Julia Roberts has everything under control. Unlike fellow redheaded actress Julianne Moore, who seems to cry and lose it or get naked in every movie, Roberts smiles her goofball smile, and if she cries it’s not for very long or we don’t get to see it. Because we don’t usually see it, we might start to assume that she is always doing fine. Nobody is always doing fine, but Julia Roberts does not appear neurotic or depressive. We don’t see her at the grocery store or scowling at paparazzi from her car. And we don’t hear about a tragic personal life or a famous husband cheating on her, because she married a camera operator and lives in fucking New Mexico. Neither do we see annoying staged shots of her children or bikini pictures proving she’s “still got it.” She doesn’t beg for approval or validation, which makes it easier to give it to her. But also easy to believe that she doesn’t want or need validation. Julia Roberts is an excellent actress.
None of this means that she is not neurotic or actually has no problems, just that she somehow manages to appear that way off camera. And for the most part, it works. When she shows up at the Oscars or in TV ads for Larry Crowne we don’t go, “Oh god, Julia Roberts again” but “Oh hey, Julia Roberts. I wonder what she’s been up to lately.”1 I imagine she paints vagina flowers in the desert in a caftan all day like Georgia O’Keeffe and cares for her twin ginger children. But I honestly don’t know. It’s better that way.
Julia Roberts also became famous in an extremely different time. It is difficult to imagine how some of the biggest superstars of the ’80s — Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Sean Penn — would have weathered TMZ culture when building their movie star images. They were all so dependent on limited exposure to make them seem mysterious and to stop us from hearing the horrible bullshit they actually had to say.
But Roberts got how to be a movie star then, and she gets how to be a movie star now. She never allows herself to become a mundane object. We don’t see her in airport sweats. She’d never do a career-stagnation-crisis fishnet pictorial in Vanity Fair,2 although she will do high fashion in W. She never seems desperate, for a hit movie or a relationship. Nobody ever says “poor Julia.”
Women are impressed by the list of men she has dated,3 but she doesn’t get called a slut or a homewrecker.4 She is too intelligent and bankable to be dismissed as merely a bitch. Inasmuch as a female celebrity can master “having it all,” Julia Roberts sure makes it look possible. Tina Fey makes it seem possible but not at all easy. Angelina Jolie goes a little bit overboard trying to make it look easy (see also: Madonna).
As streetwalker-with-a-heart-of-gold Vivian, in Pretty Woman , Julia Roberts doesn’t have a pimp because she doesn’t need a pimp. She is her own pimp. The movie industry couldn’t pimp Julia Roberts because she knows what her talent is actually worth. Without her participation they would not have anything to sell, and she knows they care more about making money than anything. She knows that she is impossible to replace.
Julia Roberts realizes that movie stars like “Julia Roberts” are not a dime a dozen, regardless of what producers and executives and agents may want to think. The desire of Hollywood is to manufacture such stars by buying low and selling high, to make products out of people and then make those products profitable. But you can’t make actors charismatic and talented if they aren’t, no matter what they look like. And you can’t replace Julia Roberts in a role any more than you could replace Jack Nicholson.
Talent is foremost in stardom, but so is the ability to hustle and self-promote. People put themselves on. Julia Roberts proved herself as a great actress and instantly charismatic presence in Mystic Pizza, but she still only got Pretty Woman because Karen Allen, Molly Ringwald, Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daryl Hannah all turned it down. Roberts is so good in Pretty Woman that she earned an Oscar nomination. She’s so good she made herself into a major movie star and has stayed one ever since.
This is not to say that she can’t make a flop (Mary Reilly, Larry Crowne), or that she should do any interviews about her conversion to Hinduism. Just that she understands how to be famous. She’s really great at it. Despite the fact that Julia Roberts came up playing a prostitute, her popularity has never been based primarily in her shelf life as a sexual object; it is in her formidable acting talent and charm, which happen to lend themselves extremely well to playing a prostitute. Her biggest fan base is women, but men find her tolerable enough that she is allowed to be the token female in Ocean’s 11.
Is Julia Roberts still a major movie star, really? Since winning her Oscar for Erin Brockovich and checking out of the stardom publicity machine she has attempted to stretch herself with mixed results. And if the name Julia Roberts still represents “star” in the public imagination, she can’t automatically open a film.
Walking away from L.A. and the paparazzi grind has allowed her to maintain the illusion of “Julia Roberts” through limited exposure — but then perhaps any exposure serves to reminds us that stardom is just an illusion. She is not interested in breaking down her image at this point, because it works far too well for her not to. Given the copious traps set for aging female movie stars,5 it is probably for the best. The recent L’Oréal airbrushing scandal, in which advertisements featuring an overly airbrushed and impossibly perfect-looking Roberts were chided for being overly unrealistic and impossible to attain, only underscores the real point: Images are misleading.
Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.
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