The Close-Up Is Her voodoo

Photo: Henry Leutwyler

A nd 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!”

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Which brings us back to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where I returned exactly two weeks after that first preview. Let’s be clear: This isn’t a review. That would, again, be unfair (even though my ticket was once more $250). It would also be stepping on the feet of this magazine’s excellent theater critic, who will deliver his review next week (the play opens this Wednesday). But I can report on the changes.

In the first scene, her hair is down. Big improvement! She charges into the space; she’s brisker, more animated. She still carries that damn shoulder bag and spends too much time with her arms crossed. But her features are readable, at least in Row M, and on certain lines, she gestures with her head—something she’d never do onscreen. She’s learning. Gradually, though, she recedes: The cruel fact is that in Act One, the two guys get all the histrionic speeches—it’s their play—while her character sits and watches. At intermission, the audience is visibly deflated. They want her to be larger-than-life, to dominate.

It’s not like we meanies want to see Our Julia fall flat on her face, the way we might if this were, say, Madonna or Demi. Even if she stank up the stage (which she doesn’t remotely), those of us lucky (and wealthy) enough to score tickets have the privilege of saying we were in the same space, at the same time, breathing the same air as America’s favorite movie star. And maybe, conversely, we have the privilege of saying that we had, for the first time, some power in the relationship—dependent as she was on our applause.

For a movie star like Julia Roberts, the stage is empowering and disabling. In a way she has more control—she’s Out There, on the wire, proving that she doesn’t need handlers to protect her or directors to stroke her after every take. But her superhuman powers don’t work here; she’s vulnerable to laughs and cheers that might not come. True, this is what happens with every single theater actor on every stage everywhere, but come on: This is Julia we’re talking about. The rules don’t ordinarily apply.

In her more extroverted turn in the second act, she finally looks like she’s having fun—and that’s enough, given how much empathy she has built up over the years, to make at least one theatergoer sigh with relief. Even if she gets pilloried by critics and goes racing back to movies, Julia Roberts will have done what she didn’t need to do, maybe what some people will say she shouldn’t have done: shown the world this once that she wasn’t ready for her close-up.

The Close-Up Is Her voodoo