$20 million tears

Forget about the doe eyes and the megawatt smile -- Julia Roberts' real knack is for suffering. And that, in Hollywood, is priceless.


Etelka Lehoczky
May 29, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The expression is iconic. The vulnerable mouth tightens warily, the round,
doe-like eyes glimmer with anticipated tears. Julia Roberts is
hurting -- again. The occasion is "Notting Hill,"
the story of a world-famous actress, Anna Scott (Roberts), who finds love with an ordinary schlub,
William Thacker (played by Hugh Grant).

That the movie was made with these two actors is a far more
interesting story than the one the movie purports to tell. Grant's trademark aw-shucksism was looking
unsalvageable after The Incident in 1995 (Grant was arrested for soliciting the services of a prostitute),
and Roberts wasn't doing much better before "My Best Friend's Wedding"
came along. But the ease with which she reclaimed her mantle as America's sweetheart is remarkable.
In Hollywood, where the typical shelf-life for actresses is comparable to that of deli meats,
Roberts has sustained her superstar status -- despite a six-year streak of
duds between "Pretty Woman" in 1990 and "Wedding" in 1997. "Flatliners" (1990) and "Sleeping With the Enemy" (1991) may
have survived at the box office, but they were quickly forgotten. "The Pelican Brief" (1993) and "Ready to Wear" (1994) met with a
similar fate. Then there's the staggering list of outright flops that would have extinguished
any other Hollywood career: "Dying Young," "Hook," "I Love Trouble," "Something to Talk About,"
"Mary Reilly," "Michael Collins."

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Yet, somehow, Roberts is still the talismanic megastar she was in
1992, when Robert Altman and Michael Tolkin satirized her status in "The
Player." Remember? Her unbeatable bankability was the movie's running joke; her name was
uttered like an incantation (usually in the company of that other magic
phrase, "Pretty Woman"). Finally, in the climatic moment of the movie-within-the-movie,
the Pretty Woman appeared -- but not to flash that gleaming smile she's so
famous for. Instead, she played a death-row inmate who was rescued at the
last minute from a gruesome, wrongful execution. It was a vignette that
proved oddly prescient in its summation of Roberts' clout. For all the
talk of her lovely smile, her real knack is for suffering -- and that,
apparently, is priceless.

A quick review of her oeuvre confirms Roberts as the queen of misery. This
actress who can be so infectiously effervescent, who clowns and laughs
more adorably than any other person on earth, spends nearly all her time playing characters who
are frightened, abandoned, rejected or just generally melancholy. She
was afraid for her life in "Sleeping With the Enemy," "Pelican Brief," "Mary
Reilly" and "Conspiracy Theory"; lonely in "Dying Young," "Something to Talk
About" and "My Best Friend's Wedding"; exhausted in "Ready to Wear" and
"Stepmom." And let's not forget 1989's "Steel Magnolias," in which she died of
diabetes.

Roberts didn't have much control over her career back when "Magnolias" was made, of course.
She was a new face then, the only unknown in a cast of divas. But she's since
left her fellow Magnolias in the dust, along with virtually every other
actress in Hollywood. One of only six actresses to make Premiere magazine's 1999 "Power 100" list,
she's the highest-ranking at No. 33. But unlike some of her contemporaries (Demi Moore springs to mind),
she hasn't used her Hollywood power to choose power roles, opting instead for the
frightened maid in "Mary Reilly," the fragile pawn in "Conspiracy Theory" and the neurotic homewrecker in "My Best Friend's Wedding." She may have executive-produced "Stepmom,"
and even tinkered with the script, but she didn't dilute her role as the klutzy,
disdained newcomer to Susan Sarandon's perfect matriarch.

Of course, Roberts has her real-life woes as well -- first among them
the notoriously oppressive tabloid scrutiny under which she's huddled for
the past nine years. No star seems less comfortable with fame than
Roberts, and no star is more widely pitied for it. Magazine writers never
grow tired of clucking over her fear of flashbulbs; in the June Vanity Fair,
Ned Zeman marvels at how the local New York press "has detailed the minutiae of her life with a level of
tediousness that borders on breathtaking," generously observing that in spite of this she displays only
"fairly gentle ... gallows humor." She may have developed a degree of aplomb in recent years, but that's because she somehow managed,
as People magazine wrote in January, to "conquer ... her dread of the Hollywood
glare." Well, it's about time. Usually Roberts approaches a red carpet as
if it leads to a dentist's chair. When photographers snap her out on the
town, invariably her expression is one of weary beleaguerment.

"Notting Hill" is the perfect climax to this pageant of pain. It executes an
astonishing switcheroo: celebrating its star's incomparable glamour and
success, then placing her among ordinary people and managing,
miraculously, to make her seem pitiable by comparison. Not pitiful:
there's no question that Roberts' character enjoys her status. But that doesn't
mean she doesn't suffer. In a remarkable scene, she and several of
William's ordinary friends playfully argue about who among them is the
worst off. The circle includes a low-paid record store clerk, a chubby
stockbroker on the verge of being fired and a woman in a
wheelchair
-- yet somehow, when it's Anna's turn, those wet brown eyes make
us sympathize. A moment later the group dissolves into laughter at her
lightweight list of troubles (painful nose job, mean boyfriends), but this
dismissal is more ritualistic than real. It echoes the audience's own
mixed feelings about celebrity in order to neutralize them.
And Thacker, naturally, is the perfect stand-in for the average audience
member. Dogged by rabid paparazzi, he reproaches Anna: "My
best friend is confined to a wheelchair for life!" he shouts. "I'm just asking you to
have some sense of perspective!"

This dismissal is, in a sense, what the movie -- and Roberts' whole persona -- is all about.
"Notting Hill" is the tale of a goddess brought low by a mortal, and Roberts has been brought low by her
fans again and again. She gives her public the vicious thrill of seeing
just how thoroughly they've harassed her.
She doesn't hide how often their attention has made her cry. Despite her eventual vindication in both the film
and in her real life, she's still dependent on our goodwill. As her character reminds Thacker, "The fame thing isn't really real, you
know. I'm also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking you to love
her." Confusing grammar aside, such a bald-faced plea is
irresistible. All Roberts' money, fame and power
is forgotten; we see only a lonely little girl we can root for with all
our hearts.

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It's hard to say how deliberate Roberts' act is, but at some level she
clearly understands the sadistic impulse that lurks within celebrity
culture. She has some grasp, either explicit or intuitive, of how the
masses need to destroy their idols -- particularly their female idols. Male
stars may be father-gods, hunky protectors men can emulate and women
adore, but female stars must possess some fatal frailty -- incompetence,
less-than-perfect looks, self-doubt. Otherwise they're too threatening to
the onlooker's fantasy of connecting with that powerful male. The actors
on the screen become frustrated Oedipal parents, forming a seamless
union that shuts the needy spectator out.

Roberts, on the other hand, brings the spectator into the scene. In this respect,
she's the only major star in our era to evoke the screen queens of Hollywood's
golden age. Not Katharine Hepburn -- though "I Love Trouble" and
"My Best Friend's Wedding" begged for comparison (Hepburn was too scrappy,
not tragic enough).
Roberts' true foremothers are the drama queens: Bette
Davis, star of a succession of popular "women's weepies" (to which "Stepmom"
explicitly harks back), and Joan Crawford, so glamorously miserable in
"Mildred Pierce."

Other contemporary female stars try to muster this larger-than-life,
old-Hollywood aura, but they overlook its subtle yet definitive note of
vulnerability. Particularly in feminism's wake, Hollywood actresses are
determined to show off their empowerment on-screen. Demi Moore, Sharon
Stone and Geena Davis have all struck a Helen Reddyish superwoman pose,
and all have paid a price -- particularly Stone. After bragging about her
looks and determinedly trying to be a "serious" actress, she's quietly loathed by women everywhere.

Roberts could never be treated that way, because she gives her public all
the power. She never lets the audience forget her fate is in their hands.
Like an Aztec king or stigmata'd saint, she offers herself willingly to
the bloodthirsty mob.

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Even in her most upbeat film, "Pretty Woman," this remained her central role.
That movie's success befuddled critics at the time -- particularly feminists, who
were knocked for a loop by its uncanny appeal. Elayne Rapping, perhaps
the last unabashedly angry feminist writer in America, wrote, "The movie,
I confess, tickled me." Years later, "Pretty Woman" remains the classic
guilty pleasure.

Critics have attributed this appeal to everything from subconscious
prostitute fantasies to Roberts' megawatt smile, but Daphne Merkin offered
the most compelling explanation in her 1990 article "The Knight in Shining Armani."
The film's appeal for women, Merkin wrote, lay in the story of a woman who, "in the course of
teaching a driven corporate raider how to feel, earns not only a whole new
wardrobe culled from Rodeo Drive, but also his love." The key word here is
"earns." In "Pretty Woman," like in all her roles, Roberts made a spectacle of sacrifice.
Her character endured a boggling array of humiliations -- prostituted, snubbed, doubted, insulted, patronized,
assaulted, nearly raped -- before her selfless forbearance eventually won
out. "Pretty Woman" was the story of a martyr, a virgin/whore Madonna who
did everything but weep blood to sanctify her suffering.

Roberts' clean-hearted prostitute remains a secular saint to this day.
(Aware of this, the writers of "Notting Hill" make two separate references to her
signature role.) The working girl's mortification at the hands of a couple
of gimlet-eyed Rodeo Drive salesladies nearly a decade ago won her permanent underdog status, as well as the
allegiance of an audience that needs reassuring. As a teary Lisa Kudrow tells Mira Sorvino in "Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion"
-- noting that's she's seen "Pretty Woman" 36 times -- "I just get really happy when they finally let her shop."

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Etelka Lehoczky

Etelka Lehoczky is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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