It seems that we, America, have elected a new Sweetheart to rule over us from our movie screens, in the person of Anne Hathaway, who recently signed a contract agreeing to appear in every movie made between now and 2024. It seems as good a time as any to reflect on the reign of the outgoing America’s Sweetheart: Julia Roberts.
Hollywood bloggers started eulogizing Ms. Roberts’ tenure as Most Bankable Actress when Larry Crowne both tanked at the box office and got indifferent reviews from the critics. Those eulogies were a bit late, if you ask me; I’d argue that her appeal has been steadily slipping for at least 10 years, probably longer. Moreover, I think she could have had a much better (if not necessarily bigger) career.
Despite having managed her public image extraordinarily well, keeping herself out of the tabloids (at least since her initial flurry of broken engagements with costars in the early ’90s) and generally understanding how to play the role of Movie Star as well as anyone ever has, she seems to fundamentally misunderstand what kind of Movie Star we elected her to be, and that disconnect has been eroding her appeal almost since she hit the public eye.
As everyone knows, Julia’s rise to the top of the Hollywood food chain was unusually quick and (seemingly) easy: Her brother, Eric Roberts, had clawed his way to success in the early 80s, playing a psycho killer in Star 80 and going way, way over the top as the second lead in The Pope of Greenwich Village; Julia followed his lead and in no time started getting work in little movies like Mystic Pizza and the Justine Bateman girl-band vehicle Satisfaction and even as a mob moll on a late episode of Miami Vice.
Everything changed, of course, when she got the career-making role of a beautiful, intelligent, charming prostitute that doesn’t do drugs — rather a large ‘buy’ even by Hollywood standards — on the strength of a) her Oscar-nominated supporting role in Steel Magnolias, and b) the fact that Molly Ringwald, Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daryl Hannah, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Karen Allen all turned it down.
Pretty Woman made Julia Roberts a superstar overnight, and it’s easy to see why: she comes across as the greatest date in the world, streetwise, fearless, conversant in auto repair and torque ratios, and equally beguiling in trashy hookerwear and an elegant evening gown. Most of all, she’s quick to laugh her big, bright laugh and even quicker with what is now the most gushed-over smile in the history of Hollywood.
Personally, I’ve always found her a little weird-looking — maybe because she looks so much like her brother — but there’s no denying her charm in this movie. She’s easy, breezy, and loose, perfecting the good-time gal persona she’d been developing in her previous roles, and America fell head-over-heels for her. Everybody zeroes in on her smile as the source of her appeal, but I’d argue that it’s all in her eyes: dark brown, unusually expressive, and (in her best roles) alive with intelligence and a sense of play and mischief. When we like Julia Roberts, we like her because she seems like fun, and nowhere is this more evident than in Pretty Woman. Unfortunately, being dubbed America’s Sweetheart apparently wasn’t good enough for her, so she decided to set her jaw, work on her scowl, and become a Dead Serious Actress.
Look at her IMDb page and her next five movies after Pretty Woman: Flatliners, where she plays a scientist; Sleeping With The Enemy, an abusive-husband melodrama in the mold of Tori Spelling’s immortal Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?; Dying Young, another melodrama where she falls in love with a terminal cancer patient; Hook, one of the few irredeemably bad Spielberg movies, where she played Tinkerbell to Robin Williams’ Peter Pan; and The Pelican Brief, a John Grisham thriller where she plays a precocious law student on the run. Apart from Hook, there’s not a lick of good humor to be found in any of these movies — she seems determined to let us know that she’s tough, filled with empathy, and above all, very, very, smart. There’s nothing wrong with being (or appearing) smart, of course — but it’s at the expense of her natural charm.
After this initial gold rush, she settles in for a very forgettable stretch of movies, none of which I remember seeing (and I see everything), and a few of which I don’t remember at all: I Love Trouble, Something To Talk About, Mary Reilly, Michael Collins, and Everyone Says I Love You, in which she undertook her greatest acting challenge to date: feigning sexual attraction to a 61-year-old Woody Allen.
Eight years and ten movies after being crowned America’s Sweetheart, she recovers her mojo in 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding, a very clever rom-com that turns her into the villain of the piece (despite being the main character). The movie’s not perfect, but her manic performance as a woman desperately scheming to stop her male best friend’s wedding and marry him herself reminded everybody why Julia Roberts was at the top of the heap in the first place — because she’s pretty, she’s charming, she radiates intelligence, and she has a good grasp of comedy.
After that, she settled into a whole bunch of boring-looking movies that I didn’t see — Stepmom, Notting Hill, Runaway Bride — before winning an Oscar for Erin Brockovich, which succeeds because, again, it plays to her natural strengths, allowing her to infuse some humor and mischief into the role of a smart, tough, crafty legal aide. But once again, she seems to have missed that message, and ran off another bunch of movies I didn’t see. The few that I did see — Ocean’s Eleven, Closer, Duplicity — give the impression that she was taking some kind of medication to keep her stiff and rigid and humorless. She seems to only have two modes of expression: scowling and smirking. Did she decide at some point that she only had so many smiles left in her, and that she should ration them out carefully?
Ocean’s Eleven is a perfect example of what I’m talking about: this movie is a trifle, a cotton-candy puff of nothing (entirely by design, I should add), and everyone in its huge, all-star cast seems determined to have fun with it — except for Julia Roberts. Because you don’t win Oscars by being charming, likable, and fun, and it appears that winning an Oscar was always enormously important to Julia Roberts.
For proof of that, one need look no further than her 2001 Oscar acceptance speech, where more than any other winner I can think of, she relishes every moment on that stage and defends it from those who would usher her off in the interest of keeping the show on schedule like a lion defends her cubs. Interestingly, this speech was the last time we saw the persona that both got her to where she is, and won her that Oscar; she shed it again just as quickly as she did after Pretty Woman.
It might seem insane, or impossible, but I think Julia Roberts could have been a much bigger star and had a much better career if she had understood her own appeal. (And I feel I should be clar that I really don’t care about Julia Roberts one way or the other; these are just the observations of someone who pays a little too much attention to the movies.)
When I was working at a startup cable network in another life, a longtime actor who also worked there (because he had not made a big splash as an actor) once told a roomful of us that the most important thing an actor can do if he’s going to get anywhere is to “know what kind of dog you are.” (I don’t know why he was giving us this advice, because there was no on-camera talent in the room.) If you are a chihuahua, don’t try to get a job as a guard dog, and if you’re a bulldog, you don’t belong at the racetrack. Her enormous charm and charisma has peeked through at key moments, and carried her to the top, but just imagine the damage Julia Roberts could have done if she had known what kind of dog she is.
IMDb says she’s currently shooting the role of the Evil Queen in Snow White, a fitting end to her reign as America’s Sweetheart: she’ll be playing a cold, humorless, stiff villain. Oddly enough I think Anne Hathaway would probably be better in the part; she’d probably at least inject a little humor into it.