Being Julia

The self-aware star turn of Duplicity heroine Julia Roberts
by David Schwartz  posted March 23, 2009
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In a movie filled with reversals, Duplicity offers a key twist in its star turns. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, as a pair of corporate spies who are drawn to each other and team up despite their better judgment, give performances that cut against gender expectations. Owen plays Ray Koval, a sparkling sex object with a toothy smile and a twinkle in his eye; Julia Roberts is Claire Stenwick, a rugged professional whose stoic demeanor carries world-weary gravitas.

After years of character roles in ensemble films such as Charlie Wilson’s War and Closer, Roberts assertively steps back into her position as screen icon, an actress who can simultaneously inhabit a character role and offer a new variation on "Julia Roberts," just as Clint Eastwood's Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino is both a solid performance and a canny recalibration of his screen identity. In Duplicity, Roberts gives a performance that evokes the feisty heroines of the 1930s and 1940s. For while its glossy veneer, high-octane pacing, and vivid depiction of corporate shenanigans and high-tech surveillance situate the movie as a contemporary work, refashioning 1970s-style paranoia for the digital age, Duplicity is also a throwback that fits somewhere in style and inspiration between screwball comedy and film noir, those two classic Hollywood genres built on deception, mistrust, masks, and a skeptical view of romance.

Indeed, hardboiled is the operative word to describe Roberts’s performance. While her character’s name evokes the steely resolve of Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatales, the role is more like a variation on Lauren Bacall, in the way she out-Bogarted Bogart in The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not. To drive this comparison home, the film plays Roberts’s stone-faced professionalism against the histrionics of the other characters. In one memorable scene, Claire interrogates a woman, played by Carrie Preston, who has had a one-night stand with Ray; Preston’s character is flustered, distraught, and shamelessly excited. Claire stares her down and never says a word, but we can sense her jealous calculations churning behind her deadpan glare.

A movie that wears its thematic preoccupations on its sleeve and in its title, Duplicity is a film about acting, and the metaphor is pushed to the extreme. Late in the flashback-filled movie, we learn that a seemingly impromptu encounter between Claire and Ray was entirely scripted. As we watch them rehearsing their repartee in advance, in a bedroom script session, Claire bristles when Ray gives her an acting tip. She asks incredulously, “Are you trying to direct me?” The question is a comment on their emotional relationship, but also on Roberts as a star in control of her image. For better or worse, Roberts belongs with the megastars, like Will Smith or Tom Cruise, who never fully lose themselves in their characters. Their movies become meditations on their stardom.

Which means that Roberts is at her best when she finds a role that directly addresses the tension between the real person and the manufactured star. As a movie that self-reflexively explores issues of performance, Duplicity naturally makes one think about the trajectory of Roberts’s career. The dearth of full-fledged vehicles since her Oscar-winning performance in Erin Brockovich may be more of a reflection on the lack of substantial roles for women in an industry dominated by testosterone-laced action blockbusters and insipid romantic comedies than on Roberts’s range or skills.

While Duplicity reveals new facets behind a familiar face, Roberts’s performance is not a dramatic change from her past roles; instead, it is the work of a self-aware actress finding a role that reflects some hard-earned wisdom and experience while still showing the toughness and pluck that have fueled her entire career.

In 2002, Roberts was the honoree at the Museum of the Moving Image’s annual gala Salute. The appreciation that follows, written after the release of Erin Brockovich, focused on many of the qualities on display in Roberts’s current performance. The only shame is that she hasn’t had more such roles in between.


In the reflexive romantic comedy Notting Hill, which explores the chasm between celebrity and normality, Julia Roberts plays Anna Scott, a movie star in love with a humble English bookshop owner. He surprises her by abruptly breaking off their relationship, explaining “I live in Notting Hill, you live in Beverly Hills. Everyone in the world knows who you are. My mother has trouble remembering my name.” Anna wistfully responds, “The fame thing isn’t really real, you know...and don’t forget, I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

In a gently touching manner, Notting Hill explores a confusion that is quite real. Because of the powerful effect that movies, and movie stars, have on our imaginations, the lines between star, role, and actor are easily blurred. As Julia Roberts (the person) once said to an interviewer, “People talk about this Julia Roberts almost like it’s a it’s a cup of Pepsi. People think Julia Roberts is something they created. The fact is, there once was this scrunched up little pink baby named Julia Roberts. I am a girl, like anybody else.”

Indeed, it is her uncanny ability to portray “ordinary” women with such charisma and force of personality that defines Roberts’s extraordinary appeal. “She’s boldly vulnerable,” said producer Joe Roth, deftly summarizing her distinctive quality. “It’s unbelievable that someone so physically beautiful could also have this ‘everyperson’ quality about her, but that’s exactly why she’s a movie star.”

Despite her wholesome appeal and radiant beauty, Roberts has never played a simple Girl Next Door. She has always embodied a vibrant blend of assertiveness, fragility, keen humor, playfulness, and sheer determination. In Mystic Pizza, the 1988 sleeper that gained her instant critical and popular attention, she plays the foul-mouthed Daisy with an invigorating blend of sweetness and vulgarity. Just two years later (after an Oscar-nominated supporting role in Steel Magnolias) Roberts leapt to full-fledged stardom (and earned another Oscar nomination) in Pretty Woman. Again, she found just the right combination of sugar and spice, capturing the film’s fairy-tale flavor by imbuing her character—a prostitute—with a believable sense of innocence.

Finding herself at the top of her profession after her first starring role, Roberts launched into a grueling production schedule including Flatliners, Dying Young, Sleeping With the Enemy, and Hook. She then surprised the industry, and her fans, by taking a nearly two-year hiatus, becoming, at age 25, the subject of a Variety “Lost and Found” column. The trajectory of Roberts’s career, and her offscreen life, has been copiously, and often erroneously, chronicled by the ever-expanding entertainment media in countless tabloid newspapers, glossy magazines, television “entertainment news” shows, and websites. As a Vanity Fair writer observed, the press “has detailed the minutiae of her life with a level of tediousness that borders on breathtaking.” Indeed, it is disconcerting to wade through stacks of Roberts’s press clippings, filled with endless speculation about every aspect of her personal life. One can’t help but notice a kind of perverse fascination, a desire to find some kind of flaw lurking behind her success.

This only makes her staying power, her growth as an actress, and the respect she has so deservedly attained in recent years all the more remarkable. After expanding her range with such varied films as The Pelican Brief, Mary Reilly, and Conspiracy Theory, Roberts has hit a remarkable stride in the past few years. She has had one blockbuster success after another, including My Best Friend’s Wedding, Stepmom, Notting Hill, Runaway Bride, and of course, Erin Brockovich.

Because she makes it look so easy and natural, there is a tendency to take her acting skills for granted. Yet there are some things that Julia Roberts can do as well as any contemporary screen actor. Indeed, no actor can express more emotion onscreen without dialogue than Roberts. As she listens to another character, her thoughts and feelings register instantly, and we sense her reaction before she has said a word. Roberts is also unparalleled in scenes where she confronts another character. Whether it is Erin Brockovich telling a lawyer, “That’s all you got, lady...two wrong feet and fucking ugly shoes,” or her character Isabel facing down Susan Sarandon’s uptight mother Jackie in Stepmom, these scenes carry a strong sense of force and conviction; self-effacing sweetness is not her defining trait. Instead, Roberts projects self-confidence and independence; in Erin Brockovich she plays a resilient, feisty hero of a sort that is rarely portrayed by women onscreen.

The key to enduring stardom for a film actor lies in the ability to find roles in which one can be both the same from movie to movie, and different. James Stewart, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart…these are stars who achieved that remarkable balance, always playing themselves, yet constantly reinventing and redefining their images through their roles. In her last few films, Julia Roberts has been equally convincing and engaging as: a delusional romantic in the screwball comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding; a career-driven New York fashion photographer in Stepmom; a famous movie star trying to remain a normal person in Notting Hill; and a resilient working-class mother in Erin Brockovich. These roles show an ability to move deftly between comedy, drama, and romance. Yet there is a common thread—each is a portrait of a woman struggling to maintain a strong sense of self despite the efforts of others to either stop her or confound her. It is because Roberts has always been able to triumph in portraying these characters that we are here tonight to honor her, and to eagerly await the many great performances to come. — D.S.


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Courtesy Universal Pictures
Julia Roberts in Duplicity, directed by Tony Gilroy
Photo Gallery: Being Julia


David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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