Flanked by handlers, assistants, and Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts strides into the Galleria D’Arte di Roma. She looks beautiful, nervous, and extremely pregnant. Only this isn’t Julia Roberts—at least not exactly. This is Julia Roberts playing Tess Ocean, wife of master thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney) in Ocean’s Twelve. But it’s also Julia Roberts playing Tess Ocean playing Julia Roberts; after Danny’s plan to swipe a priceless Fabergé egg goes south, it’s up to Tess to finish the job, by posing as the one celebrity she uncannily resembles.
Upon landing in Italy, the few remaining members of Danny’s gang try to get Julia Roberts into character to play Julia Roberts. They toss out a bunch of factoids, all of them accurate: Roberts was born in 1967 and raised in Smyrna, Georgia. Her middle name is Fiona, and she’s an avid knitter. (It helps pass the time on movie sets.) Willis intrudes on the conversation, having mistaken Tess for the real Roberts, and drops even more true-to-life details about Roberts’ ranch in Taos; her publicist, Marcy Engelman; her nickname among her close friends. (“Jules.”) Tess is still unsure she can properly play the most famous actress in the world, but Danny’s protégé Linus (Matt Damon) gives her some advice: “You don’t even have to talk. Give them a big smile, wave at the cameras… You are an image to these people. You’re like an object. Nobody actually knows you.”
Linus, it turns out, is not only a superb pickpocket and con artist, he’s also an astute cultural critic. Roberts’ performance as Tess in Ocean’s Twelve is her career in microcosm; no matter who she plays, she’s often also playing “Julia Roberts,” the “Pretty Woman” who became America’s sweetheart. Over the course of a career spanning 25 years and more than 35 films, Roberts has rarely strayed far from the onscreen persona that made her one of the biggest movie stars in history—that of a simple girl of limited means and unlimited heart, pulling herself up by her bootstraps. (Thigh-high hooker boots have straps, right?) She’s added some wrinkles to the formula over the years, and she’s become more adventurous in supporting roles. But when Julia Roberts stars in a movie, it’s often “Julia Roberts”—an image, an object, and an infectious smile.
Before she was “Julia Roberts,” though, she was Julia Roberts, born on October 28, 1967 to a family of actors. Her parents, Walter and Betty Lou Roberts, met while working in the theater, and later founded Atlanta’s Actors And Writers Workshop. Her brother Eric preceded her to Hollywood, and after graduating from high school, Julia followed; her first onscreen role was playing Eric’s sister in Blood Red, a forgettable Western thriller about a war between immigrant land owners (led by Giancarlo Giannini as the Roberts’ father) and the greedy railroad baron (Dennis Hopper) who wants to muscle them out of their homes. Roberts only has a few minutes of screen time and a couple of lines, but she makes the most of them. Within seconds of her first appearance onscreen, she unleashes that one-of-a-kind smile: big and wide, with more teeth than a denture factory.
Not yet of legal drinking age, Roberts was still a raw, inexperienced talent, but that smile leapt off the screen. Casting agents quickly began to take notice of her undeniable screen presence, and started putting her in films as the most vivacious member of female ensembles. After Blood Red (shot in the fall of 1986, but unreleased for almost three years), she appeared in the Aaron Spelling production Satisfaction as the free-spirited bassist of a teenage rock group that spends the summer after high-school graduation playing at a beach bar. Next came Mystic Pizza, a charming coming-of-age picture (set, like Satisfaction, right after the characters’ high-school graduation) about the young staff of a Connecticut pizza parlor. Roberts plays Daisy, the promiscuous member of a trio of girls that includes her sister Kat (Annabeth Gish), who’s waiting to go to Yale and weighing a relationship with the handsome older man she babysits for, and her pal Jojo (Lili Taylor), who isn’t sure she’s ready to marry her boyfriend Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio).
Like many Roberts characters to come, Daisy is a sensual working-class young woman who catches the eye of a restrained, well-to-do bachelor, in this case a blue-blood named Charles Gordon Windsor, Jr. (Adam Storke). After their romance gets more serious, Charles brings Daisy home to meet his family (including a young Matt Damon, in his first screen role); after they thoughtlessly insult her Portuguese heritage, Charles storms out, leading to the first real showcase scene of Roberts’ career as she tells him off for embarrassing her. It was also the first time Roberts got onscreen revenge against someone who sold her short. That soon became a signature as well.
By the end of Mystic Pizza, Daisy and Kat have seized control of their futures and dumped their unworthy boyfriends. That vibe of female empowerment continued through Steel Magnolias, another ensemble picture about the unbreakable bonds of female friendship. This time, Roberts is the only relative newcomer in an all-star cast, but she holds her own opposite heavyweights like Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, and Olympia Dukakis. She plays Shelby, the newly married daughter of M’Lynn (Field). Shelby is a diabetic, which becomes an issue when she ignores her doctor’s orders and decides to have a baby. Despite warnings that the pregnancy could kill her, Shelby gives birth to a healthy baby boy—but later passes away after the disease takes its toll.
Steel Magnolias is something of an aberration in Roberts’ early career; she didn’t play a mother again for six years, and didn’t die onscreen again for more than a decade. But while it didn’t showcase a great deal of range, the part did prove Roberts could stand toe-to-toe with Oscar winners, and steal scenes with her effervescent charm. By the time Roberts picked up her first Oscar nomination, she was a rising star ready for her first lead role: a bleak romance called 3000, about a wealthy john who spends a week with a drug-addled prostitute. By the time the movie made it to theaters, though, 3000 had been renamed, reconceived, and transformed from a dark drama to a sunny comic fairy tale. And by the time Pretty Woman became the third-highest grossing movie of 1990 (behind only Ghost and Home Alone), Julia Roberts had transformed into “Julia Roberts.”
|2.5||Sleeping With The Enemy||1991|
As Roberts herself described it on Inside The Actors Studio, Pretty Woman was originally “a really dark and depressing, horrible, terrible story about two horrible people,” but after Disney bought J.F. Lawton’s script for director Garry Marshall, a series of rewrites lightened its tone and characters, turning an exposé about streetwalkers into a modern Cinderella story. Roberts’ Vivian Ward is working Hollywood Boulevard when Richard Gere’s Edward Lewis, a corporate raider from out of town, drives by looking for directions. She offers to get him to his hotel for a price, then talks him into paying for a night of her company. The next morning, Edward offers her $3,000 (hence the original title) to spend the entire week with him.
They soon fall in love, and after a few minor obstacles—most notably, Jason Alexander as Edward’s distrusting lawyer—the couple live happily (and hourly-billing-free) ever after. The story is ludicrous, and the film’s message about the destructive nature of greed is completely undermined by scene after scene of wealth-porn, most famously Roberts’ Rodeo Drive shopping montage set to the sounds of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” None of that mattered. The two leads had genuine chemistry together, and Roberts’ unique blend of sexuality and sweetness instantly endeared her to viewers.
From that point on, the template of a “Julia Roberts movie” was set. Over and over, Roberts played the lovable fish out of water. The archetypal Roberts heroine is the unrefined, uneducated woman suddenly thrust into a world she doesn’t understand. Her outer vulnerability masks inner reserves of strength; while the people around her undervalue her intelligence, her reservoirs of resolve and street smarts let her turn the tables. Julia Roberts is the bad girl made good, the lump of coal that conceals the glittering diamond.
It took a while for that persona to fully emerge, though, as Hollywood struggled to find the best use of her talents. After Flatliners, another ensemble film—this one about a bunch of ambitious med students experimenting with near-death experiences—she attempted a sort of nightmarish thematic sequel to Pretty Woman called Sleeping With The Enemy. The film begins with Roberts’ Laura married to an Edward-esque investment banker (Patrick Bergin), but their idyllic home hides his controlling behavior and vicious abuse. The fish-out-of-water component commences once Laura fakes her own death and heads to Iowa to start a new life. There, she falls in love with a college professor (Kevin Anderson) and awkwardly attempts to re-create the Pretty Woman dressing montage in a theater-company costume closet. Roberts effectively conveys both physical helplessness and emotional determination, but the cartoonish husband character—and particularly Bergin’s hammy performance—turn what should be a disturbing domestic thriller into a campy, upmarket Lifetime movie.
Roberts’ next project, Dying Young, was an even more blatant attempt to re-create the Pretty Woman formula. Once again, Roberts is the impoverished girl in over her head, as she heals a prosperous but emotionally broken man with her patience and love. Desperate for a job, she accepts a position as a nurse to a man suffering from leukemia (Campbell Scott), who, it eventually becomes clear, is basically using cancer as a pickup line. Scott’s character is a selfish, exploitative jerk, but the movie tries to cast him as a victim, and his manipulative relationship with Roberts as a grand, tragic romance, which simply doesn’t work.
Tragedy of another sort ensued when Roberts partnered with Steven Spielberg for Hook, a botched reimagining of the Peter Pan story about an adult Peter (Robin Williams) who must return to Neverland after Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps his children. Roberts’ portion of the plot, as Tinker Bell, is yet another riff on the Pretty Woman formula—Hook’s Peter works, like Gere’s Edward, as a merciless investor who buys companies just to liquidate them. Tinker Bell is the idealistic, selfless woman who must rehabilitate the venal capitalist. It even allows Tink a Pretty Woman-esque makeover, when Roberts ditches her short hair and frumpy sack dresses for a beautiful ball-gown and fancy ’do during Peter’s “homecoming party.”
Hook plays off Roberts’ developing star text in some fascinating ways, but Roberts reportedly didn’t enjoy the experience (which she spent most of by herself on a green-screen stage), and that, coupled with professional burnout and constant media scrutiny of her love life (she nearly married her Flatliners co-star Kiefer Sutherland, then called off the wedding), pushed her to the breaking point. After finishing Hook, she decided to take some time off. She didn’t appear in another movie for two years.
|2.5||The Pelican Brief||1993|
|2.5||I Love Trouble||1994|
|1.5||Ready To Wear||1994|
|2||Something To Talk About||1995|
|4||Everyone Says I Love You||1996|
Is Julia Roberts a great actress? No one would debate that she has been, and continues to be, a great movie star, but the limits of her abilities as a thespian have been a frequent source of debate. When Roberts returned from her self-imposed exile, she seemed determined to prove her onscreen range, with a variety of roles in an assortment of genres. She started with a pair of newspaper thrillers, one serious and one comic. In the John Grisham adaptation The Pelican Brief, she plays a law student who goes on the run after she writes a legal brief speculating about the motives behind a pair of seemingly unconnected political assassinations. She brings her evidence to Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington), a reporter for a Washington newspaper, and together, they uncover a massive conspiracy—too massive a conspiracy, frankly, as the film wears out its welcome long before its distended 140-minute runtime is over.
Once again, Roberts plays an out-of-her-league novice who summons unexpected courage and resourcefulness in the face of powerful enemies. She did much the same in I Love Trouble, where she was cast as an inexperienced young reporter partnered with a cynical columnist (Nick Nolte). Together, they investigate a conspiracy that begins with a train wreck and follows a trail of breadcrumbs to a prescient subplot about GMO food, all while trading His Girl Friday-esque screwball barbs.
Notorious at the time for its troubled production (and for the easy puns its title sparked), I Love Trouble is actually better than its reputation—at least until the last act, when director Charles Shyer and producer Nancy Meyers abandon their comedic instincts for an underwhelming, generic action-movie finale. But Nolte and Roberts’ oil-and-water relationship translates well to the screen, and Eugene Levy makes a hilarious cameo as a Las Vegas wedding-chapel officiant.
After Robert Altman’s Ready To Wear, which intertwined love and deadlines a third time, and Something To Talk About, which revived Sleeping With The Enemy’s theme of mistreated wives in a more comic vein, Roberts stretched herself further with Mary Reilly, Stephen Frears’ revisionist take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, as told from the perspective of the doctor’s housekeeper, played by Roberts. It represented a number of firsts for the star: her first starring role in a period film, her first horror film, and her first terrible accent, an Irish lilt she attempts and abandons almost as often as John Malkovich’s Jekyll turns into Hyde. In a bid for seriousness (and possible award consideration) she dulled down her chic image with a drab wardrobe, no makeup, and bizarrely orange eyebrows. This was a true departure.
Or that’s what it was designed to look like, anyway. Beneath the admittedly unusual surface, Mary Reilly was still a standard Roberts heroine of superficial meekness (she’s frequently bossed around by the rest of Jekyll’s staff, who don’t approve of her attitude) and hidden fortitude. Frears soaks the movie in gothic atmosphere, but the script—which was rewritten two dozen times, according to James Spada’s Roberts biography Julia: Her Life—is a mess. Promoted as Roberts’ potential Oscar movie, Mary Reilly instead became her most notorious flop. The movie barely recouped half her $10 million salary at the box office. Roberts fared better in a key supporting role in Michael Collins, Neil Jordan’s high-energy biopic about the controversial Irish revolutionary. Playing Collins’ lover, and the acute angle of a love triangle between him and his right-hand man (Aidan Quinn) she pines and mourns movingly. Even her accent is better.
Still, for all her attempts to branch out and prove her bonafides as a legitimate actor, Roberts’ best movie of the mid-’90s was the one that most exploited her image as “Julia Roberts,” beguiling movie star. In Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, Roberts’ Von is an unhappily married woman in therapy; Natasha Lyonne’s character overhears Von’s secret confessions to her psychiatrist, and passes them along to her divorced father Joe (Allen), who then uses that information to trick Von into believing he’s the perfect man. (“It’s like he knows what I’m thinking!” Von raves to her shrink, because he does.)
The scheme works; Joe tricks Von into beginning an affair with him. But after a while, Von decides to go back to her husband, in spite of Joe’s seeming clairvoyance. In their breakup scene, she tells him, “I have seen my dream come true, and my fantasy no longer tortures me. I can live with it.” The gulf between fantasy and reality is a common theme in Allen’s movies, from Manhattan to The Purple Rose Of Cairo, and it’s underscored here by occasional musical numbers, where the entire cast (Roberts included) burst into song at moments of great joy or sadness. Joe believes a relationship with a dream woman like Von will fulfill his needs, but it doesn’t. And who better to play a dream woman than Julia Roberts? The jury was still out on the full scope of Roberts’ acting abilities, but as a symbol, she could be extremely effective.
Brilliant casting or not, Everyone Says I Love You was another flop for Roberts in a string of them; since she’d returned from her hiatus, only The Pelican Brief made more than $100 million at the domestic box office. Her attempts to expand her repertoire were met with indifference from audiences. When people paid to see Julia Roberts, they wanted “Julia Roberts.” So she gave it to them—and sparked the most creatively and financially successful period of her career.
|4||My Best Friend’s Wedding||1997|
Every great star has a signature move. John Travolta dances. Brad Pitt is always eating something onscreen. Tom Cruise runs really fast. Julia Roberts’ signature move is called “the cryle,” where she fights back tears through a pained smile. The cryle has a few variations, but Roberts most commonly uses it in emotional scenes to show characters desperately trying to hold things together while on the verge of a breakdown. Her voice trembles and her eyes begin to water, but she refuses to drop that toothy grin. The cryle sums up Roberts’ onscreen identity—her unique mixture of strength and vulnerability—in one look.
Most Julia Roberts movies includes at least one good cryle. Her biggest hits, like 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding, often have several. Roberts plays Julianne Potter, a restaurant critic devastated by the news that the best friend she’s carried a torch for since college (Dermot Mulroney) has gotten engaged to another woman (Cameron Diaz). She heads to the wedding hoping to break the couple apart and reclaim her man, and when scheming and manipulation don’t work, Julianne finally decides to take the direct approach and tell Mulroney’s Michael how she really feels. Aaaaaand, cue the cryle:
After the experimentation of the mid-’90s, My Best Friend’s Wedding was something of a return to Roberts’ comfort zone, a rom-com about a working-class outsider among affluent elites. The major wrinkle the film brought to her increasingly rigid formula was to cast her as both the protagonist of the film and its villain, a combination that could only work with an actor of Roberts’ innate likability. The film plays on audiences’ instinct to sympathize with her (how could you resist that cryle?) no matter how cruelly she behaves toward her supposed best friend. It helps that, unlike so many of Roberts’ post-Pretty Woman vehicles, My Best Friend’s Wedding actually boasts a strong script (written by Ronald Bass). It’s the rare romantic comedy that is actually (and even melancholically) romantic and repeatedly funny—particularly any time Rupert Everett shows up as Julianne’s gay pal George, including in one extended sequence, where he pretends to be her fiancé.
My Best Friend’s Wedding was the start of Roberts’ golden age, which lasted through the end of the decade. Retreating to familiar territory made her an even bigger star than before. After her one serious (and unsuccessful) attempt at an out-and-out action film—Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson—she found more ample opportunities to cryle in Stepmom, where her fashionable photographer character is a fish out of water in the world of middle-class domesticity, after her Isabel falls for an older man (Ed Harris) with two young children. As Isabel learns to act like a mother, she butts heads with Harris’ ex-wife, Jackie (Susan Sarandon), who has strong opinions on parenting. The two women are bitter rivals—until one is struck with a potentially fatal illness. It’s a predictable melodrama with a wealthy screenwriter’s absurd conception of middle-class life—Isabel loses her job and doesn’t care; Harris supports her and his kids and his ex-wife—but Roberts and Sarandon, longtime friends, give good weepie in their scenes together, particularly in this moment when the two talk (and Roberts cryles) about a future only one of them will live to see. SPOILERS:
The standard Roberts character is a girl-next-door type, an image that was increasingly at odds with Roberts’ status as one of the most recognizable, influential stars on the planet. (In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named her the eighth most powerful person—and the second most powerful actor, behind Tom Hanks—in Hollywood.) She finally started to address her fame in Notting Hill, an appealing romantic comedy about the unlikely relationship between Roberts’ Anna Scott, a Roberts-esque movie star, and Hugh Grant’s Will Thacker, the owner of a humble travel bookstore in London. They meet in his shop, then again on the street, where he spills orange juice all over her outfit, and love begins to bloom.
Roberts denied that she was playing a version of herself, and rejected any claim that Notting Hill was an autobiographical movie. But she could undoubtedly relate to the story of a woman hounded by tabloids who are obsessed with every development of her love life. Her most famous line in the movie (if not her entire filmography)—“I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her”—is about rejecting her celebrity to reassert to her fans that she’s still, at heart, just a regular gal from Smyrna, Georgia. And of course, she gets a good cryle in, too:
Roberts also nodded at her tabloid reputation (where she has, through the years, been linked to men as disparate as Liam Neeson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Matthew Perry, and a “Venetian gondolier”) in Runaway Bride, a spiritual sequel to Pretty Woman that reunited her with Gere and Marshall as a commitment-phobic woman who has left a series of devastated fiancés at the altar. Gere plays a newspaper columnist who becomes obsessed with her story, and then with her, as the two inevitably fall in love. The two leads hadn’t lost their spark in the nine years since there last pairing, but Marshall might have; Runaway Bride’s comedy is painfully underwritten, and Gere’s quest to systematically prove his target’s “crimes” takes the film in cruel directions. The relatively pleasant ending does little to remove the sour aftertaste of a story that often feels like a screed against the same independent women who presumably made up a large portion of its target audience.
Runaway Bride bears almost none of the charm or magic of Pretty Woman, but audiences couldn’t resist the chance to watch Gere and Roberts fall in love one more time, and the film was an enormous hit, a triumph of star power over material. Roberts found a better fit for her gifts in Erin Brockovich—a true-life David-vs.-Goliath story about a law-firm office worker who discovers a massive cover-up at a utility company. Roberts plays the title character, a desperate single mother whose co-workers dismiss her because of her lack of education, abrasive personality, and scandalous wardrobe. But when she stumbles onto a man-made health crisis in the Southern California town of Hinkley, she becomes a tireless crusader for justice—and a hero.
Many critics hailed Erin Brockovich as a departure from Roberts’ standard fare of rom-com and melodramas, a narrative that didn’t hurt her successful Oscar campaign. In truth, though, Erin Brockovich was yet another cleverly disguised Pretty Woman clone. Though apparently taken from the details of the real Brockovich’s life, the character’s arc, style, and attitude make her yet another seemingly dumb blue-collar girl who shows up her supposed betters. Her revealing outfits and profane mouth make her a target of scorn from her better-educated co-workers and rivals. In scene after scene, Roberts is underestimated—and then gets her revenge:
Powered by Roberts’ magnetic performance, Erin Brockovich was another surprise blockbuster, grossing more than $250 million worldwide. There was a certain symmetry to its success; like her character, Roberts was often pigeonholed as little more than a pretty face. It was as if her real life had become a Julia Roberts movie.
|2.5||Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind||2002|
|2.5||Mona Lisa Smile||2003|
Roberts’ Oscar seemed to reawaken her more adventurous instincts. So did her collaboration with Steven Soderbergh, who understood her strengths and weaknesses better than most of her directors, and cast her in three more movies over the next four years. In the blockbuster remake of the Rat Pack movie Ocean’s Eleven, Roberts’ Tess Ocean is the crucial supporting character, the secret reason behind Danny Ocean’s (George Clooney) plan to rob three Las Vegas casinos in a single night. Her key scene is a tête-à-tête with Clooney, where they trade caustic quips in the soft, dim light of a Bellagio restaurant. It’s old-school Hollywood glamour done up with a modern sheen.
Tess Ocean is an atypical Roberts character. She’s cold and stern, and almost never unleashes the full Julia Roberts smile. It’s Soderbergh’s subtle way of communicating that, despite her claims to the contrary, she’s truly not happy with Andy Garcia’s vindictive casino boss. Dressed in glittering gold for the big heist finale, Roberts looks stunning, good enough to believe that a man might go to prison just to win her heart.
Roberts teased her image as an actress again in Soderbergh’s unsatisfying, largely incoherent experiment Full Frontal, then reteamed with Clooney as the femme fatale in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, his overly showy directorial debut about the life of Gong Show creator Chuck Barris. As Barris tells it, he spent much of his life secretly working for the CIA; Roberts plays one of his European contacts, and later, his adversary. It’s another fairly minor role in a string of them, but it’s the rare opportunity to see Roberts play both a villain and a death scene—she collapses after Barris (played by Sam Rockwell) poisons her with a toxic drink she intended for him. She dies in front of a book with “NO LOVE” scrawled on the inside cover. If nothing else, it’s a striking image from the woman who came to represent the triumph of love to so many moviegoers.
The most classically Julia Roberts movie of the early 2000s is Mona Lisa Smile, another story of an émigré in a world that doesn’t accept her because of her unimpressive pedigree. Her Katherine Ann Watson is a forward-thinking bohemian feminist who takes a job teaching art history at stuffy Wellesley College in the 1950s. Her lack of a husband and her affection for modern art marks her as a subversive interloper, and draws the ire of the more conservative students. From there, things play out as a female variation on Dead Poets Society; Katherine’s bold ideas about education and women’s rights cost her her job—but win the love and admiration of her charges.
For a woman who became famous playing a prostitute, Roberts has maintained a surprisingly asexual onscreen persona; she makes love stories, but rarely does love scenes. In that regard, Closer is one of the most unusual—and certainly the frankest—performances she’s ever given, as she discusses her sexual habits and desires with shocking candor. She doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the explicitness of her dialogue—and once again, her character, an American living in London, is a fish out of water—but she does deliver perhaps the single most sexually charged kiss of her career, in a scene with Jude Law.
Then came Ocean’s Twelve, with Roberts once again playing Tess as well as “Julia Roberts”—who, like the real Roberts at the time, is pregnant with her first children. Robert gave birth to twins Hazel and Finn in November 2004; after taking several more years off to raise them, she returned as a different “Julia Roberts” than before.
|1.5||The Ant Bully||2006|
|3||Charlie Wilson’s War||2007|
|2||Fireflies In The Garden||2008|
When Roberts reappeared in 2006, she had come a long way from the woman America fell in love with 15 years earlier. For one thing, she looked like an arthropod—first in The Ant Bully, then in Charlotte’s Web. More importantly, she’d traded in her glossy image for that of a mother. Roberts had played parents before, starting all the way back in 1989’s Steel Magnolias, but as she embraced real-life maternity, she seemed to grow more interested in exploring the concept onscreen. She particularly gravitated to offbeat mothering figures who take in orphans and misfits, and nurture them into reaching their full potential.
Both of Roberts’ mid-2000s voice roles fit that mold. The Ant Bully’s CGI nurse ant Hova becomes the guardian of Lucas, an obnoxious human child who’s shrunken down by a magic potion, and must learn how to act like an ant. And the spider Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web helps a runty pig named Wilbur find a home, and guides him as a friend, mentor, and protector. Having married and started a family in real life, it was almost as if “Julia Roberts”—the misunderstood outsider—had found her own place in the world, and now delighted in helping others find theirs.
Roberts played a more traditional mother in the little-seen 2008 indie Fireflies In The Garden, which premièred at the Berlin Film Festival, but sat on a shelf for three years before finally receiving a limited release in 2011. The fact that a movie starring Julia Roberts, Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Emily Watson went unreleased for three years reveals pretty much everything viewers need to know about its quality; it’s a tedious cookie-cutter drama about a family at war with itself. Most of Roberts’ scenes take place in flashbacks, as Reynolds’ depressed writer recalls his unhappy childhood with his abusive father (Dafoe). But in a handful of scenes set in the present, Roberts wears a thick layer of prosthetic old-lady makeup, the first—and, to date, only—time she’d altered her appearance so severely.
Roberts was getting older, but she could still pull off a lusty thriller when she wanted to (and when the material was good enough). Her best role in this period came in 2008’s Duplicity, a twisty comedic con movie from writer-director Tony Gilroy, about a pair of former spies (and former lovers) forced to work together as part of an elaborate scheme to steal a valuable invention. For Roberts, it was an opportunity to make an Ocean’s Eleven where she got to have the fun instead of playing the scold. Working again with Clive Owen, she has feisty, sexy chemistry—although, once again, no love scenes. Duplicity was a surprising flop, making only $40 million against a $60 million budget, but at least Roberts ended the decade on a creative high note. As of this writing, it’s her last truly good starring role.
|1.5||Eat Pray Love||2010|
|2||August: Osage County||2013|
|3.5||The Normal Heart||2014|
What does someone who’s based an entire career on an image of youthful exuberance do when that youth begins to fade? Judging by the films she’s made so far this decade, that’s a question Julia Roberts is still trying to answer—both offscreen and on, as her search for a purpose in middle age has become an increasingly important part of the roles she chooses. In 2010’s Eat Pray Love, for example, she’s a writer so dissatisfied with her home life that she takes a year off from work to tour the world. She gorges on pasta in Italy, reflects at an Indian temple, and romances Javier Bardem in Bali, in that order. The three different locales provide three times the fish-out-of-water opportunities—and what feels like three times the length of a normal movie. This plotless, self-satisfied slog isn’t the most excruciating movie Julia Roberts has ever made, only because she briefly appeared in Garry Marshall’s noxious ensemble “comedy” Valentine’s Day earlier the same year.
Roberts plays a similarly lost mid-life crisis sufferer in Larry Crowne, Tom Hanks’ Great Recession dramedy about a man who loses his job as a retail manager, goes to community college, and gets a new outlook on life. (And a really cool wallet chain.) In a role that writes its own criticism, Roberts plays a disinterested professor named Mercy who only shows up to work for the paycheck. Mercy already has a porn-obsessed husband (Bryan Cranston), but he’s barely an obstacle to Larry and Mercy’s love; like Eat Pray Love, Larry Crowne is a movie of exceedingly low stakes, with zero conflict or tension. For much of it, Roberts seems just as miserable as her character. Viewers can relate.
At the very least, she looks like she’s having a lot more fun in Mirror, Mirror, a stylish reimagining of Snow White where she plays the Wicked Queen. Using her signature laugh and smile for evil, she pokes more fun at her image and explores, albeit obliquely, the terror of being an aging actress in Hollywood, where there’s always someone younger and prettier waiting to move up. Though the movie is mostly an action-comedy (and a few of Roberts’ scenes are tremendously funny), her desperate attempts to use the Magic Mirror (played, in a pointed and clever bit of stunt casting, by Roberts without the Queen’s opulent gowns and makeup) to preserve her looks carry an surprising amount of pathos.
Roberts followed one of her most glamorous roles with two of her least. In 2013’s domestic drama August: Osage County, her hair is flecked with gray, and John Wells’ magic-hour close-ups reveal the fine lines etched into her luminous face. In spring 2014’s HBO telefilm The Normal Heart, she plays a polio-infected, wheelchair-bound doctor who treats the early victims of the AIDS epidemic. Dr. Brookner is another iconoclastic mother figure who treats, counsels, and nurtures her patients, and, in her big scene, berates the National Institute Of Health for ignoring the plight of thousands of gay men.
The performances—which are mature and emotional, and not at all about voluminous hair or an irresistible laugh—suggest Roberts may be turning a corner as she heads deeper into middle age. She will almost certainly have to. At 46, she’s still a beautiful woman, but she isn’t the innocent ingenue of Pretty Woman; in a few more years, she’ll have to play grandmothers instead of mothers. Meanwhile, studios continue to move further away from the kinds of films that made her a star—mid-budget romances and melodramas for adults—and focuses more and more intensely on massive action tentpoles and franchises for kids and teens. In all her years in Hollywood, Roberts has only made a handful of action movies, and exactly one sequel (Ocean’s Twelve). In a cruelly ironic twist, Julia Roberts—or at least, “Julia Roberts”—is now a fish out of water in modern Hollywood. How her image evolves in the years ahead remains to be seen.
Roberts’ own uncertainty about her future is eloquently put to screen in the final scene of August: Osage County. After one more battle with her vindictive, controlling mother (Meryl Streep), Roberts’ character leaves her family home for the last time. She drives away, then pulls over to the side of the road, overcome with emotion. She looks back at where she’s come from, then turns to consider the path ahead. She walks back to her truck, and pulls onto the highway. Just before Wells rolls the end credits, there’s one more shot of Roberts inside the car. Driving toward an unknown destination, she begins to cry—and smile.