Before there was Sandra Bullock intermingling rom-com fame and Oscar-winning drama, there was Julia Roberts. After one stint on a television show and an uncredited role in 1987's Firehouse, she made a big leap towards success with two films in 1988 -- Satisfaction and Mystic Pizza. Neither was a classic, to be sure, but both served as the perfectly effective stepping stone to stardom. Within a year, she had a co-starring role in Steel Magnolias. A year after that came Pretty Woman. Once Edward Lewis snapped Vivian Ward's fingers in that jewelry case and she laughed, Julia Roberts' fame was solidified.
What followed were the usual reactionary follow-ups to blockbuster roles. She flat-lined, slept with the enemy, and dealt with dying young. Then came Tinkerbell flittering, law studies, and journalism. Even years of so-so roles weren't able to slow her stardom, which was completely solidified in 2000, when she beat out Ellen Burstyn for the Best Actress Oscar. Erin Brockovich was far from the most worthy win -- she just took her ultra-famous sass and rom-com charisma and applied it to a serious role -- nevertheless, it changed her career.
It wasn't that Roberts became the "serious" actress looking for only Academy-worthy work. Instead, she allowed herself to mix play with new cinematic adventures. Gigs in The Mexican and Ocean's Eleven were matched with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Full Frontal. She seemed dedicated to stretching her craft and intermingling big and low-budget features. And then came her best role -- the one that helped spark her brief Hollywood hiatus while offering a whole different side of Roberts.
In 2004, she starred in Mike Nichols' Closer alongside Natalie Portman, Jude Law, and Clive Owen. Focused on the adult interplay between two couples, the film revealed a whole new side to the actress, uncovering untapped talent. Rather than adding spunk to every scene, shining that big smile, and attempting to steal the stage with that same performance under a different character name, Roberts' Anna is subdued, conflicted, and still partially commanding. She was no longer Julia Roberts, Hollywood star, but photographer Anna -- a woman strong, yet weak, determined, yet conflicted, all brewing together without the smallest trace of flamboyance.
In Pictures at a Revolution, actress Elizabeth Wilson (Mrs. Braddock in The Graduate) is quoted as saying: "One of Mike's great gifts is as a casting director. He can somehow pick up on the essence and spirit of a person, and study it, and then tap into it." It's as if Nichols wiped away the obvious and false "essence" in Roberts that we've all come to expect, and tapped into what no other director could find or foster.
Anna hops in and out of lusty emotion, one minute being cold and reserved, the next, emotional and yearning. She's not a character who comes off particularly well, likable, or relatable on paper, but on the screen, you can almost understand the neuroses behind Anna's actions, because of every turn of the lip, move of the hands, blinking of the eyes. There's a lovely intermingling of responses and attitudes. At times, it seems as if Anna is wary of the outside world -- that she distrusts men, and does her darnedest to avoid their inevitably troublesome advances. Other times, it looks as if she's just avoiding herself, knowing that she'll make the wrong choice. Anna keeps running head-first into trouble, perhaps because, as Larry (Clive Owen) says, she is dedicated to self-sabotage, or because she just doesn't trust her emotions. We never find out for sure, but there are a number of possibilities dictated not only by the script, but by Roberts' reactions in each scene.
Happy, wary, self-loathing, cold, desperate, wry, sweet, careful, or daring, each aspect of Anna flows into the next naturally, making one wonder where this subtlety was in the previous performances that made her a star, and begging the question: What would Julia Roberts' career look like if these emotional nuances were visible from the get-go?
Ironically, the moment when Roberts' talents do shine, she gets no recognition. When the Academy got busy with its nominations, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman earned nods, but Julia was nowhere to be found. Perhaps this is another example of the disconnection between worth and Oscar wins, or perhaps Roberts' performance struck a chord in me that it didn't with audiences at large.
Looking at the evidence, I can't help but call this Roberts's Best Role. Before Closer, Julia Roberts was an actress I was indifferent to, at best, and sick of, at worst. I was still nursing the wounds left by the 2000 Academy win. She seemed ill-placed in a slow, theatrical drama about sexual and romantic dysfunction, but within moments, my doubts were erased and I felt like I had discovered a whole new actress.