In Defense of Julia Roberts
Everyone likes Julia Roberts, right? I mean most people. There’s always going to be someone out there who has a bone to pick with any celebrity. I’m not an especially big fan of Roberts, but pressed for a verdict I will give her a thumbs up. However, twenty years ago Roberts’ future as a movie star was uncertain. Following the massive success of Pretty Woman, she struggled to find the right projects. Her movies were often overshadowed by her tabloid romances.
Her career stabilized when she returned to romantic comedies with My Best Friend’s Wedding. That movie represented a comeback after her uncharacteristically glum performance in Mary Reilly. But prior to Roberts’ return to form, writer David Thomson saw potential in Roberts’ least glamorous role. Where others saw an actress in over her head, Thomson saw potential. While Movieline was counting Roberts out, Thompson was mounting a defense. In the April 1997 article, Thompson argued that Roberts’ future depended on her ability to abandon her mega-watt smile.
Twenty years later, Roberts has rebounded so successfully that many forget that she was ever out of favor. I would argue that she did so by doing the opposite of what Thompson suggested.
If only, somehow, Julia Roberts could be as complicated on-screen as the feelings she prompts in one who looks carefully at her career. If that were possible, she might become a real actress, instead of remaining just a great beauty who gives off an uncanny sense of being flawed or damaged, and needing to be rescued. The flirt’s secret message to her viewers is, after all, exactly that: Rescue me. But the serious actress must learn that that task is hers alone. And as a start, she has to take charge of her own smile.
Roberts’s landslide grin may be the most seductive signal on-screen today. The hurt or wariness in her eyes vanishes when the chasmlike mouth opens beneath them. It is hugely appealing, very sexy, wicked, sly, yet vulnerable and spontaneous, with every promise of an authentic, dark sense of humor. You can’t smile as fast as she does without getting the joke and being spiked by it. She likes to smile, and she has a honking, helpless laugh that’s louder than her leanness seems to deserve. You know she could make you laugh, even as you collapsed and fell into her mouth.
But so few of Roberts’s films get into the undergrowth–you have to wonder whether she is fully aware of it herself. Does she analyze herself? Or does she find that much gravity alien to being “natural” and “nice” and “candid”? These adjectives have to be set in quotes–she is an actress, not a kid actually offering herself to us. Indeed, in her interviews she is always fierce about hiding her private self away from public gaze. In which case, I think, she needs to study her own face more and acknowledge the helpless flirtation that has pushed her up to $12 million a picture, without making her an actress yet.
Or is she content just to be attractive? Does she want nothing more than to seduce, to be a free spirit, roaming over the world and among its men? But flirts are always the prisoners of whether or not they are noticed. If Roberts smothered her mouth, we might begin to think more about her eyes, in which there is some deep, nearly confident sense of being wronged, hounded or abused. We are ready for her eyes, and ready for her to trust them more.
If I had to give one reason for patience with Julia Roberts, it wouldn’t be Pretty Woman–by far her most complete and accomplished movie. It would be… Mary Reilly.You’re saying I’m crazy, I know. But have you actually seen the film? There were so many decisive warnings against it. Long before it was released (and there was a question as to whether it ever would be), there were reports of trouble on the set, of reshooting, and of several endings to choose from. The director–the shrewd and candid Stephen Frears–was heard to say it was all more than he could fathom. I myself only caught up with Mary Reilly on video.
Now, I don’t mean to be discovering a lost masterpiece. I’m not suggesting that it is anything other than a mess. But it has an atmosphere, a nightmarish sense of place and decor, and in Julia Roberts it finds (or digs up from the grave) a real actress, someone who has willed herself into a quite alien creation: a downtrodden, fearful, unattractive Irish servant girl who may be London’s best chance for keeping the peace between Jekyll and Hyde. This character moves through the story towards an intelligence and a level of class she’s beguiled by, while getting closer to the sexuality she dreads–that is what makes Mary Reilly worth watching.
My unexpected appreciation of this film took me back to a feeling I have had over the years–that if Julia Roberts would stop flirting with me, would stop giving me the sly eye for one moment, I might begin to like her.
On October 28, 1997, Roberts will be 30. She has more or less given over her twenties to being a phenomenon, a bold-type name in too many gossip sheets and a fairly reckless experimenter with success, celebrity and her own appeal. Why not? America is the land where gorgeous 20-year-olds are supposed to be able to live like that. She has made 20 movies, several of which have been built around her–and some of which seemed flimsy because of it. She is more arresting than ever, because her beauty is so structural that it may not reach its peak until she is 40 or so. Hers is the gravest face to arrive in movies in the last 10 years. No one as beautiful can look so sad. Those actresses who have been briefly hailed as her replacement–Julia Ormond or Sandra Bullock, say–will fade while Roberts merely hesitates. There is a firepower in Roberts that might have saved Sabrina or In Love and War. She fascinates enough people to command the highest salaries that actresses get today.
Yet most of Roberts’s recent films have flopped, or at least disappointed. On several occasions, she has avoided full commercial challenge by choosing not to dominate the films she’s appeared in. So turning 30 is not necessarily a serene passage for her. As I write, she has two films, My Best Friend’s Wedding and Conspiracy Theory (with Mel Gibson), scheduled to come out this summer. If at least one of them doesn’t do very well, there will be doubts beyond the doubts already there. More than anyone around now, Julia Roberts trained us to see just how much lovely fresh meat there is waiting that is only twentysomething and ready to smile forever.
Roberts made five pictures before she did Pretty Woman. She had bagged Liam Neeson romantically on Satisfaction; she had caught everyone’s eye in Mystic Pizza; and she had won a Best Supporting Actress nomination, as well as the affections of costar Dylan McDermott, with Steel Magnolias. It’s not uncommon for young actresses to get sexually involved with fellow actors–indeed, there are much older people who live lives of steady promiscuity “on location.” But just as audiences already wanted to touch and dream of Julia, so her volatile neediness– the flirt’s way–was evident. That early notoriety may have helped get her the role of Vivian in Pretty Woman.
It was surely aggravated by the film. The precarious way in which Vivian was both “nice” and “wild” at the same time seemed true of Julia, too. Of course, we shouldn’t always blame actresses as they struggle to become the characters who fulfill our dreams, which are sheer baloney.
Like most American romances, Pretty Woman plays with absurdity and a grotesque abandonment of taste or believability. It allowed any man to believe that this prodigious gash of a thick-lipped mouth was going to give him head, while encouraging any girl who had ever stooped with the prospect of standing erect. Older men (in which Hollywood has a vested interest) could indulge their fantasies of getting and educating hot young things as trophy wives. Cynics could chuckle about how a society hostess was just a whore with a wardrobe makeover. Elderly, rich, conservative people (big fans of Pretty Woman) could believe in the legend of unruly youth shaping up and behaving “decently.” Every man who suspects that the ideal wife is a princess advised by a hooker could feel vindicated.
Some said at the time that any one of a hundred young women would have made the daft fantasy work. I don’t think so. Julia was vital to the recipe (which suggests she believed it herself–for the parable about making it in L.A. holds that sort of belief to be the crucial thing). She has never been so free since with the sheer adjacency of ravage-me mouth and apprehensive eyes. The smile then was new (we have learned since how much of a stone wall it can be). Her own zest for being transformed justified the hoariest of narrative devices. And she had real chemistry with Richard Gere (no one then pondered over her ability to interact with him–normally his chemistry is with himself).
On Rodeo Drive, in her whore’s outfit, Julia loped and swayed like a 5’9″ horse when she walked; but once she had designer clothes on her back she became a thoroughbred “finished off” with a saddle. Seen first in a coarse blonde wig (and afraid of looking like Carol Channing), she re-emerges after her first sex with Gere with that pre-Raphaelite explosion of her own hair, dark blonde going on chestnut or red even, flying in all directions and re-forming her face. And as the picture trained her to wear good clothes and understand dinner cutlery, so the connoisseur in Gere could help us see her progress, and her problem–“When you’re not fidgeting, you look very beautiful–and very tall.” In the brown silk dress, the one with the white polka dots, she was an icon. And she wore hats– something not many actresses had really done since the ’50s–hats with brims as broad as her smile. No one could miss the young animal not long out of Smyrna, Georgia, who had got the eye of the world.
And so Roberts was Oscar-nominated again, for Best Actress. Again she didn’t win. In hindsight one has to conclude that it was only because Hollywood lost its nerve. The Academy gave the Oscar to Kathy Bates for Misery and told their fantasy-come-true to be patient. Seven years later, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman actually looks more skillful, more varied, more emotionally alive, and so exactly what the Industry wants that its discretion seems cowardly.
Pretty Woman‘s success came dear: some critics were in agony at the film’s duplicity, and eager to feel superior. Someone was going to be blamed. It wasn’t too hard to be persuaded that Julia Roberts was just lucky, pretty and a cunning-cute fidget who would always lack Audrey Hepburn’s stillness and purity. It’s obvious that Julia’s progress could never have been as serene as Vivian’s (though the rest of Vivian’s life doesn’t bear thinking about except as a scheme for disaster or black comedy). No wonder the young actress quickly stumbled against her lack of training, succumbed to every urging to make a killing while she could, swooned over the palpable infatuation of so many men. It takes a very strong spirit to negotiate American success–and that strength cannot smile as impulsively as Julia was famous for doing. Public cruelty relishes that rhythm of soaring rise and wipe-out. It is our way of being wise and worldly about the unfair advantages of girls like Julia Roberts.
What lamentable decisions the films that followed Pretty Woman were, though every one of them did better than it deserved because the public was still wild to see Julia. In Flatliners, she was one of the gang, willfully dowdy and nearly gaunt-looking, which showed she had many angles to offer the camera–all the more reason to regret that the film was so modest in ambition. Kiefer Sutherland was in the Flatliners gang, too, and Julia became engaged to him for a while, having a high old time, turning up balmily drunk with her fiance on a homemade videotape that one TV gossip show got hold of. Late in the day, the fancy marriage was off, and Julia had stolen away to Dublin with another guy, Jason Patric. She liked a lot of men. Some said she was predatory, susceptible to sudden, brief amours. She had a line for interviewers–feisty, mean language sometimes, yet always flirty, too– that said it was her business. So it was, and it was her responsibility to keep the confusion out of the press.
Sleeping With the Enemy was the closest Roberts came to a sensible commercial follow-up (and it proved to be a big hit), but its story’s potential went unrealized. For someone who was headstrong in her choices (she would refuse Sleepless in Seattle), Roberts was dangerously lacking in the patience and know-how it takes to develop scripts. The stories from the set of Sleeping With the Enemy had more to do with her insistence that in the scene where she is washed ashore at night, nearly naked, the crew should strip off to show solidarity with her. If only she’d battled over the script.
Playing the wife of a hugely successful financier who likes to beat her up at the slightest note of disorder in his own life, she came off as more passive than ever before, even masochistic. When she runs away, she puts on a Louise Brooks wig– there were stories that Roberts hankered to play the young Brooks (a model of self-destructive beauty)–but with her wide, fearful eyes and jittery nervous system she resembles no one so much as the young Mia Farrow. She had grown very thin. Vivian’s exuberance was gone. Roberts seemed darker, more disposed to be wounded. One could see how suited she might have been to the dainty sadism of Alfred Hitchcock.
Sleeping With the Enemy omitted things that would have made Roberts’s character more interesting, and might have helped Roberts herself become a stronger actress. Her Laura overcomes a fear of water and swimming to make her escape: those scenes could have fostered her power and energy, and prepared us for the film’s best moment, when she gets hold of her husband’s gun, faces him down, and telephones the police and tells them to come quickly because she’s just shot and killed an intruder. The film could have spent less time on Laura’s new relationship with the weak, “gentle” Kevin Anderson character, and given a more realistic sense of a woman who responds to abuse by growing stronger and more in charge. But that shift in emphasis would have exploited the deepening fatalism in Roberts’s face. And so the actress lost an opportunity to develop a potential that was clearly within her.
Julia Roberts in Dying Young seemed like perverse defiance of her box-office charm. And it proved a decent, dull picture in which the real interest centered on Campbell Scott, a natural and very clever actor, as opposed to someone struggling with her own personality.
By the age of 24, Roberts was rich, pampered and lauded, just as she was taxed, hounded and scolded.
When she got $2.5 million to be Tinkerbell in Steven Spielberg’s Hook, some commentators said it was an outrage to sense. After that film had been shot, Spielberg let it be known that he had found her difficult. There were rumors that she had a serious drug habit, in the way that all too many Americans of that age do. She denied everything, but still she was away from work for close to two years. She was “exhausted.” If drugs were part of the problem, she deserves credit for taking sensible action. But even without the rumors, that kind of absence would have been risky. In 1992, she was seen in nothing but the death-cell cameo for the movie within the movie in The Player. And by then she indeed had the look of a condemned woman. It was more than a year later, and following a sudden, inexplicable marriage to Lyle Lovett, that she came back as Darby Shaw, the Tulane law student in The Pelican Brief.
Roberts’s role in The Pelican Brief was oddly contradictory. Darby has the intelligence to fathom the complex plot that murders two Supreme Court justices; she even guesses how her insight has been passed on to America’s corrupt authorities and what peril that means for her. In a word, she’s brilliant. But she’s helpless, too. She needs Denzel Washington to save her, as she wanders from one kind of fairly obvious jeopardy to another. Finally, when the danger has passed and the head of the FBI asks her what she wants, this star law student never asks for a real job close to power. She just wants to get away from it all and pass into safe obscurity.
At the end of the movie, the journalist played by Washington is being interviewed. Where’s Darby Shaw, the heroine of it all, he’s asked. Can’t say, he answers with a coy grin. Isn’t she really just another Deep Throat, a convenient cover-all, too good to be true. Washington smiles demurely like the black actor who won at least a fraternal kiss and a hug from the white beauty. “She almost is,” he admits. And Julia, far away on some desert isle of the mind, but watching it all on TV, gives us that flirty, wistful smile of hers as if to say, “Well, maybe I am.”
The Pelican Brief was a hit again–it was, after all, John Grisham material under the expert care of director Alan J. Pakula. But the coy ending that kept Darby immature was an odd reversal of the film Pakula had made many years before with Jane Fonda. Klute, a near masterpiece, had a very grownup notion of what can happen to Pretty Woman out in the harsh world. (Moreover, times have changed, but Jane Fonda is a reasonable working model for Julia Roberts.) Even if The Pelican Brief stabilized Roberts’s career it was a lost opportunity dramatically. It also showed limitations in Roberts’s acting: she couldn’t deliver the essential reaction shots for a woman in crisis. As Darby sees her lover (played by Sam Shepard) blown up, Roberts plays her as fussy and dithery, when the scene requires a sense of traumatic outrage, of having been pierced.
Someone seems to have persuaded Roberts that she risked sacrificing charm by playing characters who use their minds, as opposed to what the genre calls “feminine wiles.” Only that would explain I Love Trouble, Ready to Wear and Something to Talk About. In the first, she and Nick Nolte were rival Chicago journalists pursuing a story that turned on the efficacy of cow hormone treatments. It would be flattery to call the picture routine, and hostile to remind anyone that it had thoughts of being a new version of His Girl Friday.
There was little rapport with Nolte (he made her seem like a teenager), and Julia was left to look goofy and give off that increasingly nostalgic smile. If the actress keeps grinning at lines and situations that aren’t funny, then she begins to emerge as foolish, or deaf. Something to Talk About was a more prestigious event, backed by three powerful Hollywood women: Goldie Hawn (who surely knows about smiling), Paula Weinstein and Anthea Sylbert–and written by Callie Khouri as a follow-up to Thelma & Louise. It was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who had worked wonders with the cast of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. With those credentials, it was an honorable failure. The story plays as an uneasy attempt to defend a wronged wife that gives up courage and novelty and settles for sentimental reunion. As for Roberts, in key scenes where she and Dennis Quaid were meant to “get loose,” she was badly exposed by an actor whose great talent is for looseness. She looks so tense, so awkward that one has to assume the script once had bigger plans that included the idea that her character was sexually frigid.
Over the course of many movies, Roberts seemed to shut down on her own sensuality. Maybe Pretty Woman and its reputation embarrassed her. Or maybe this was the result of her own feeling of the gulf between how you look and how you are. She resisted nude scenes, prompting talk of body doubles being used here and there. With reason, she seemed afraid of sex in Sleeping With the Enemy. In The Pelican Brief, she seemed nervous even about being touched. More and more, her brown eyes seemed filled with foreboding, until at last someone cast her not just as a victim, but as a neurotic, haunted woman.
I long to know what happened on Mary Reilly. How did the film get its star to abandon her smile, and, for the most part, her hair? Mary looks like a ghost–the whole film feels set in a morgue. Her hair is gingerish, severe around a face that has known a life of poverty and hopelessness. Indeed, this is a face from Dachau; Rodeo Drive is not even a memory. Did Roberts and Malkovich flirt–they both have that reputation–and then did one or both of them go very cold, leaving the film frozen? Yet in the photography alone, you know that someone on that film loved Roberts and understood the risk she was taking. This is a face where only a paperlike mask of skin separates us from the skull.
Mary Reilly wants to win the understanding of Dr. Jekyll–indeed she wants to be the doctor’s wife, and there is great interest in the way she gradually becomes the dominant servant in the house. Jekyll is surely interested, but Mary is so shy and injured he offers her his Hyde instead. We can never tell whether Mary knows that these two men are the same root, or whether they are her fantasy and her terror coming to life. The action is thus both outward and inward, leading to a stunning moment in the bedroom when, rejected by Mary, Hyde sniffs the air and says he was sure she was going to “stay awhile.” The shock on Roberts’s face at that remark may be the best thing she has ever done. If only the rest of the film deserved her better. Mary Reilly may be a shambles, but it shows that Roberts can act– and better still, that she wants to.
Of course, what does a tender actress feel if her best work is written off in advance? There’s a way of seeing what Roberts did next as resting up and taking stock. As the romantic interest in Michael Collins, she seemed much at ease with Neeson again, and content to be squabbled over by him and Aidan Quinn. She looks gorgeous in the period clothes and hats, her eyes shine in the dark and she sings a song very prettily. No matter how many carped at her Irish accent, she plunged ahead with confidence. And she is funny, wry and down-to-earth when she gets the chance. Still, her role was perched on a shelf: her Kitty Kiernan was not herself involved in the struggle. As many pointed out, what the film needed was time to cover Collins’s trip to London and the negotiations that led to fatal compromise. Dull stuff, perhaps, and not as box office as Julia lying on a bed and murmuring to Liam.
After Michael Collins, Roberts turned up in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. Working with Woody has done a lot for many actresses, from Mia Farrow to Mira Sorvino. Here Roberts had a chance to play a screwball beauty along the lines of Carole Lombard. But she didn’t catch that edge, and she was overshadowed by Goldie Hawn, someone who has learned so much over the years.
What Julia Roberts needs now is the courage and the intelligence to know her own way ahead. No kind of fond reliance on men will carry her through. It is at the age of 30 or so that the great American actresses begin to face it–that they are on their own.
David Thomson is the author of Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, published by Knopf.