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The Close-Up Is Her Voodoo

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From left: The goddess-actress in Pretty Woman, Closer, Runaway Bride, and Erin Brockovich.  

The movie stars who began onstage move naturally from one medium to the other. That means the majority of Brits, who have a rich tradition of repertory. One of our greatest living actors, Vanessa Redgrave, can almost achieve the same degree of intimacy with a theater audience that she can with a movie camera—high praise. Maybe the greatest film actor of all, Marlon Brando, reportedly had the stature and emotional intensity to grab a theater audience, and his disdain for rehearsal kept his performances raw. But he was too capricious, too undisciplined, too lazy to go back to Broadway once his star had risen.

Onstage, Dustin Hoffman’s relish for transforming himself is even more delightful than onscreen. Christopher Walken began his career as a brilliant hoofer, and it’s thrilling to see him in Shakespeare or Chekhov because you can tell he never says a line the same way twice.

In the seventies, Meryl Streep, a drama student at Yale, was the most exciting stage actress I’d ever seen. When she played a Salvation Army worker in Happy End on Broadway, her machine-gun patter, combined with her dexterous juggling of props, made me gasp at her virtuosity, and a pratfall-somersault she did as Dunyasha in Andrei Serban’s Lincoln Center production of The Cherry Orchard stopped the show. But in her flashy early film performances, her stage training got in her way. She became the queen of exotic accents, and the kind of busyness that was so dazzling onstage made her more remote onscreen than, say, Jessica Lange or Debra Winger. She wasn’t what Method actors call “in the moment.” Streep has given sensational performances in movies, but when she effectively gave up the stage, we lost a major theatrical presence. (What a Hedda she’d have made!)

And then there are the Broadway stars who’ve never captured the public’s imagination onscreen. Kevin Kline is always a treat in the theater, but he’s almost too restless for the kinds of dramas he usually does. (His best work, his Oscar-winning turn in A Fish Called Wanda, was over-the-top farce.) The superb Cherry Jones doesn’t have star presence on film. It might be that she disappears too deeply into her roles, whereas real movie stars bring their parts into themselves, adapting them to their outsize personalities. No matter how different their characters, you can always say, “There’s Bogie! There’s Jack!” Or, “There’s Julia!”

Then there are the Broadway stars, like Nathan Lane, who are all surface onscreen. In close-up, there’s nothing to see.

The close-up is Julia Roberts’s voodoo.

Critics and elite cineastes discuss Julia Roberts with a certain amount of condescension. No one claims she’s not a true movie star, but is she much of an actress? Her industry colleagues gave her an Oscar for Erin Brockovich, but Laura Linney snagged all the critics’ prizes that year for You Can Count On Me. To critics, Julia was just being, you know, Julia—only with a potty mouth and in short-short dresses and a push-up bra.

On the other hand, Roberts has inspired in this reviewer a fair amount of gush. During my tenure as film critic of Slate, readers made sport of my frequent application of the word “thoroughbred.” I stand by it. It’s not that she’s an icon of glamour. This is a woman who was once married in bare feet, and part of her charm is that she doesn’t move especially gracefully. It’s not that her features are refined, either. They’re outsize, even freaky: that friendly, unpatrician nose with its bumpy slope and large nostrils; that smile that’s wider than most people’s heads. (As Morris Day said to the wrong actress in Purple Rain, “Your lips would make a lollipop too happy.”) It’s that somehow those clown-princess features coalesce into one of the best faces ever captured on the big screen. She’s plainly gorgeous in still photos, but it’s in motion that the real magic happens. She can entrance you with the tiniest shifts in expression. And does she know it!

Early in her career, Roberts had a reputation for being edgy, hypersensitive, and on sets a huge pain in the ass. She needed constant stroking, rather like a skittish, um, thoroughbred. Her performances were needy, too. The most highly paid actress in film history made her name as heartbreakingly vulnerable working-class girls—like the hotcha Portuguese-American waitress in shorty dresses (displaying a cushy derriere that hasn’t looked so generous since) in her breakthrough, Mystic Pizza, a feel-good salt- (and-oregano-) of-the-earth female-bonding picture.

It was, of course, in Pretty Woman that Roberts bonded permanently with the mass audience, as—it’s weird to write this now about a $20 million–a–picture screen goddess—a cheap hooker. Before she’s rescued by (and, morally speaking, rescues) her hostile-takeover Prince Charming (Richard Gere), she’s cruelly snubbed by the hoity-toity saleswomen of Rodeo Drive. But she blooms when the luxuries flow her way. Who can forget when she gleefully wriggles into one little couture number after another? Or her whoop of joy in a big sudsy tub—followed by a delirious slide under the bubbles? Even those of us who bridled at the movie’s retro sexual politics were smitten.


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