Opinion: Anne Hathaway – sober, sexually powerful and no longer pleasing others

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

It feels weird to begin a complimentary piece about Anne Hathaway by saying I didn’t especially enjoy her latest movie, but here goes.

“The Idea of You” isn’t bad, it’s just not my thing. Hathaway’s character, Solène Marchand, is turning 40. She’s “built a community around art and inclusiveness,” as a guest at her birthday party helpfully notes. She has perfect hair. She tosses aside unread books without a hint of guilt. She accidentally breaks into pop star Hayes Campbell’s (Nicholas Galitzine) trailer to use the bathroom, but within seconds of meeting her, he’s smitten. Evidently, I can’t stand watching good things happen to good people.

Fortunately, Hathaway doesn’t need me to like her movies. She is an Oscar-winning actor who, her shaky Yorkshire accent in 2011’s “One Day” aside, has delivered near-flawless performances for more than two decades. Her portrayal of a woman with bipolar disorder in the Amazon series “Modern Love” is exquisite. She’s consistently delightful in interviews and breathtaking on red carpets. She’s moving the cultural needle on sobriety and women’s sexual power. She has nothing left to prove.

Yet, as she recently explained to the New York Times, she’s spent far too much of her life trying to make other people happy.

Picking up on a close-to-the-bone line from “The Idea of You,” the Times interviewer asked Hathaway whether she, like Solène, is a “people pleaser.” “I think I’m a former people pleaser,” she replied. A few exchanges later, she added: “When I find the old instincts rising, I just tell myself, you are not going to die stressed.”

It’s sound advice. For much of Hathaway’s career, she’s been dogged by snarky, irritatingly vague accusations of being unlikeable that bear little relation to whatever she’s actually doing. The response to her 2013 Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for “Les Miserables” was vicious. Critics derided her as an over-eager “theatre kid,” and New York Magazine pondered, “Why do women hate Anne Hathaway?” The term “Hathahate” was coined to mark the moment. Even now, a Google search for “hate Anne Hathaway” produces more than five million hits.

Thousands of words could be written (and have been written) on why someone at worst innocuous and at best phenomenally impressive has invoked such loathing. It’s not just Hathaway. A similar version of the same fate has befallen many famous women (worth noting: no one’s stressing about how “likeable” Jake Gyllenhaal or Leonardo DiCaprio is). Jennifer Lawrence was hilarious and relatable, until she tripped over in public too many times. Jameela Jamil was a feminist hero, until she was deemed too gorgeous to authentically campaign for less photoshopping in magazines. The public is Goldilocks, braced to whine if it senses “too much” of a good thing. As Hathaway has learned, there’s little point in bowing to its whims.

This is where reality dovetails with “The Idea of You.” There’s an almost unbearably vulnerable scene in which Solène admits that when she discovered her now ex-husband had an affair, she attempted to ameliorate the situation by suggesting they forget it. Solène’s husband didn’t want to, and they broke up. It’s agonizing, but the message is spot-on. People pleasing is like throwing darts while wearing a blindfold. You cannot know what will make another person happy, and even if you guess correctly, it’s almost certainly not within your power to make it so.

The movie is set years after that betrayal, and Solène, like Hathaway, has outgrown her habit of people pleasing. But that’s only half the trick. Once you cease to define yourself according to other people’s expectations, you’re left with a ton of vacant space. It’s difficult to build a sense of self when you’re unused to listening to your own voice, and paying too much attention to other people’s will almost certainly prove an unhelpful distraction. Which is why Hathaway should totally ignore what I’m about to say.

Hathaway is so luminously beautiful in “The Idea of You” that, for me at least, it undermines the entire film. The movie’s central conceit is that love is powerful enough to bridge the generational, wealth and rizz divides. As the audience, our job is to suspend disbelief at the wildly improbable notion of a suburban mom capturing a young superstar’s heart. The fantasy is the point.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing less transgressive than two extraordinarily attractive people falling for each other. As soon as they met on-screen I thought, “sure,” and the fraught back-and-forth that followed felt like a waste of time. How could two people who look like that not end up together? The film offers many understandable reasons why Solène’s confidence could be damaged by her divorce, and why she might find it hard to accept Hayes’ attraction to her. But I couldn’t buy any of them, because she’s that hot. And I, apparently, am that shallow.

As embarrassing as that admission is, it at least illustrates the tension that prompted so much head-scratching over Hathaway during the 2010s. So much time and ink was wasted over the puzzle of what made her so annoying, when she was never the issue. She was a good actor doing good work, and the public’s collective inability to cope was entirely out of her control. Likewise, my inability to see past Solène’s beauty to what might be going on in her brain has nothing to do with the quality of Hathaway’s acting. It’s a me problem. Her people pleasing, like anyone’s, was always a waste of time.

A meme I encountered recently comes to mind: “Oh so you’re a people pleaser? Name three people who are pleased with you.”

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