Mar 23, 2017
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Philandering Prince / Crusading Cinderella
by Bansari Mitra
Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock in the romantic 2002 comedy 'Two Weeks Notice', directed/written by Mark Lawrence. photo: courtesy M. Lawrence
A FEW YEARS AGO, KATHARINE
Hepburn’s death gave us front row seats on the passing of a legend. Hers is, essentially, a Cinderella story turned true. Fiercely independent since childhood, not only did she establish herself as a strong, free woman, Hepburn had the courage to differ from traditional Hollywood heroines, a trope contributing to the reversal of gender roles today.
When Hepburn is mentioned in “Two Weeks Notice” (2002), a Hugh Grant/Sandra Bullock romantic comedy, a nostalgic wave passes over us as well as the actors. Let’s listen in as Grant’s George Wade, a business magnate, discusses a replacement for Lucy Kelson, a leftist lawyer played by Bullock:
I want someone as intelligent as you are, but a bit a less tense and argumentative, a kind of Katharine Hepburn figure.
You don’t deserve Katharine Hepburn.
Also too good. Stay away from the Hepburns.
Ironically, this restaurant scene is one of the film’s few peaceful moments, so sanguine that Grant and Bullock are eating off each other’s plate. Otherwise, from the moment Grant and Bullock meet, it is a series of wrangling arguments, one of those classic plots that never gets stale: boy meets girl, boy bickers with girl, boy and girl split up, boy and girl fall madly in love.
That plot, especially with the addition of a rags-to-riches subplot, endeared “Two Weeks Notice” to the hearts of the audiences worldwide (if not so much in the US, where its Rotten Tomatoes audience score was 59%). No wonder, it is a story told the world over.
Let’s look at the Cinderella theme. A woman, distressed, reduced to rags, weeps by the hearth until her fairy godmother appears and helps her win the heart of Prince Charming. The Prince, brave and noble, has to recognize his beloved, despite her diminished station, before he can set her free. The pumpkin coach, silk gown and jewels have to disappear before he can appreciate her sterling virtues and they live happily ever after.
Bullock as Lucy is under duress and in distress but in no need of a prince. photo: courtesy M. Lawrence
In its modern variations, we see a Cinderella who is more active, who sets out to conquer her Prince, and who is hardly impoverished. Indeed, feminist film versions of the fairy tale are quite common, usually involving the filmmaker introducing a few changes while keeping the story’s intentions EXACTLY the same! The hero usually marries beneath his rank while the Cinderella figure waits for only him, although they often hate each other’s guts before falling insanely in love.
The problems only start when one radically revises this tale for a romantic comedy in today’s Hollywood. As we will see, when the gender roles are reversed in the films “About a Boy” (2002) and “Two Weeks Notice”, it spells a message of hope for the future of feminism.
Even the films’ settings, major metropolitan areas, contribute to their plots’ development and how public and private spaces, especially in the latter film, help foster romance. Though the writers subvert the Cinderella slant, grafting it on to a genre the primary purpose of which is to entertain a broad public, they make it completely plausible as well as palatable.
Singledom and its problems are the focus of both movies, which are also trendy comedies highlighting the travails of everyday life, especially “About a Boy”. Although vastly different in tone and temper, both comedies have the coincidental commonality of including a predatory, unrepentant cad rendered beautifully by dear, old Hugh Grant.
Although there the similarity ends, the question remains: who is watching these movies and what do they get out of them? We know moviegoers have changed, that teens no longer constitute the main movie-going crowd, that mobile device streaming has changed everything. Indeed, movie roles have changed to cater to the taste of audiences and, if we look closely at leading ladies and men, we see how gender roles have even been reversed.
Cinderella, in the original tale, is entirely passive but contemporary writers and directors usually portray her today as an independent single woman, attractive rather than beautiful, which busts the fairytale myth of the sweet feminine character. In fact, she boldly challenges the Prince and quite often wins.
The Prince also changes—he is not so charming anymore, giving the original pasteboard figure depth and complexity, especially in these two films.
“About a Boy” specifically concerns singles, so much so there is a group, Single Parents Alone Together (SPAT), around which much of the movie revolves. With only one traditional couple at the beginning, all the other characters are divorced or unmarried.
Of course, since being single is a central romantic concern, many movies today focus on its joys as well as the problems, even hilarious comedies like “Bridget Jones Diary” (2001), which was another big hit, world-wide.
The big problem confronting “About a Boy” is the suicidal tendencies of Fiona, a hippie, single mother played by Toni Collette, which really gets the narrative ball rolling. And hers is a Cinderella story that does NOT end traditionally—she does not get her Prince. Indeed, there is a rather pathetic scene mid-way when Will (Grant) and Fiona (Collette) try to go on a date, which ends in disaster.
Collette’s sensitive yet unconventional performance really sets her apart from other heroines in Hollywood and informs us about the plight of women struggling with depression and poverty. It is no laughing matter. She not only challenges Will, by telling him to be more sensitive to a growing boy’s needs, she learns some things from him. Thus the film starts as a learning process for almost all its characters.
Will is emotionally stunted. He is very rich and frivolous, out for quick sexual gratification from vulnerable single mothers. But a young, fatherless boy, Marcus really teaches him to grow up and, thus, regains the father he never knew in his childhood.
George seems a bit intimidated when he meets Lucy's rival, June (Alicia Witt). photo: courtesy M. Lawrence
The film raises some issues. How can boys who are products of broken homes ever have any male role models? How are single mothers to cope with the multiple tasks that only a superwoman can handle? How can men, who have never shouldered responsibilities or been fathers or learned to commit, be in such relationships?
We find all the answers in “About a Boy”. A bit too pat, perhaps, but still food for thought. Also, one begins to question the fitness of Fiona as a heroine for the film. How does a suicidal manic-depressive fit into romantic comedies, especially in Hollywood, where we are looking for escape?
Even more complicated is the character of Will, who finally becomes mature with the aid of a twelve year-old boy. He is taught to be a surrogate parent when he protects a boy who is bullied and in the process softens into an almost maternal role. This is rather unexpected from a glamorous Hollywood star like Grant, who has often played the confident cad with aplomb.
What is remarkable is that the character of Rachel, played by Rachel Weisz who, though slightly drawn, also raises some questions. Not only is she very lovely but she appears smart as well and Will seems to admire her for her brains as much as her looks. Men no longer seem to find clever women threatening, even though the boss of “Two Weeks Notice” flippantly says to a Harvard graduate: “You can be somewhat intimidating.”
In the romantic Bullock-Grant vehicle, “Two Weeks Notice”, the central characters, George and Lucy, tower over the other characters. Only George and Lucy are single; the other seem to have some kind of family. Lucy is a courageous, Harvard-trained lawyer, who, encouraged by her parents, takes up the cause of the defenseless. Even though she has clashes with her mother, she is proud to be her daughter. In the film’s only mellow moment, when they are eating tofutti on a terrace, Lucy informs George that her mother is her inspiration.
Lucy is first and foremost a daughter. She is justly proud of her parents, knowing they have made her what she is. Secondly, she is a friend. Her relationship with Meryl is as close as that of sisters. As the only child of ambitious and exacting parents, she has found comfort in Meryl. Next in her list are the homeless and poor, whom she befriends.
It is because of these people that Lucy is a fuller, more complete person. They act as shock absorbers in her otherwise goal-oriented, work-addicted life. George in contrast leads an empty life. In spite of his millions, he has nothing. His attraction for Lucy lies in the fact that she does not care for his money and regards him as a human being instead of a prize; and she speaks to him the plain and brutal truth. That is where the gender role reversals in the film take place.
The twin preludes to the movie are symmetrical. We see Lucy straddling a wrecking ball, screaming her protests against the destructive efforts of a multimillion-dollar corporation. As a crusading lawyer, she impresses us with the courage and force of her convictions. Her world is out in the open, in front of a magnificent, architectural gem of a building for which she fights.
And though she loses, she is glorious in her battle against injustice; and that is where the inner and outer spaces in this film play such a crucial role. It is really New York City that forms a backdrop for this movie, a city affected by a devastating tragedy that has made us conscious of its vulnerability.
Enter George Wade, truly the Prince Charming and the idol of so many elegant women who find his person as fair as his millions. He is at the podium, addressing the crowd in a brightly illuminated lounge, his sophisticated world a stark contrast to the world of Lucy. Lucy is dusty and disheveled, lying down in front of a bulldozer, being hauled up in jail.
George and Lucy do a another type of meeting. photo: courtesy M. Lawrence
The two worlds will clash, as will Lucy and George as polar opposites till they are drawn together like magnets. And the end result is not the Prince marrying beneath his station, but something entirely different. The Prince does not need to recognize Cinderella in her rags; that is the outfit she wears when she accosts him on the road. The important thing is that he sees her as she is, before he can ease into her world.
At the beginning of the movie, we meet a woman who is brave and outspoken. She defiantly tells George that she will not sleep with him: “Believe it or not, I didn’t take this job so I could sleep with you. I took it for a cause.” The word cause really sums up Lucy’s character. Foolhardy as she may seem, she is really dedicated and takes up one cause after another. She often loses but it is a gallant fight she puts up. In her hunger for justice she is not merely a lawyer, but also a crusader who radically revises the Cinderella myth into a real reversal of the stereotype.
Here we find a woman who is strong and courageous, comely yet not beautiful. Above all, as the bright one, she is not at all threatening to George who says quite glibly at the beginning: “Women of their level of intellectual ability find me shallow.” But to his surprise George finds that such smart women can be attractive and that he can appreciate them so far as to fall in love with them.
Women are no longer putting off men by having superior intellects. The pioneering feminist Simone de Beauvoir would have been pleased. In her book, “The Second Sex” (1949) she observes:
Man obeys an imperious necessity; woman must constantly reaffirm her intention.
She goes forward not with her eyes fixed on a goal, but with her glance wandering around her in every direction and her gait is also timid and uncertain. The more she seems to be getting ahead on her own hook—as I have already pointed out—the more her other chances fade; in becoming a bluestocking, a woman of brains, she will make herself unattractive to men in general, or she will humiliate her husband or lover by being too outstanding a success.
While George is supercilious and spoiled at first glance, he is really quite a nice person, who comes to admire Lucy for her virtues as well her intelligence. In fact, if we look closely, it is the men who are the more feminine and women who are the more masculine in this curious game of reversed gender roles.
Lucy’s father, like George, is a softer, more nurturing and supportive character than her hard, driven and ambitious mother. Certainly he has all the goals of her mother—but we find that it is really the father who consoles Lucy in the end and gives her good advice so she can establish more rapport with George.
When we look at the structure of the film, we find that New York City figures in a very positive way in the film. It is always present as a giant hub of the world. Lucy and George are never completely alone and at the moments when they happen to be, somebody barges in.
There are four outstanding moments in the film that consist of private spaces, where they are nearly alone and they bicker quite sharply throughout the sessions. And there are also public spaces, like the restaurant or the terrace overlooking the street, where they are perhaps at the best moments in their relationship.
George and Lucy meet for the first time in the street, where Lucy waylays him to save her beloved Community Center. George tries to shake her off until she captures his attention as a lawyer who might be useful to him, although the moment they get into the car they start arguing.
In fact, we need to look at the four private spaces that they occupy which really bring their quarrels to a head: the car, a closet, a toilet and a kitchen. These spaces are juxtaposed to the public spaces like the office, stall, terrace, the legal aid office and the street. In private versus public spaces we see one movement diametrically opposing another. Any private space leads to fierce quarrels, but outside spaces are far better for bringing them together. It proves that they are at best when they are interacting with others instead of being by themselves.
Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock get down in a closet. photo: courtesy M. Lawrence
In the car they make promises to each other that they are eventually going to break. Lucy promises she will work for him only to hand in her titular notice. George promises to save the Coney Island Community Center only to yield to the threats of his brother. In the next scene, when George is alone in the closet with Lucy, we see the comedy at its height as the film portrays him helpless as a baby, allowing his attorney/nanny dress him.
He is assertive, however, when Lucy accuses him: “If you don’t want to be disturbed, why do you keep the cell phone on? You crave the excitement!” It’s an accurate observation of Lucy’s character.
He declares that he finds her ungrateful when he has hired her without corporate experience and offered her all the perks that go with such a well-paid job. He has to discover that, to this sincere woman, it all means nothing. She is far more at home in her crowded legal aid office, shabbily dressed, out to save the whole world. It is he who must come down (or move up) into her world before he can actually deserve her. And in order to do that, he must leave all the trappings of the corporate world, the hundreds of ties, suits and shoes behind, and in this sense the closet scene is highly symbolic.
Though he appears here as a vain and shallow person, there is more substance than meets the eye; he discovers it later, with the aid of Lucy, when she says: “You know what I can’t believe, that you’re not even trying to be the person you can be.” Thus dresses play an important role; it is only by shedding our disguises that we discover our true selves. After all, the Cinderella story is about costumes, silk gowns and glass slippers, rags and ashes.
(Figure 7: Lucy’s Rival June) In the next scene that they are nearly alone is the restroom. When Lucy defiantly drags him in by the tie, there is no doubt who is the boss. At first there seems to be an element of romance between them. It is the only scene in the middle of the film where they embrace, although romantic expectations are repeatedly established only to evaporate. Then we think that Lucy will really create a rapport with George in the boat scene, a la “Roman Holiday” (1953), but that does not happen. In the same way, hopes are dashed when George drags Lucy to the kitchen and we think that at last they will be reconciled. Instead, the deadliest of their quarrels takes place.
For the first time in the whole film, George is in command, as he separates Lucy and her rival (played by Alicia Witt). When they go into the kitchen, they say the most hurtful things to each other and it seems to be the end of their relationship. The community center will be razed; Lucy will leave ; they will never meet again. But just before she leaves, George makes some unflattering remarks about her character that help Lucy to see herself in a new light, in a less rigid way: “You’re too perfect! Too wonderful! No one can keep up with you... You’re intolerable. Nobody wants to be preached to. Nobody wants to live with a saint because saints are boring.”
Just as he begins to realize what he has done, someone barges in to announce that he must see his brother, Howard at once. Thus the interruptions continue and invade the private spaces where they are not really comfortable.
George spars with Lucy in front of her rival, June. photo: courtesy M. Lawrence
This is where the cityscape of Manhattan really comes into play. It is the one place where people are so rushed and preoccupied that relationships are formed or broken, lives take right or wrong turns but nobody seems to notice. Thus, ironically, public spaces seem to provide more privacy for the pair. George and Lucy meet, bicker and finally reconcile IN THE STREET.
There is however, one notable exception to these events. Only once when they are alone, their relationship appears to be harmonious—when they fly over New York City. We see the city’s grandeur, historic sites, legacies and triumphs that far eclipse its disasters. Thus it is made clear why historic buildings matter, what they represent and hand down from generation to generation. George learns a lesson here from Lucy to use his power for good instead of evil.
The Coney Island Cinderella also demands a palace of her own, quite different from the Prince’s. It is her community center, the cause to which she is dedicated. We catch a glimpse of it at the beginning when she tells her parents that she will try her best to save it. Later, she points out to George what the center means to Coney Island; what the greedy profit making company must spare in order to preserve the interests of the little people.
She thus becomes the spokeswoman for her people and she speaks so eloquently on their behalf that George sees what he has so far failed to understand; it is really because of this meeting at the terrace overlooking the center, that he finally prevents its demolition, so everything ends happily.
The outer space that really helps George and Lucy to come together as kindred spirits is the bagel stall where they first meet. Lucy first accosts him as a quirky person while he is munching bagels. The next time they are out in that space, Lucy has already influenced George so much that we notice a change in him. She vigorously demands that he should give money to those who need it most, instead of his already rich ex-wife. George jokingly says: “That’s interesting! You only want me to be generous to those you approve of!”
But we see the effect of her speech when he leaves a hundred dollar note to the vendor. Conversely, when a homeless person scolds Lucy because she has ruined his coffee by dropping a coin in his cup, it is George who rescues her. Thus we see how in the open space they complement each other.
There are finally two spaces, the street and the legal aid office where George conducts an extraordinary courtship in front of Lucy’s colleagues and wins her over, with the aid of Polly. There is no doubt that in humbler spaces like this, people are far less detached and self-seeking. There is a lack of privacy in such a crowded space, but those who are less rich and ambitious, like Tony and Polly, care more for human beings.
Tony advises George earlier that he should be in control, instead of letting Lucy dominate him, and in the end it is Polly who gives Lucy a nudge and sets her on to the path of reconciliation. The busy and shabby legal aid office is definitely a friendly space instead of a hostile one; whereas Howard and June thrust them apart, Lucy’s two co-workers wait with bated breath to know whether she might yield or not. And of course the union must take place in the street, the place where first George and Lucy met.
It is in the public street that they finally embrace, but not before another important revelation takes place. The Prince is no longer rich—he has become poor. In fact, he has made a great sacrifice to give her HER palace by renouncing his own. The Prince has now been reduced to poverty; instead of clothing Cinderella in magnificent robes, he must now take refuge in her home.
This is the final reversal at the end that shows how a traditional tale is overturned and renovated to satisfy the feelings of the modern audience. Cinderella does not step up to the palace although she did invade it once. She does not win the Prince, he wins her. While some older patterns persist, there is still a step forward for feminism—no more waiting for the prince.
Thus when this Cinderella tale ends happily, we breathe a sigh of relief because this is not a traditional ending. It makes us hopeful that fairy tales will serve new purposes instead of being defined as “politically incorrect”. This is not the end that was described by Anne Sexton at the end of her own version of Cinderella:
Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case . . .
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Anne Sexton perhaps would have been pleased today with the outcome of “Two Weeks Notice”’s revision of her poem. Like her, we witness a real transformation here.
Bansari Mitra teaches at Clark Atlanta University and has published articles on Indian films and a book on folklore. She can be reached
Posted on Dec 15, 2016 - 11:11 AM