My own private “Notting Hill”

Never fall for someone whose image will keep pummeling you like a revolving fan blade. Lovers may leave, but the media is forever.

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Do you go to the movies for advice? Is entertainment — the occasional
car smacking into a fruit stand — sufficient value for your bucks? Or
do you want to come away with moral lessons, solid, useful tips on life,
love and work? And if so, what lessons might you draw from Julia Roberts
and Hugh Grant in the current hit romance “Notting Hill”?

You might infer that more seductive than diamonds, gold and power is a man who does nothing but stammer, “Um … I apologize,” while whapping his
eyelashes rapidly enough to achieve aerodynamic lift. You might conclude that among celebrities the bodyguard vogue has passed, replaced by a
strategy of entering strangers’ rancid flats to change clothes. You might even decide that actor Rhys Ifans has struck a blow for humanity
by proving that a real human being can play a sidekick every bit as obnoxious as Jar Jar Binks.

But I strongly suggest you look deeper for the true lesson of “Notting Hill.” It is neatly contained in a speech made by Grant’s character
late in the film when, in a passing moment of clarity, he chases Roberts away with the words, “There are just too many pictures of you.
Too many films.” Naturally, Hugh goes on to ignore his own wisdom, thereby avoiding a class-action suit by outraged movie patrons. He was right the first time, though, and if you won’t listen to him, listen to me. Never fall in love with someone whose image will keep popping up on
screens and magazines, pummeling you again and again like a revolving fan blade. It might be fun when you first meet. Just, please, consider
the future. A lover may dump you, but the media is forever.

Mary walked into a photo store and got in line behind me one day in
1990. I will spare you the rhapsodic details and merely state that I was
subsequently smacked upside the head by a giant Codfish of Love, a
larger and more fiercely whiskered codfish than ever had smacked me
before. I was addled, cowboy. Mary was a psychology student and sometime
choreographer who paid the bills with a steady if unspectacular modeling
career. As far as I knew she might also have found part-time work as the
sun, moon and stars. My charms evidently proved more fleeting, and our
once-torrid relationship was dead after six months. For her, at least.



I was about to embark on one of those embarrassing spirals that tests
and finally exhausts the patience of sympathetic friends. Years of
determined moping — inspiring, or perhaps inspired by, a lingering case of
depression — found me unable to process all that excellent get-on-with-your-life advice I kept hearing. Shoveler of my own rut I
may have been, but I had help. TV, newspapers, magazines, even bus shelters — they all conspired to beat me down. Mary’s modeling career, it seemed, had just taken off.

Perhaps I simply hadn’t noticed it before when the sight of Mary’s image
was not yet a serrated fish-gutting knife running up my abdomen. I
certainly noticed afterward. In those days I worked at a radio station
in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the Kitsilano neighborhood, overlooking a
busy street. At the bus stop a block away from work, I came face to face
with the object of my obsession. Mary, sitting lotus-style with eyes
closed and a vaguely orgasmic smile, starred in a life-size poster for
a chain of fitness clubs. “Hi Steve!” she said. “How’s it hangin’?” I didn’t hear that. “See you tomorrow!” she called as I hurried past. The
evil cackle was new, I thought.

Mary’s drugstore commercial began running every night during the
evening news. The jingle was based on a Pointer Sisters hit that still
makes me break out in hives. Her modeling appearances in local
newspapers were frequent enough to make opening a paper comparable
to clicking a faulty light switch, always flinching in anticipation of a sharp shock.

I came to expect such pangs, becoming adept at psychic channel-changing just ahead of the offending ad, or at the very least bracing myself when
entering dangerous territory. But it wasn’t always possible to be
prepared. When the biggest gut punch arrived, I was totally relaxed.

Halfway through “Notting Hill,” after Grant has already discovered that his beloved’s face on the side of a bus can be a rolling rebuke
instead of a thrill, he abuses himself by sitting through her latest film (apparently a remake of “2001,” with Roberts displaying the emotive
range of HAL the computer. She wins an Oscar anyway). My sympathy for
poor Hugh extended only so far — he, at least, knew what he was in for
when he bought his ticket. I was not so lucky.

An emotional haymaker coming out of nowhere caught me midway through the
second half of a double bill. I was watching a prominent action figure
struggle to animate his role in a detective flick when suddenly the
scene changed: We were now in a strip joint. On-screen was a stripper,
stripped. As Mary herself later described her appearance, “I
was wearing my fillings.” I stared stupidly, not sure at first what or
whom I was seeing. That the movie was shot in Vancouver hadn’t occurred
to me, and besides, Mary had not previously been an actor. That was
probably still true, although absent any actual dialogue, her smoldering
gaze was in fact clearly delivering two unspoken words directly to the
onrushing camera. Adding to my confusion, there were definitely parts of Mary I didn’t recognize. Special effects, perhaps — some localized form of
3-D technology? (Surgical effects, she later explained. Modeling is a competitive game.)

The scene lasted only seconds, but by the end I knew. All around the
darkened theater, Neanderthals whooped and hooted. I noted with
distracted surprise that my head was tingling and I was in danger of
fainting. This kind of thing, I thought, simply doesn’t happen. Crooners
have sung about it, but they were being poetic. Cole Porter would never
have written, “I see your face/Everywhere I go/On the street/Or even
at the picture show/Playing a stripper/No really, I’m not shitting you
here/Baby.” Everybody knows the obsessed are paranoid and demented,
but this is the kind of stuff they are supposed to be imagining. “You
were imagining things,” the psychiatrist intones. “Everything. Including
Steven Seagal. Starring in a dramatic role? Be reasonable, man.”

Later, in the comfort of my own fetal position, I nursed an irrational
but dogged sense that I was somehow being punished or even persecuted.
For her part, I assumed Mary was in her glory as a big-screen and pinup
career beckoned. As so often happens when a former lover becomes a
source of unrelenting pain, I had mentally reduced her both in size and
character to a chronically infected boil. (I should have guessed that the real person was anything but pleased — she had been assured that
“strategic” camera work would conceal her assets, when in fact the only
filmmaking strategy employed had been the one called “Sex sells.” So
upset was she that a phony name went into the credits. The pain in this
situation cut both ways.)

Years later, in yet another darkened theater, this time watching a
weeping Julia Roberts flee to Hugh Grant’s apartment after seeing her own porno past resurface in the tabloids, the effect was understandably
spooky — one of those odd cinematic coincidences when a movie seems to mimic life.

“Notting Hill” being the kind of movie where audiences emerge playing air
violin, it was obvious that the plot would turn out more happily than
did my own. I noted ruefully that Julia’s crisis brought her back to the
loving arms of her precious lid-fluttering Hugh. There was a soft sound
in the theater as my reality bubble burst.

By the end of the movie, the hated paparazzi are transformed at a press
conference into happy pre-wedding photographers, training lenses on the
beaming beaks of our two stunning lovebirds. Suddenly they don’t mind
the media a bit. For that matter, I suppose I can’t complain
either — eventually I did get it together and move on with things.
Sometimes I even show up in the papers. Mary, I imagine, is reading something else.

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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