Once upon a time, in a distant land known as Wisconsin, Paige Morgan (Julia Stiles), the daughter of local dairy farmer, had dreams too big for the small town that contained her. It’s the perfect fairytale setup. Like Belle from Beauty and the Beast or Jasmine from Aladdin, Paige wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, to travel to a dazzling place she never knew. A dedicated pre-med student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has a detailed life plan: get good grades, go to medical school at Johns Hopkins University, join Doctors Without Borders, and save the world. Falling in love with beautiful and blonde heir to the Danish crown masquerading as a “call me Eddie” rich boy did not figure into those goals. But that’s the thing with fairytales — they’re awfully inconsiderate about a woman’s non-romantic to-do list.
“Small-town commoner falls in love with royalty” is a longstanding trope in Hollywood, from Roman Holiday’s fictional Italian love affair, to the very real one between Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco, which ended in a glamorous wedding. Usually, the story ends with the woman giving up her career to embrace the duties of royal life. Sixty-two years after Kelly became Princess of Monaco, Meghan Markle married Prince Harry in a televised ceremony that captured the attention of 1.9 billion viewers. In this traditional narrative, finding the handsome prince often comes at the expense of your own ambitions. Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, has given up acting — not to mention her lifestyle blog— to focus on the charitable causes she and Harry support. And though she has said she doesn’t regret the decision, or see it as a “sacrifice,” it doesn’t feel like it was entirely her choice to make.
The Prince & Me, however, is a notable exception to that rule. Directed by trailblazing filmmaker Martha Coolidge, it became a cult favorite among my friends and I precisely because -- unlike Belle, Jasmine, or even Frozen’s more recent and woke Queen Elsa — Paige got to have her love story and a big life too. Not only did she end up pursuing her life goals, her prince, turned King Edvard of Denmark (Luke Mably, a forgotten hottie of the era), meets her halfway. In a refreshing twist, he says he will wait for her to do all the things she wants to do — as long as it takes, no strings attached.
Still, when The Prince & Me opened in theaters in summer 2004, it was met with scathing reviews by critics, who were dismissive of the teenage audience it was aimed at. At Variety, Scott Foundas wrote: “Totally cliched and nearly two hours long, pic takes forever to get to hopelessly obvious places — which even the supposedly indiscriminate teen girl target audience is likely to detect.” Roger Ebert declared it “an efficient, sweet, sometimes charming PG-rated version of the story, ideal for girls of a certain age but perhaps not for everybody else.” Writing for the New York Times, Stephen Holden called the movie “a cream puff with a marshmallow filling,” adding that the film’s ultimate conflict feels “fake.”
“The final question it asks is whether a college girl as good and nice as Paige can stand to be the queen of Denmark,” Holden wrote. “Or must she renounce her love and her jewels to study medicine and work for Doctors Without Borders? How noble can one farm girl be?”
Critics like The Seattle Times’ Moira Macdonald, and Manohla Dargis, then at the L.A. Times, didn’t denigrate teen girls, but did express their disappointment that the movie didn’t go further — despite its progressive premise, they argued the film felt too chaste, and too bland. But for many young women who saw the film, Paige’s ending seemed just right: She was pursuing her career ambitions, while balancing her romantic and family life.
The Prince & Me has been on my mind a lot in the past few years. Released in 2004, it was strangely both exactly of its time, yet also miles ahead of it. Everything from Paige’s bootcut jeans to Edvard’s tiny Eurotrash sunglasses screams early aughts, as does the you-go-girl-ethos and its overwhelmingly white cast. Yet, there’s something that still feels subversive about a woman getting what she’s worked hard for, without having to sacrifice her relationship in the process. Seeing Stiles, a talented, versatile actor who has been sadly overlooked in past years before making her comeback in Hustlers, in command of such an arc is an extra reminder of how far we still have to go.
Fifteen years later, the format of these stories remain closer to the classic trope than the fresh direction carved out by The Prince & Me. Case-in-point: Netflix’s A Christmas Prince, a movie that looked at the plot of The Prince & Me, and screeched “this needs more Yuletide cheer!”
But where that film and its ensuing franchise (the latest installment hits Netflix on December 5) feel designed for a very particular kind of low-stakes Netflix holiday binge, The Prince & Me, as a studio film directed by a woman (Coolidge), had more riding on it. (Note: The Prince & Me also gave rise to multiple sequels, none of which starred Julia Stiles, and all of which are bad.) Its release came on the heels of award-winning films like Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, and Patty Jenkins’ Monster, all of which seemed to indicate that we were turning a corner in representation for women behind the camera.
But Coolidge’s struggle to get the film made, as well as her career trajectory in its aftermath, is representative of the uphill battle that still plagues women directors today. It would still take five more years for a woman — The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow — to finally take home the coveted Academy Award for Best Director, a momentous event we’re still waiting to repeat nearly a decade later.
“You can't even sustain a woman director's career in the United States anymore,” the director said in a 2004 interview with Film Freaks Central on the eve of the movie’s release. “Looking back, women directors at the reins of features five years ago have had to do television just to survive, myself included. It took a year just to get The Prince & Me going, two more years doing other jobs to stay afloat.”
“There's a re-focus on the new realities of our economy, a lot of shuffling going around that I'm afraid is going to just continue to push us out and out,” Coolidge added. “It's a hard time to hang on and survive, and that's not a joke.”
It’s telling that that same quote could easily have come from an interview in 2019. But we’re lucky she fought to make this film, which, 15 years later, still slaps. Unlike many of its contemporaries (ahem, Charlie’s Angels), The Prince & Me doesn’t even require you to suspend your 2019 values in order to enjoy it. Yes, the overall romance is tame, but damn if that makeout session in the stacks isn’t steamy. And bonus, it doesn’t feature a made-up country with incomprehensible rules of governance that will leave you with an essay’s worth of questions after it’s over. Also, Paige seems to actually be good at her chosen profession, sparing us moments like Amber’s “I have to dig deeper!” serious Journalism notes from A Christmas Prince.
Mostly though, the film’s continued appeal comes down to Stiles, whose deadpan, earthy performance elevates it beyond its cliched counterparts. Sure, Paige’s monologues about her life goals would probably make her a tedious friend to be around IRL, but in Stiles’ hands, she also feels like a real person, which goes a long way to making us root for her. It’s that no-nonsense everygirl vibe that had made her such a defining actor of the early aughts in films like 10 Things I Hate About You, Save The Last Dance, and my personal favorite, Mona Lisa Smile (I don’t need to hear opinions on this). But those same qualities also contributed to her disappearance from the mainstream as she started to age out of ingenue roles. Stiles was ahead of her time, a performer who played complex teens and then couldn't find the same kind of adult roles as she got older.
She recently revealed as much to The Daily Beast, in an interview about her role as reporter based on New York Magazine’s Jessica Pressler in Hustlers. “I think a few years ago my frustration was feeling like nobody knew what to do with me,” she said. “You know, I had had some success in my twenties and now I’m in a different place in my life and I didn’t really fit anywhere.”
The same could be said for this movie, slammed for unbelievable fantasy that would lull young women into believing that they too might marry a handsome prince. If anything, history has shown that that’s not the most unlikely aspect of this story — and not just in the real world. Even the fictional Amber was demoted to palace blogger, a job pretty far removed from her dreams of hard-hitting investigative journalism. Finding the prince is only half the battle. The real fairytale is convincing him, and the world, that you deserve more.