Recall Roger Mitchell’s 1999 devotional romantic tale Notting Hill? Julia Roberts, an esteemed actress, portrayed Anna Scott, who falls for Hugh Grant’s character, William Thacker, a proprietor of a bookstore. She, without hesitation, visits his abode, requests to stay there, and also extends an invitation to her lodging. Even as the tale culminates with William professing his affection at a press gathering while standing alongside Anna on stage, his declaration of love is met with endearing reactions and celebratory camera flashes. He’s portrayed as the fortunate individual who must develop feelings for an actress solely because she has taken an interest in him. Have you ever pondered if circumstances would have unfolded differently, particularly in our current era, had Hugh assumed the role of the celebrity and Julia, an ordinary girl-next-door, a simple Jane?

Anne Hathaway in The Idea of You and Nicole Kidman in A Family Affair embark on romances with youthful, notable individuals

(Read Also – Film Review of The Idea of You: Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine’s romantic comedy leans more towards practicality than effervescence)

In all likelihood, if Julia had reciprocated those advances, she would promptly be branded a ‘gold-digger.’ Or maybe even depicted as desperate for attention. Another example is not far from reach. In Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, which premiered last year, a 13-year-old girl ties the knot with a 24-year-old rock ‘n’ roll star, Elvis Presley, merely due to his expressed interest in her. He takes her to his residence after reassuring her parents, refrains from intimacy as he’s ‘not ready yet,’ and restricts her from venturing beyond the confines of their mansion. Although the intense media glare is only apparent as Priscilla departs from their residence at the conclusion, one can vicariously experience the severe criticism she might have faced owing to Elvis’ numerous speculated liaisons. Priscilla had to decide between enduring the manipulation and confinement within his estate or facing the harsh judgment from the press outside.

The Concept of a younger version of himself

The dynamics become significantly more intricate when the female protagonist is on the mature end of the spectrum. For instance, in Michael Showalter’s recent romantic comedy The Idea of You (available for streaming on Prime Video), Anne Hathaway’s character, Solene, a 40-year-old single parent separated from her partner now residing with a younger woman, remains unsettled by that ordeal – in a poignant moment, she confesses the remorse of how forgiving she was towards her partner upon discovering the affair, only to witness him eventually departing. Solene becomes resistant towards the idea of love – until she encounters the prospect of dating a 28-year-old pop sensation. The notion is captivating and gratifying, albeit the implementation falls short.

Hayes Campbell (Nicholas Galitzine) embodies everything she is not: youthful, renowned, and masculine. Similar to Anna in Notting Hill, Hayes desires normalcy: he is intrigued by a woman who is not enamored by his celebrity status, indifferent to his musical pursuits, and hails from the realm of art galleries – a sphere he is distanced from, yet intrinsically inquisitive about. Engaging in dates becomes arduous – since public outings are off the table due to his fame, they must content themselves by preparing and relishing sandwiches at her residence. They do not mind harboring this discreet affair until it inadvertently becomes public. Just as Solene begins to surmount her personal anxieties – fear of abandonment, cultural disparities, repetition of past anguish – external forces intervene, passing judgment and accentuating her retreating fears.

Solene endeavors to cultivate resilience, much like her daughter from her previous marriage. They block out the extraneous noise by deactivating social media accounts and steering clear of online platforms. Nevertheless, the external clamor infiltrates their sanctuary when her daughter discloses her distressing encounters at school due to taunts about her ‘cougar’ mother. Solene is compelled to distance herself from love. Following triumph over challenges such as abandonment fears, ageism, and a drastic lifestyle transition, she succumbs to what perhaps every single mother experiences at some juncture – maternal guilt. Eventually, we witness Solene and Hayes reuniting five years later, with her daughter venturing off to college. This plot development drew criticism from Robinne Lee (author of the original book), who remarked, “I aimed to underscore how, as women, we prioritize others’ happiness over our own.”

Nicholas Galitzine and Anne Hathaway in The Idea of You
Nicholas Galitzine and Anne Hathaway in The Idea of You

Not just a familial affair

A similar narrative unfolds in Richard LaGravenese’s more recent rom-com A Family Affair (available for streaming on Netflix), where Nicole Kidman’s character, Brooke Harwood, an author, finds herself drawn to her daughter’s employer, Zac Efron’s character, Chris Cole. Yet again, Brooke harbors no fondness for Chris – or cinema in general – as she is engrossed in her literary aspirations and the responsibilities of being a single mother. In contrast to The Idea of You, she is not divorced but rather a widow – which presents an entirely distinct set of challenges. To compound matters, Chris is a celebrity. However, as the title suggests, news of their relationship does not leak beyond the family circle. Joey’s talent manager, Zara, embodies the antagonistic world outside – she is critical, narrow-minded, and laden with her own baggage.

Joey, however, refrains from passing judgment on her mother, expressing more concern for her well-being as she is well acquainted with Chris’ tendencies – his proclivity for engaging in fleeting relationships. Despite the cautionary signals waved by Zara, Brooke proceeds with the romance. Eventually, when her daughter confronts Chris, Brooke acquiesces. She terminates the relationship as her daughter opposes their union. Nevertheless, she articulates her disappointment. When Zara contends, “You don’t know Chris,” Brooke retorts, “It appears I don’t know you either.”

Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron in A Family Affair
Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron in A Family Affair

An intriguing facet is Brooke finding her chief supporter not in her daughter or boyfriend but in her mother-in-law (Kathy Bates). Despite her husband’s demise, she maintains a cordial and intimate bond with her mother-in-law, who also serves as her editor. Kathy’s character urges Brooke to resume her literary pursuits, give love another chance, and disregard her daughter’s dissent – viewing Brooke not as a self-centered parent, a cougar, a washed-up writer, or a fortune hunter (after all, she possesses a seaside villa) – but as a mature woman with the capability and right to seek more fulfilling prospects. If only society could transcend its biases and regard such women through an equitable lens.