Thursday, 12 July 2007

Montage Revokes Your License! This Week: Julia Roberts, by Emma J Lennox

With a smile to launch a thousand romantic comedies, Julia Roberts' career seems hinged on her natural beauty and her 'girl next door' charms. And this is exactly the reason I can't stand her over- sized grinning, maniacal, celluloid presence. Readers may suspect the green ink of writer's envy, but trust me the issues go beyond skin deep; in fact it goes to the heart of the Hollywood star system.

In the late eighties Hollywood was obsessed with female -bonding, tear -duct- moisteners such as Mystic Pizza and Steel Magnolias. Roberts was the perfect everygirl in search of womanhood, usually stumbling into heartbreak or an early grave. Either way millions of snotty noses buried themselves into soggy hankies. But it was in Garry Marshall's Pretty Woman (1990) that Roberts became lead actress stock. Only in the most twisted, shady, drug fuelled offices of sunny L.A would a rags to riches story of a prostitute become a saccharine romance. There was Richard Gere with a dozen red roses as Roy Orbison crooned “pretty woman, walking down the street...” (and for $50, getting in your car). Suddenly businessmen everywhere were potential 'knights in shining armour' with a special get out clause: 'I thought I could save her.' Thankfully realities of this situation were revealed by Hugh Grant's divine attempt at a Hollywood remake five years later.

Roberts had progressed from girl to woman and now she was not only pretty but sassy, loud and a force to be reckoned with. A spate of romance films interspersed with thrillers would secure Roberts with the highest price tag in Hollywood, reportedly $20 million per film at her most popular. Her star had ascended, she had the looks, the bravado and the right PR, but something was amiss behind those vacuous, shining eyes; the talent. Roberts needed a 'serious' film and nothing said cloying gravitas like a British directed period piece with unreasonable accent requirements. In stepped Stephen Frears with a retelling of a classic tale in his film Mary Reilly (1996). Only in the most deluded, cloudy and doomed British production offices, would anyone believe that the character of a house maid was more interesting than Jekyll and/or Hyde. Whilst the narrative of Robert Louis Stevenson's infamous split personality unfolded in the adjacent room, Mary Reilly was scrubbing the kitchen floor. Roberts approached the role with a pursed mouth, dull eyes and a shaky Irish lilt. Charisma couldn't carry this one and Roberts found herself completely out of her depths. Critics and audiences hated it alike but this didn't inconvenience Roberts. She was on The Letterman Show talking about lipstick and dating Mathew Perry from Friends.

It's not a crime to lack acting abilities but it isn't something you should parade in front of millions either. It's best to try and keep it covered up, like an ingrown toe nail, or a patch of mould on the ceiling, or your insane uncle Thaddeus. But the Hollywood locomotive is an unstoppable machine, fuelled by the power of image and ego. The camera, we were told, loves Julia Roberts, and so it lingered, investigating every pore of the woman's face. The bigger that smile got the smaller the characters became. In one pulp romance after another from My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) to The Runaway Bride (1999) Roberts was playing Julia Roberts; the Hollywood star. Nowhere was this more painfully obvious than the bile inducing, industry love fest, Notting Hill (1999). Roberts played Anna Scott, the fictional 'world's most famous actress' who falls in love with a humble British book shop owner, Hugh Grant (the world's most self- effacing womaniser). It was a thinly veiled love letter to Hollywood on how we adore to adore the stars. Roberts wasn't given the role for her acting, not even for her looks, the part belonged to Roberts because of her status, and that was something no character actress could provide.

In 2000 Roberts finally got credit where credit wasn't due for portraying the real life ball breaker Erin Brockovich. It was clearly Oscar winning faire, from the evil corporations to the struggling single parent, and not even its TV movie quality could detract from Robert's moment in the spotlight at the Academy Awards. There she stood, Oscar clamped in hand, gushing platitudes about “sisterhood” and unleashing terrifying bouts of laughter. If this was the girl next door, you would tell her politely but firmly to leave, before changing the locks. Oscar had it charms but really it was affiliation with Steven Soderbergh that informed her next career move; Roberts got cool. Out went twinkly eyed Gere and in came Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and John Cusack, to name a few. More importantly Roberts' roles decreased from scene swallowing automaton to ensemble player; a much more shapely fit. It's a hard task disliking a person through their entire career, and inevitably something will break through the defences. For me it was film number thirty six, written by Patrick Marber and directed by Mike Nichols in 2004: Closer. Julia Roberts completely failed to annoy me in her role as philandering photographer, Anna, though there was much to dislike about her. For the first time Roberts was allowed to be unlikeable, which had a conversely appealing effect.

What Closer highlighted was the wealth of bland roles Roberts has taken in her career. Partly Hollywood is to blame; they love the fairy tales of their own manufactured myths and Roberts was placed on a pedestal as a star attraction of Tinsel Town. Yet she seems a rather shallow idol when placed next to former silver screen heavy weights; Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, Vivien Leigh, Audrey Hepburn, Marylin Monroe, to name a small handful. It's a sad truth that actresses have to work extra hard to avoid being objectified as solely 'beautiful' and it seems Julia Roberts is only just finding this out. It is, however, too little too late as this pretty woman's license has been revoked.

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