For a while it was a bumpy affair. When she played the companion and lover of a terminally ill rich boy (Campbell Scott) in the mildewed Dying Young, her smiles came too far apart. (The ads might as well have said, “Julia Roberts Is Dying Young.”) A brave change of pace as the housemaid to Dr. Jekyll in Mary Reilly proved that accents weren’t her forte, and mousy self-effacement didn’t become her. In Something to Talk About, Kyra Sedgwick (as her character’s sister) upstaged her. It was Sedgwick in the flouncy skirts, and Sedgwick whose face looked broken in by life.
But the bumps didn’t last long. And, oh, what a joy it was to see her get her mojo back in My Best Friend’s Wedding, a romantic farce in which her character—a food critic with an aversion to commitment—sets out to sabotage the wedding of an ex-beau to a sparkling heiress (Cameron Diaz). The mission is selfish, and the character suffers one well-deserved humiliation after another; and in this bracing context, Roberts shows crack timing and a gift for dizzy slapstick. Daring to be unsympathetic, she seems more self-possessed onscreen, more conscious of her own power. Opposite then-boyfriend Benjamin Bratt, she’s shockingly effective as a Medusa-like seductress on Law & Order. As Hollywood superstar Anna Scott in Notting Hill, she has an affect that’s wary and daringly flat. She might be signaling something about her own runaway celebrity: that in the face of so much attention you can’t help but be overdefended. It’s a battle just to stay human.
Notting Hill was a breakthrough in other ways—a perfect demonstration of her mastery of the close-up. Her immobility is always pregnant. In response to Hugh Grant’s adorable abashment, her face is almost frozen—but there’s the slightest suggestion of movement under the surface that prepares you for her impulse to kiss him. Her defensive stillness is the perfect counterpoint to later scenes in which Anna lets down her guard. She sits at the kitchen table of commoner William Thacker (Grant) with no makeup and moves you with the utter simplicity of her acting.
Her close-ups don’t come off as the usual movie-star narcissism, because she’s almost always responding to someone else.
The thrill of Erin Brockovich was watching Roberts tackle a working-class woman again—seeing her stride into an office on those long legs and blast the hell out of anyone in her way. She had a teasing rapport with the groggy, thickset Albert Finney. In fact, for an object of beauty, Roberts works better with other actors (generally male) than almost any star I can think of. In Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride, she warms up Richard Gere, an actor whose Buddha-like self-containment can border on self-love, but who seems tickled when he can reflect Roberts’s light. In The Pelican Brief, she makes the sometimes-remote Denzel Washington almost fatherly. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, she manages to penetrate Rupert Everett’s languid self-regard. In a low-key, vulnerable, and overlooked turn in Closer, Roberts makes a cold-fish Jude Law look genuinely horny. Her close-ups don’t come off as the usual movie-star narcissism, because she’s almost always responding to someone else.
Given her utter control as an actress, it can take you aback to see Roberts on talk shows being, well, actressy. In her Academy Awards acceptance speech, she frankly declared that the rules didn’t apply to her, that she and she alone was entitled to override the (admittedly obnoxious) orchestral hook. She even threatened the conductor.
But magazine profiles in the past five years have focused on her attempts to come off as a “normal” person—knitting on the set, dispensing with airs, even making an effort to bond with lowly crew members. Her marriage (after broken engagements, many public affairs, and a short-lived union with Lyle Lovett) has given her twins and multiple covers of People. She has talked about giving up acting and being a mother. She has developed a healthy sense of humor about her movie stardom and seems to enjoy being teased by Steven Soderbergh. In Full Frontal, she delivers a devastating (but so subtle) portrait of an overly entitled star issuing orders to an assistant. And after her ill-at-ease turn in Ocean’s Eleven, she steals Ocean’s Twelve when her character is forced to impersonate . . . Julia Roberts. What a marvelous farcical turn it is—giddy to the point of hysteria but again, perfectly controlled. As an actress, Julia Roberts is still peaking.
So why Broadway—and why Richard Greenberg’s 1997 play Three Days of Rain, which isn’t remotely a star vehicle (or a particularly flashy piece of dramaturgy)? It seems that the package was put together by Roberts’s agency, CAA, which also boasts as clients Greenberg and Joe Mantello, the show’s director. But there’s clearly a large and very public agenda in Roberts’s choice of this relatively modest stage role: She’s doing the working-actress thing instead of the movie-star thing. She’s staying in one place, New York City, with her twins and husband. And if access to her is as tightly controlled by her handlers as ever, there’s a mob scene every night outside the stage-door alley, where her fans can get an eyeful. And no one will be able to keep from her any bad reviews.