Hollywood Royalty

You have to be you: Martha Coolidge on the set of 'The Prince & Me'
Paramount Pictures

The crown prince of Denmark comes to America disguised as womanizing Eurotrash. He falls for the daughter of Wisconsin dairy farmers, a coed named Paige. The prince proposes to the premed student, and she is crowned (and gowned) as the next queen. Her plain-spoken charm wows the populace and the royal family. Except that her American posture sucks.

"The shoulder thing actually came from [costar] Luke Mably and me," admits Martha Coolidge, director of the wily if uneven princess fantasy The Prince & Me. "Luke is from South London, and he had to learn posture and etiquette to be the prince. At one point I realized I was constantly correcting his shoulders." Coolidge's full laugh rattles the line from L.A.

With Mably (28 Days) playing a Danish prince, and native New Yorker and real-life Hollywood royalty Julia Stiles playing a Midwestern cow-towner, there's no shortage of pretending in a fairy tale that Coolidge (Valley Girl, Ramblin' Rose) claims is deeply concerned with reality. (The Simple Life, anyone?) Coolidge points out that the real crown prince of Denmark will marry a commoner this May, and a Netherlands prince just gave up his right to the throne to do the same--"so it is a modern problem." She'd probably agree, however, that The Prince & Me is more in touch with reality as a metaphor than as dramatic reenactment.

"In terms of the prince story," Coolidge explains, "every girl wants to be a princess--to dress up and be beautiful. I don't think that has to do with romance as much as it has to do with the desire to have it all. Then there's the aspect that your prince is going to come. That's the fairy tale. He picks you up and takes you away from your life, which is drudgery." She laughs heartily. "Isn't every teenager's life drudgery? Every working woman's life? The third aspect of it is the reality that having a relationship--whether you're with a prince or not--is still about compromise. You can't give yourself up. In the end, you have to be you."

That last point represents the difference between a popular yet ideologically Neanderthalish fantasy such as The Princess Diaries and Coolidge's more prickly offering. Unlike Diaries, The Prince & Me acknowledges its heroine's premakeover beauty and doesn't ditch her former identity. Coolidge spends plenty of time--too much, really--appeasing princess-in-waiting viewers with goopy shots of jewel vaults, formal balls, and palace trysts. But it's only to emphasize both the authentic power of the princess fantasy and Paige's unsuitability for crowning.

Better still, the movie crushes the career versus marriage crucible on which Stiles's Mona Lisa Smile hung itself. And it does so via the transformed character of--surprise!--a man. "That was the original ending: Paige goes off to medical school," Coolidge says. "But when I went back [after filming], it just wasn't right. Movies evolve. It became clear to me that the prince had a choice. It's up to him to show that he can also bend."

Next: Princes wiping baby bottoms! Actually, this prince tries to milk a cow and even enters a lawnmower race in the obligatory fish-out-of-water visit to Paige's dairy home. It's a tribute to Coolidge's skillful sense of place and character that the Wisconsin scenes are the movie's best, skating between picturesque and parodic. In one dinner scene, Paige's family establishes a warmly funny presence that shows Paige, too, is an odd (if beloved) duck. Coolidge, who "discovered" Nic Cage and Halle Berry, says she casts so that actors can "bring who they are" to the roles; one of the reasons she likes the studious Stiles in this part is that "some of it she didn't have to act."

The director continues: "I wanted [the dinner scene] to be nice and sloppy, so of course you have to rehearse it all--preparing the actors, passing the food, dealing with the props..."

So much work making it real.

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