedies that only furthered his career as being the go-to British actor Americans will go see at the theatres. He even broke archetype and played a jerk a few times, most notably in Bridget Jones Diary effectively passing the torch to Colin Firth as the go-to British rom-com protagonist. Despite all this, I can’t help but feel like Notting Hill was the apex mountain for Hugh Grant rom-coms (I don’t know if Love, Actually counts as a Hugh Grant movie since it was an ensemble cast) and its fitting that it ended the decade that really made him a star in America.