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The Close-Up Is Her Voodoo

What makes Julia Roberts the ultimate movie star—and how is that different from being an actress? Reflections on a Hollywood career and a Broadway debut.

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And there she was onstage, in her literal Broadway debut, the very first preview of Three Days of Rain, and she was wearing a trench coat she wouldn’t take off and holding a big valise she wouldn’t put down. Her hair was pulled tightly back. She was a stiff. It might have been nerves, but it might have also been—to give her the benefit of the doubt—that the woman she was playing was a stiff. Even so, she couldn’t find a way to animate her character’s unease. She just stood there. She was far livelier in the second act, a flashback in which she played the mother of her first-act character, described as “Zelda Fitzgerald’s less stable sister.” She wasn’t that charismatically crazy, but she could move freely and wave her hands and smoke and flirt and drawl like the Georgia peach she once was. And she could smile, which always helps. All the same, one of the happiest moments of the night came when she dropped a fake tomato and it bounced—as plastic tomatoes will—and she broke character and had the giggles for 20 or 30 seconds. Another was the curtain call with the lights all the way up, when she came downstage with a huge grin, having made it through her first public performance. It was the first time I thought, “It’s Julia Roberts!”

It’s patently unfair to pass judgment publicly on an actor in a first preview—although at these prices . . . (Tickets were going for $100 a pop, and mine cost $250 through a broker.) But it’s fair to say that Julia Roberts did not seem like a natural onstage. When her co-star Bradley Cooper made his entrance, the difference hit you at once. Even though this is also his Broadway debut, his gestures were expansive—he physicalized everything. You could read him from way back in my seat in Row R, whereas you could only have read Roberts with a pair of opera glasses.

Of course, a lot of people had brought opera glasses.

Every season, theatrically unseasoned American movie stars ignore the advice of agents and managers and accountants and, touchingly, expose themselves in “legit” theater. In interviews, they say they have a hunger to play a part from beginning to end, instead of doing one little shot at a time—take after take after take—over four to six weeks, with most scenes out of order. Some film stars have an itch to make direct contact with the people. In The Season, William Goldman’s portrait of a year (1967–68) on Broadway, George C. Scott explained that he always went back to the theater because he was tired of directors, editors, and producers making a mess of his movies. Onstage, he said, there aren’t “fourteen fucking neurotics between you and the audience.”

But the stage is a different arena, with different physical laws. In A Streetcar Named Desire, a cunning hambone like Alec Baldwin outshines Jessica Lange, one of the most electrifying film actresses of her generation. Denzel Washington—a great seducer of the camera, one of those sleekly self-centered creatures who can reshape time and space—looks almost ordinary. Washington’s 2005 turn as Brutus in Julius Caesar was admirably ungimmicky, without a trace of ham. His entrance was confident and yet cagey, taking the measure of the space as he let us take the measure of him. The problems began when he opened his mouth. He gabbled his speeches in a voice that came too much from his head, and ran out of breath at the ends of lines. He seized on individual words as if they might rescue him from the rushing tide of verse. In the end, he didn’t drown—merely shrank.

In the underrated, bracingly colloquial production of Hedda Gabler that just ended a sold-out run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Cate Blanchett seemed temperamentally unsuited to the role (which could be taken as a compliment). True, it was refreshing to see a Hedda who wasn’t the usual glowering gorgon, and there were moments when Blanchett’s flibbertigibbet antics were fascinating: This Hedda might have been a shrewd actress playing Nora in the first half of A Doll’s House, which made the supporting characters seem less cretinously oblivious than usual. What was missing from Blanchett’s performance was weight—and with it the demonic radiance that lifts Ibsen’s drama out of the drawing room and into the realm of myth.

Most movie stars have some Method training, but the “classic” Method—which focuses on psychological self-plumbing—has generated a lot more revelatory film than stage acting. In theater, there’s no substitute for the boot camp of drama schools like Juilliard and Yale—classes in dance (all kinds), movement, clowning, speech, Shakespearean speech, and singing, along with endless scene work and a chance to tackle the theater’s meatiest roles. When stage actors refer to their bodies as their “instruments,” they’re not just being pretentious. They must be finely tuned.


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