Being Julia Roberts
This LA Cinderella story, with a hooker standing in for Cinders and an investment banker as her Prince Charming, was budgeted at approximately $14 million, and made more than $450 million worldwide – a fairytale that studio executives whispered to their girlfriends at bedtime.
Julia Roberts was twenty three years old then, and still best known as the sister of Eric, though she had already served notice of talent playing the grittiest of the waitresses in the low budget charmer Mystic Pizza, and even earned an Oscar nomination for her supporting performance as the diabetic Shelby (Sally Field’s daughter) in Steel Magnolias (1989), her third movie role of any substance.
So she was already on her way: Roberts was going to be a movie star, with or without Pretty Woman. Without Roberts, though, Pretty Woman probably would not have been a hit. Ringwald was a bigger star at the time, but she hadn’t transitioned from teen roles, and it’s hard to imagine her finding the levity that allows us to enjoy the fantasy and overlook its airbrushed quality. Roger Ebert put his finger on the trick in Roberts’ performance: “she gives the character an irrepressibly bouncy sense of humour and lets her spend the movie trying to repress it”. He added: “Actresses who can do that and look great can have whatever they want in Hollywood.”
The clincher in Pretty Woman is a little throwaway scene, an ad-lib, that occurs when Richard Gere’s character presents Vivian with a diamond necklace to wear for a formal dinner – and surprises her, snapping the jewelry box shut when she reaches out her hand. Her reaction is genuine and spontaneous, and the first time most of us had heard Roberts’ laugh at full throttle.
That laugh is infectious, unguarded, boisterous, and as broad as her smile – totally unexpected from one of Hollywood’s hot young things. The scene is just a blink of an eye really, it’s over in seconds, but it’s the moment when Roberts sealed the deal with movie fans – just as surely as Audrey Hepburn had, decades earlier in a very similar scene, when Gregory Peck withdrew his hand from the lion’s mouth in Roman Holiday, to her initial shock, dismay and finally, sweet relief.
Propelled straight to the top of the A-list, Roberts seemed unready, unsure of who she was or what she wanted to do. Her personal life was a mess – a succession of engagements she called off – and the movies failed to capitalize on that flash of exuberance she had shown. Instead she was terminally in love in Dying Young, toying with mortality again in Flatliners (what was her agent thinking, to entrust her to Joel Schumacher’s clumsy paws twice in as many years?). Tinkerbell in Spielberg’s Hook was a bit of a poisoned chalice, and a miserable experience by all accounts. And in Sleeping With The Enemy she was victimized and brutalized – a poor reward for her natural warmth and spirit.
The box office bombs stacked up: I Love Trouble, Pret-a-Porter, Mary Reilly… if not for those Pretty Woman grosses, Hollywood might have dropped her as fast as it had picked her up. She got married, to Lyle Lovett, in 1994 and divorced in 1996 (listen to Lovett’s album The Road to Ensenada for the inside dope on that short sad love affair.)
And then she did what she’d resisted, the long-awaited return to romantic comedy with My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Notting Hill and Runaway Bride (both 1999) and America fell in love with her again.
Why is her appeal so magnified by this one genre? In part because of her gifts as a comedienne, no doubt… But also because, at bottom, we want to share in a piece of that big smile.
Which isn’t to say that Roberts can’t be an effective actor too, but she is a movie star first, a personality a size or two larger than any single role she is ever likely to play – except perhaps for one, the role that won her that Oscar at the third time of asking: Erin Brockovich (2000). The brassy trailer park girl with the gumption and guts to take on corporate power, this was a part that permitted her to cut loose, to big up her sex appeal and show off her brains too.
Ten years on from that high water mark, Roberts gives the impression that she’s found the balance that her character in Eat Pray Love, is seeking. She has worked less, married again, mothered three children, and – save for cameo roles for her friends Clooney, Soderbergh and Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall – done precious little acting.
Taking it easy looks good on her. She’s vivacious and relaxed in Duplicity, fun (if miscast) in Charlie Wilson’s War, and effortlessly charismatic in Valentine’s Day. In Eat Pray Love for the first time in a long time she is the centre of attention throughout, and the main reason that the movie is as engaging as it is. Even after all these years, we still want Cinders to go to the ball and bring back the prince. I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time envisaging Molly Ringwald in the part.
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