When Julia Roberts won the Oscar, we all won the Oscar.
It’s hard to find a metaphor that works properly, so let me go full John Hughes iconography: It was leaving your sister’s wedding to find Jake Ryan was leaning against that hot rod, waiting to ask out Molly Ringwald.
“Me?” We self-deprecatingly gesticulate.
“Yeah you!” He affirms, and the perfect response to that would have been Julia Roberts iconic, triumphant laugh as she basked in the glow of the audience at the Shrine Auditorium.
The home team had scored the winning touchdown. Our best friend had just been named prom queen. You’d opened a sleeve of Starburst and it was ALL ORANGE. It was a good thing that happened to a movie star that we loved, and when she got up on that stage, the world cheered. But it almost didn’t happen. Historically speaking, How often does someone reject megastardom?
Remember when Garth Brooks, the only artist seemingly on track to out sell the Beatles, made an experimental-concept album called “The Life of Chris Gaines”? In which he portrayed a rock star cum martyr alter ego, the aforementioned Gaines, who would become the center figure of a crossover media event – an album and movie project called The Lamb?
You’d be forgiven if you said you didn’t, because the album tanked commercially, was a critical laughingstock, and the planned film was quickly canceled due to Brooks’ fans outright rejection of his new direction.
I’m going to name a few movies and describe them, and in your mind, try to remember any semblance of these movies existing:
I Love Trouble – in which two Chicago reporters squabble and fall in love while discovering a bombshell report on tainted milk supplies.
Michael Collins – a period biopic directed by Neil Jordan based on the life of an IRA revolutionary and his firebrand fiancé during the Irish struggle for independence.
Mary Reilly – a retelling of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story from the perspective of his Irish chambermaid, who’s romanced by both personalities.
And, of course, Everyone Says I Love You – a Woody Allen musical (!) about a modern Upper West Side family singing and dancing around Bergdorf Goodman and the Mount Sinai waiting room.
Do any of these ring a bell?
If not, you may understand the predicament the American public and Hollywood at large was when our Biggest Movie Star, Julia Roberts, top lined these films from 1994 to 1996 – and they all performed disastrously.
Not all of these films were without their small plaudits or defenders – for instance, Roger Ebert really liked Mary Reilly because OF COURSE he did. But for many in the industry, these movies seemed to mark a dangerous turn in the career of a performer seemingly designated as the future of Hollywood.
And she was. Julia Roberts’ career was white hot, a seismic supernova of the cult of celebrity, movie star charisma, approachable personality, and genuine acting talent. In two short years, she had gone from a handful of TV appearances and the lead role in the well received Mystic Pizza to coming within a photo finish of winning the Best Actress Oscar for Pretty Woman, the craziest movie to ever make someone a household name for playing a hooker. Though she gamely lost to Kathy Bates, there was no denying that the world’s biggest movie star in one of the year’s biggest hits ha almost crossed the finish line. A running joke in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) is that, in a long unbroken take segueing from one pitch meeting to the next, every single director, screenwriter, and producer in Hollywood suggests Julia Roberts as the lead for their next project. She then winningly cameos as herself, having landed one of these dozens of roles in the film within the film.
In a few short steps, she was crowned America’s Sweetheart, the epitome of American film stardom and pop culture.
Added to that was strong work in hit films like Sleeping with the Enemy, Steel Magnolias, Hook, Flatliners, and The Pelican Brief, as well as the tabloid nature of her love life – peaking not with her leaving her Flatliner costar Kiefer Sutherland at the altar for his fellow Lost Boy Jason Patric, but turning around and eloping with Lyle Lovett (of all people) in 1993. One might deign to call the following movie years in which she made the aforementioned bombs her “Lovett” period.
But within each of these moments were moments offstage that hinted at turmoil, trouble in the proverbial paradise. Joel Schumacher told of holding her in between takes as she sobbed over a former high school friend selling a risqué about her story to the tabloids. After leaving Sutherland, she had a self-described “ Fellini Summer” in which she partied her way through Europe to forget her troubles. She also reportedly clashed with Steven Spielberg on the set of Hook, after which the director swore he’d never work with her again. Her romantic dramedy Something to Talk About in 1995 was little seen and underperformed, and you can’t convince me it wasn’t a movie that was willed into existence by the Lifetime Movie Channel on a Sunday afternoon. People Magazine, America’s bellwether for supermarket gossip, published an article titled “What Happened to Julia Roberts?”.
Hearing these things as a child of the 90s, raised on Steel Magnolias and Runaway Bride, one almost is shocked into disbelief. Her? Our Julia? Did WHAT?
But that’s because I was too young to have experienced these things firsthand – I had to come across Mary Reilly on cable and have my parents urge me to change the channel, warning me of a terrible movie and even worse attempts at Irish accents.
It makes one think: What does it mean to be America’s Sweetheart?
The term is thrown around a lot when an actress reaches a certain cultural saturation point – box office hits, tabloid visibility, cultural affection, etc. It has been used on several actresses who have come to embody American Movie Stardom over the years – Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan, Winona Ryder, Emma Stone, and Jennifer Lawrence to name a few – as well as on former screen icons like Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Temple, Mary Pickford, and Ginger Rogers.
It also designates an actress as one thing and definitely not the other: approachable, not off-putting; girl next door, not femme fatale; sweet and charming, not sexy and dangerous. Sexless (or naive to sexuality) and (subliminally) frivolous rather than “serious actresses” like Meryl Streep or Susan Sarandon or Jessica Lange, these women would sometimes be ghettoized into your romantic comedies or dramedies or the occasional drama. But mostly they were there to be the romantic lead, the girl that Toms’ Hanks or Cruise would fall in love with. Forays into more serious roles would beget good reviews, but go nowhere at the box office or in public opinion. Meg Ryan was always struggling against this – her roles as an alcoholic in When a Man Loves a Woman (1994) and disturbed and wanton schoolteacher in the amazing thriller In the Cut (2003) displayed a heretofore untapped range, but they were ignored and shunned by the critics and audiences.
Not to mention, on a macro level, there exists within the 90s a series of now semi-anonymous white actresses who appeared in either prestige or populist projects, but whose influence and impact seemed to have completely vanished once Y2K had passed – your Madeleine Stowe’s and Jeanne Tripplehorn’s and Claire Forlani’s. The underlying message: Be a Superstar, Be an Oscar Darling, or Be Nothing at all.
This “Lovett” period was Julia’s struggle – despite the early acclaim and back-to-back Oscar nominations, she was being hounded for her beauty, her celebrity, and her charisma and likability. But what about her acting?
So we got a few years of her in period pieces, Irish accents; trying to look convincing being wooed by Woody Allen and singing standards; and genuinely trying not to scratch Nick Nolte’s eyes out while either on or off camera in I Love Trouble – seriously, folks, those two did NOT get along.
Eventually, though, some god or deity or agent from CAA came down from the mountaintop and set our girl straight. She divorced Lovett and she jumped right back into our hearts with a string of hits that set her once shining star into a supernova, with additional stipulations that she had script, director, and casting approval. With My Best Friend’s Wedding, Conspiracy Theory, Stepmom, Notting Hill, and Runaway Bride, Julia Roberts dusted off the crown of America’s Sweetheart and showed that she could play the game – and accrued enough career goodwill that she could afford to gamble on her next move.
Enter the real life story of Erin Brockovich, a single working mother in her 30s whose second career as a paralegal led her to uncover a massive groundwater contamination incident perpetrated by a large corporation in Hinckley, California. The company, Pacific Gas and Electric, had willfully allowed dangerous amounts of carcinogens to seep into the water supply as runoff, and lied and falsified records to the public and health boards. As a result, people living within the towns limits had a series of dire health problems – cancer, MS, infertility, tumors, and on and on. It was a major blight on American environmental concerns, and the resulting class action lawsuit yielded the highest settlement ever reached – $333 million. Hollywood, with its history of whistle blower films in the 70s such as Norma Rae, All the President’s Men, and even 1999’s The Insider, was ready to make this a movie.
Specifically, Danny DeVito and Jersey Films (his production house under Universal) were ready to make this movie, and with Julia on board (making a then-record $20 million) and edgy director Steven Soderbergh (after three others backed out) Erin Brockovich became the Silkwood of its day…if Silkwood had grossed $250 million, which Silkwood most definitely did not. It earned five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor for the late, wonderful Albert Finney, and, of course, Best Actress for our girl Julia.
The plot of Brockovich finds Julia Roberts at the peak of her talents: sassy and sexy when wearing a push-up bra in order to get access to confidential documents, vulnerable and maternal when juggling her three kids and car payments, and steadfast and a true ally for the underdog when facing anonymous, Orwellian industrial corporations and their facetious lawyers. Very little guy/big guy, but with an audacious and relatable, female character its center – a woman who sacrifices almost everything so that the people of Hinckley get their day in court and are heard.
Roberts joined a Best Actress lineup for the ages. At the time it was the usual “It’s between A and B”, front runner conversation, but with the benefit of time we would be embarrassed by these riches now. This is a Best Actress lineup you not only love, you wanna take it home to meet your parents. They included:
Joan Allen as a the first woman nominated to be Vice President when the sitting VP dies, and is under intense media scrutiny for her public and private life in The Contender.
Laura Linney, rocketing to the A-List, as a single mother in a small town who deals with the fallout when her wayward brother comes to stay and disrupt her life in You Can Count On Me.
Juliette Binoche, as a witchy gourmand du chocolat in Chocolat! Her 50’s era sexy single mother and child team open a chocolate shop in a provincial French town and causes a lot of early-aughts Miramax style entertainment – the chocolates unleash peoples inner urges, people are less uptight, a domestic violence case is solved, and she sleeps with Johnny Depp! Very casual. Many chalk this one to Harvey Weinstein’s maneuverings, especially since this one made the Best Picture lineup, but film made money, the cast is stacked, and Binoche is actually superb.
And, finally, the heavy hitter, the Big Time, the one people on the street come up to her randomly to say to her “You were robbed!” – a true story, I saw it happen – Ellen Burstyn as a woman dealing with aging, depression, and a growing addiction to meth-tinged diet pills (amid a flurry of other plots) in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.
Ellen Burstyn’s performance is a titanic achievement in a career famous for nothing less. In her 40s, arriving after being in NYC’s Actor’s Studio, Burstyn became (along with Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Liza Minnelli, Jill Clayburgh, and Marsha Mason) one of the 70’s most emblematic, iconic, and awarded actresses. Her varied, masterful performances in The Exorcist, Resurrection, Last Picture Show, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (her Oscar win) became cultural touchstones and part of an exciting career. By the 80s, she had reached her 50s and her projects (including a sitcom stint) faltered a little, and by the 90s she was alternating smaller projects and theater work regularly. What she did in Requiem was a shot across the bow – its edgy material, by a hot director, and (as any theater major who’s YouTubed the “Red Dress” monologue could tell you) a reminder that a legendary actress over the age of 60 can sit in front of a camera and just act for three minutes, and that is more interesting and exciting then watching a bunch of screensavers fight each other.
In any other year or cultural legacy, Burstyn would’ve had it in the bag.
But, Hollywood being Hollywood, this was Julia Roberts’ year. Erin Brockovich and Requiem for a Dream were about important issues and real themes, but Erin Brockovich left you feeling like a million bucks after going through all that hardship – ending with Erin/Roberts on another doorstep, fighting for the little guy tomorrow and the next day. Requiem ends with a grand, emotional embrace that is ultimately the fantasy of its (drug addicted/recovering, mentally ill, take your pick) characters, whom the story has explicitly told us will never win. It’s a soul crushing experience, which is the reason Requiem frequently pops up on lists titled “Greatest Movies You Will Only Watch Once”.And it helped that this was the best acting Roberts had done in a drama in a long time, which was a good reminder that sometimes a movie star can just act for three minutes, too.
Populism is not always great, as we have seen politically, but in entertainment it can be a force for good as there is the great aspect of populism that everyone forgets : it’s always decided by the people. You can manufacture something for the masses, using every formula/ingredient/precedent available that worked before, striking while the iron is hot – and the people can ultimately refuse to enjoy it. A character driven “issue movie,” a genre that’s been popular since the 30s, can really sing when the people involved do it with a new twist, or if they do it immaculately. When we get a scene like the one where Julia Roberts tells Marg Helgenberger that she’s getting $5 million to pay for her and her families medical bills, the resulting tears are the proof in the pudding – this movie takes itself seriously and it works like gangbusters. A good movie that people like will find a way, even amid all these Marvel movies.
And a good Movie Star / America’s Sweetheart will, usually, find their way to an Oscar. When Julia won, the crowd erupted. The other nominees politely nodded and clapped, two of them knowing that if a butterfly had flapped its wings in Belize, it would’ve been their name. Julia, backed by hottie boyfriend Benjamin Bratt, ascended to the podium in her vintage Valentino, grabbed the Oscar from noted Gargoyle Kevin Spacey, and looked at the audience in astonishment.
“Let me make my dress pretty…” she says, unfurling her train for the photographers.
After thanking the other nominees, Universal, Jersey Films, Danny DeVito, Finney, and telling Soderbergh she’ll thank him next week when she starts their next movie, she admonishes the conductor for starting to play her off and she unleashes The Laugh. The unabashed, infectiously joyful “Julia Roberts Laugh” that made her a star, happening live onstage and live in our homes! It was Hollywood come to life, a true Movie Star Moment! Who could ask for anything more?
“I love it up here!” She exclaimed, holding her Oscar triumphantly.
And we loved her for it.
Photo credit: Julia Roberts at the 73rd Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles. March 25, 2001 (Paul Smith/Featureflash)