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From Gere to Grimm

Julia Roberts is the biggest female star of the last quarter-century. Matthew Sweet picks her eight best roles ...

1990 Pretty Woman (above)

Thousands of embarrassing paragraphs have been written about Julia Roberts. Mainly by male critics, mainly about the bruised vastness of her mouth, mainly replicating the Pygmalion impulses of the picture that made her. “Pretty Woman” shows that process in glowing detail: etiquette lessons, a trip to “La Traviata”, the slow acquisition of modesty. But her aspirational streetwalker is a Galatea with a difference—Richard Gere’s businessman is the marble figure brought to life by love. And $464m at the box office says he wasn’t the only one feeling warm.

1996 Mary Reilly

If “Pretty Woman” was a sentimental fairy tale commuted from the pages of “Playboy”, then this is a feminist speculation about one of Victorian literature’s missing persons: Dr Jekyll’s housemaid. The film was a flop, but “Mary Reilly” revealed something important about Roberts’s celebrated beauty: under the gaslight, it appeared more a collection of fatal symptoms than evidence of Hollywood perfection. She doesn’t star in the film, she haunts it—and this may yet prove the work by which she is judged.

1997 My Best Friend’s Wedding  

For an actor who is unquestionably the biggest female star of the last quarter-century, Roberts has endured many periods of uncertainty. This rom-com dramatises one of these: her Julianne Potter, a woman angrily in love with her affianced best friend, constitutes an attack upon the sweetness of her earlier roles. Hell, she even smokes—and nobody in late-90s Hollywood films did that. But the part needed someone with Katharine Hepburn’s intellectual steel—and Roberts’s cleverness is made of brassier material.

2000 Erin Brockovich

It was the part of a lifetime: a single mother-of-three and former Miss Wichita who leads a class action against a company dumping hexavalent chromium in the water supply. Roberts’s lucent smile suddenly became an instrument of restorative justice. But the real Brockovich was also present: Roberts channelled her rousing vulgarity as easily as she slipped into her miniskirt and neck-brace. She won an Oscar for her trouble. The other contender was Juliette Binoche as a genteel chocolatier—what chance did she stand against Erin’s irresistible force? 

2001 America’s Sweethearts  

A rom-com about warring Hollywood stars, and Roberts is like Poe’s Purloined Letter—hidden in clear view in a plot that surrounds her with supposedly more glamorous figures. But if this dowdy movie publicist is played by a renowned screen beauty, we know the final reel will stage the disappearance of her ugly-duckling-isms—not least dismayingly, the fat-suit she wears for the picture. The false modesty is egregious. Roberts is too smart to try that trick again.

2004 Closer

In “Notting Hill”, Roberts studied Hugh Grant with polite bemusement. In this adaptation of Patrick Marber’s hit stage play, a grubbier type of Englishman enters her orbit—and she has rarely looked more forewarned of male venality. Roberts plays Anna, a photographer who kisses one of her subjects (Jude Law) and catches herself in the eye of her own camera. “You’ve ruined my life,” breathes Law. “You’ll get over it,” says Roberts, coolly.

2007 Charlie Wilson’s War

Roberts was a good decade too young to play Joanne Herring, the Texan socialite who cheer-led the mujahideen to victory against the Soviets. But even in her “Pretty Woman” years, youth was never Roberts’s defining quality—that big hair she favoured in the 1990s was hardly girlish. There is a chilling brilliance to her performance here. She may be primped, permed and pomaded, but she wields that mascara brush like a Bowie knife.

2012 Mirror Mirror

Roberts began her career with a fairytale ending involving Richard Gere and a white limousine. She’s seen too much—both on screen and in her bumpy personal life—to believe the middle word in happily-ever-after. No better time to assume the Wicked Queen’s plumage, in a film that reorientates the Brothers Grimm as “Mary Reilly” did R.L. Stevenson. She’s 44. This is her middle period. Time for extravagance and poison. 

Source: The Economist
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