For Julia Roberts, the path to stardom began in 1988 in a pizza parlor in Mystic, Conn. It continued on into a beauty salon in Chinquapin, La. Eventually it extended onto the streets of Los Angeles in 1990, where Garry Marshall was waiting.
“When I first met Julia,” said the famed director, “what I noticed first is that she had good hair, very long legs and she was kind of a free spirit. She had honest eyes and didn’t smile much. And even though she had long legs, she was a bit of a schlumpy and walked with bad posture. However, she was interesting and we wanted to see more.
“So we went on to a screen test and there she stood up straight, smiled and held her own comedically against the wonderful and funny Charles Grodin. While we were shooting ‘Pretty Woman,’ she made some difficult lines very honest. She did great physical comedy. She kind of has her own rhythm.”
The world got its first extended look at Julia Roberts in “Mystic Pizza,” kept watching in “Steel Magnolias,” and then became officially smitten thanks to “Pretty Woman,” the Marshall-directed hit that established Roberts as an immediate box office heavyweight. “Pretty Woman” was budgeted at $14 million, took in almost that much in its opening weekend (remember, everything cost less in 1990) and to date has grossed more than $463 million worldwide.
Yet that Julia Roberts was in her early 20s. The Julia Roberts who will appear in theaters next as the star of “Eat, Pray, Love” is 42. A great deal of personal and professional triumphs and travails have taken place, yet she has endured as a force in Hollywood.
“I think she’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world for a reason,” said Colin Covert, film critic for the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune. “She creates very relatable characters that women like. She’s the idealized best-friend figure. In terms of her acting, I think she does what all movie stars need to do: She understands her range and operates in it. She’s not a Meryl Streep chameleon. She looks funny outside a contemporary role. But as the modern woman, she’s an iconic figure.”
Farewell, 'America's Sweetheart' image
Over the years, Roberts certainly has been received more warmly by audiences in pictures like “Erin Brockovich” and “Ocean’s Eleven” than she has been in period pieces “Mary Reilly” and “Michael Collins.” But that can be said of any star.
And as actors mature, they often seek new ground. Robert De Niro, for instance, eschewed the intensity of “Mean Streets” and “Raging Bull” for the frivolity of “Analyze This” and “Meet the Fockers.”
In recent years, Roberts has left her “America’s Sweetheart” persona behind and has embraced more cerebral fare such as “Closer,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Duplicity.”
That move comes at a box-office price. “She’s been playing more interesting, more complicated roles,” noted Amy L. Lawrence, a film professor at Dartmouth who has taught courses on women in film. “Her characters lately are morally complex, where she’s not necessarily that nice. That’s interesting, but audiences haven’t warmed to that. They liked her as Erin Brockovich. They liked her in ‘Ocean’s Eleven.’ But they don’t want to see her as complicated.
“Some people’s careers thrive because they go in a more serious direction. With her, it doesn’t work that way. It seems people have very strongly not responded to the more complicated adult roles, sort of like Mary Pickford as ‘America’s Sweetheart.’ People didn’t accept her as an adult.”
“Eat, Pray, Love” appears to have elements of both worlds. The film is based on Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir about a woman’s journey of self-discovery to Italy, India and Indonesia to find adventure and food. It’s a story that provides a BFF-like emotional connection to a broad female audience, yet it’s smart enough to elevate it beyond populist studio product.
Yet Lawrence said even this project has pitfalls for Roberts. “I think it sounds like a great part for her,” she said. “But I think it’ll have some of the same problems that the book had. Some people have reacted negatively to the author, because the main character comes across sometimes as selfish and self-involved.
“So there was a bit of a backlash against the book, and that’s exactly the trouble Julia Roberts has had in her later movies — when she goes from sweetheart to too calculating and too in control and not relatable or likeable.”
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Is the movie star era over?
Roberts also faces an issue that isn’t her fault: Perhaps the days of the star luring people to the theaters in droves is over, or at least the phenomenon isn’t what it used to be.
“I think the past few months have been sort of a referendum on the appeal of the movie star,” Covert said. “Look at Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz — they crashed and burned in ‘Knight & Day.’ It could be that they no longer have the freshness and that sort of want-to-see quality, and maybe it’s time for the younger generation to step up. Or maybe movie stars just aren’t as important as they used to be. Something like ‘The Hangover’ made a zillion dollars with nothing resembling stars.
“Maybe it’s a time when people are buying into a concept or a vibe more than the appeal of a particular star.”
Then again, who knows? A film like Garry Marshall’s “Valentine’s Day” had both. It had the concept — opening on Valentine’s Day this year — and a slew of stars — including Roberts — and has grossed over $110 million.
“I worked with Julia at age 21, age 31 (‘Runaway Bride’ in 1999) and close to age 41,” Marshall said. “She is now a mature woman, centered, and likes being a mom. The difference from then to now is she’s finished with dating, which is usually a problem for young people in any field. She married a great guy (cinematographer Danny Moder), she’s a terrific mother and a wonderful cook. I know this first-hand, as she made me a meal in her home.
“I think she is very comfortable with who she is, and that always makes for a better person. We try to work together every decade.”
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com. He lives in Los Angeles.
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