the face of julia

The very first paper of my very first semester in graduate school was a sprawling, 65 (!) page examination of Julia Roberts’ star image. In hindsight, that paper was both incredibly ridiculous (seminar papers should be ~20 pages, certainly not SIXTY FIVE) and fortuitous: I’d written the paper for a class in “Female Stardom,” which introduced me to the theorists (and stars!) that would guide the remainder of my academic career. In undergrad, I’d written three types of papers: short, 4-5 page ones for lower level classes; longer, 10-12 page ones for upper level classes; and my thesis, which I spent the semester fine-tuning. It made sense to me, then, that a seminar paper — the only thing I was supposed to write for the entire semester! — would be that long.

So I poured myself into researching it, excavating every corner of Roberts’ star image: her rise to fame, her establishment as a superstar with Pretty Woman, her relationships, HER MARRIAGE TO AHP FAVORITE LYLE LOVETT. I watched all of her movies. I read a billion academic articles tying her/Pretty Woman to the rise of postfeminism. I went deep into the collected magazines in the University of Oregon library to read back copies of Redbook. But most interestingly, I tracked the discourse around her as she made a series of choices — artistically, personally — that baffled the media. After Pretty Woman, Roberts starred in pulpy thriller (Sleeping with the Enemy) and a schlocky melodrama (Dying Young), both of which did fairly well simply based on the Roberts bump.

But then Roberts started making some (ostensibly) mystifying choices, donning a pixie wig as Tinkerbell in Hook, dying her hair black in I Love Trouble, wearing it straight and somewhat dowdy in Something to Talk About, bleaching her eyebrows in Mary Reilly, bobbing it short in Michael Collins. The focus was on her hair, but it was really on how different, how divergent, those roles were from the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold from Pretty Woman. And no one, at least then, wanted to see her in those types of roles. They didn’t want to see her sad, or in a historical drama. Her comeback didn’t arrive until My Best Friend’s Wedding, when she explained (I’m paraphrasing! Don’t make me find my notes from 2005!) that “my hair is red and curly like you guys like it, please come see this movie.” She returned to type. Erin Brockovich was a continuation of that type, just through a Soderbergh filter.

And then she got weird again. There were exceptions to that weirdness — Duplicity, Ocean’s Eleven, Eat Pray Love — but Full Frontal, Charlie Wilson’s War, Closer, August: Osage County, Money Monster, even Wonder (which seems very schlocky but is secretly quite good?!?), all were doing something different, and periodically deviant, with her star image. Which isn’t to say they were all good movies, just that they refused to hew to the parameters of how audiences had been trained to like Roberts. They allowed her to have different types of hair, but they also allowed her not to coast on her smile. They allowed her not to frown, exactly, but to face with the world with something that wasn’t cheer and charisma.

Like so many of the massive stars of the past, Roberts is beautiful in a specific, un-replicable way. The difference of her face — and specifically, her smile — is part of what makes her so exquisite. I’ve long been obsessed with watching exquisite faces like hers age: Marlene Dietrich’s, Gloria Swanson’s, Bette Davis’s, Jane Fonda’s. The only time it feels monstrous is when there’s a total rejection of the aging process. But the best and most interesting stars seem to be fascinating by what aging can do to their performances, how it allows them to lean into, explore or explode the cocoons of youthful beauty that were woven around their original stardom, with or without their permission.

That’s why I’m so obsessed with Roberts’ performance in Homecoming, a bewitching, hypnotic noir that just debuted on Netflix. (Don’t worry, no spoilers below). It’s based on a Gimlet podcast of the same name, only that version featured the voices of Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer, but both are written/adapted by Eli Horowitz (who I profiled a billion years ago) and Micah Bloomberg. (The plot, in short: Julia Roberts is a counselor at an experimental treatment program for vets returning home from war in 2018. At some point in the future, a Department of Defense investigator is trying to piece together what went down at that facility. The two narratives intertwine throughout).

The adaptation from audio to visual reminds me so much of the early television “teleplays” of the ‘50s — most of which were themselves adapted from radio serials. There’s a different rhythm, a different way it cedes to audio cues, a different embrace of silence and ambient sound. And I can’t quite articulate how yet, but the visual aesthetics seem to echo and extend the aural ones; the construction of the Homecoming facility in particular feels straight out of one of those illustrations of “if sound had a color and a shape.” Even the way it relies on two different aspect ratios to toggle between past / future recalls the aesthetic bluntness with which radio shows / plays / teleplays signaled major changes in time or place.

The series is directed by Sam Ismael, best known for Mr. Robot, and there’s some of Robot’s uncanny sensibility woven throughout. But it avoids the incoherence that afflicted Robot as it unfurled, in part, I think, because of Horowitz and Bloomberg’s tight plotting — which also condenses the action into 24-32 minute chunks, instead of the more unwieldy and indulgent 45-65 minutes of prestige television. Each episode feels tantalizing, propulsive. But not manipulative. I don’t feel used by it. Just in thrall.

I’m two episodes away from finishing, but right now, it’s one of the best things I’ve seen all year — and Roberts’ performance (bad wigs and all) is major reason for it. People might still be yelling at her to change her hair and play a rom-com lead. But as an executive producer, with an incredible level of financial security, she can also do whatever she wants. Including, in this case, letting us observe, very closely, what her smile, and the lack thereof, does to her face — and our reaction to it. I found myself noticing just how willing the camera was to stay close to her unsmiling face, often to the point of unsettlement — which says less about Roberts, and more about the compunction, no matter a woman’s age, to comport oneself, first and foremost, with a smile.

Just a few recs this week, since I unloaded so many in the previous newsletter:

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