Boy she sure did suck on stage
The Theatah, The Theatah
Posted by James Wolcott
What is it about Julia Roberts that reduces grown men to such goops? The reviews for her impersonation of an upright ironing board in Three Days of Rain acknowledge that even as a stationary object she might have tried putting a little more oomph into it. But the same reviewers use the occasion of her Broadway debut to pay slave tribute to her plebian-royal majesty, swooning as if no pair of goggles devised by science is strong enough to shield the eyes from the solar radiance of her beauty whenever she parts those lush lips and gives us one of her heehaw grins. Ben Brantley in the Times confesses to being a "Juliaholic," and David Edelstein in this week's New York magazine cover story is so besotted that he actually writes, reviewing the highs and lows of her movie career, "And, oh, what a joy it was to see her get her mojo back in My Best Friend’s Wedding"--that piece of dreck.
I liked Roberts in Mystic Pizza back when, but liked Annabeth Gish just as much (Lili Taylor too), and was completely immune to her girly charms in Pretty Woman, a movie I've always found fatuous and engineered to appeal to the dumbest quadrant of romantic fantasy. Perhaps the reason I don't find Roberts the enchantment to the senses that others do is because ever since she's achieved stardom she's struck me as singularly charmless and ungiving a presence. In private, she may be joy supreme, I'm just going by public display. When I lived in the Gramercy Park area, I used to see her here and there on the streets, and there was nothing awestriking about her appearance, in part because she dressed so drably and always had this guarded, sulky, sour expression on her face. Her boyfriend at the time was equally guarded but more aggressive about it, poised to play bodyguard if anyone bothered her. Nobody ever did, in my passing glimpses, the reason being that Gramercy Park had enough celebrities in the vicinity not to behave like autograph hounds at the sight of those trademark lips. I once saw Roberts strolling arm in arm with her then-boyfriend Benjamin Bratt, and he looked like a normal person out for a stroll; she had her pout on. Supermodel Paulina Portizkova lived across the street, and she didn't skulk around as if anticipating an opportunity to be exasperated.
I only cite Roberts' disposition/demeanor back then because it's accurately reflected in her cover shot for New York. Look at that face, devoid of light and lightness, with nothing going on behind her expressionless expression. Inside, Edelstein (who also recognizes her performance is a dud) enthuses, "Even if she stank up the stage (which she doesn’t remotely), those of us lucky (and wealthy) enough to score tickets have the privilege of saying we were in the same space, at the same time, breathing the same air as America’s favorite movie star." I don't find it any great privilege watching somebody famous take up space for two hours, nor do I find it the stuff of which memories are made. I saw Madonna in Speed-the-Plow and don't recall savoring the rarefied air she, I, and the rest of the audience shared; all I can remember of her performance was how small, dim, and vague she was on stage, unable to project her voice or inject any color into it. I saw Burton and Taylor coyly slumming through Private Lives, and it was like gazing from a distance at the bride and groom on a moldy wedding cake. I give Roberts credit for braving the Broadway stage, but couldn't she have picked a play in which she was actually required to do something and then proceed to do it?
Grey Gardens, which I caught last night (its run ends April 30th), isn't much of a play or musical, never rising to the gothic possibilities of its Miss Havisham premise and saddled with a first act afflicted with an outbreak of dimples. But when Christine Ebersole comes out in act two (set in 1973, the time of the Maysles documentary that made Big Edie and Little Edie famous), futzing with the tight fabric of her outfit--she's like a shabby-chic sausage--and sing-songing the daffiest number you've ever heard called "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," the chemistry in the theater instantly changed from polite tedium to crackling hilarity. The dotty conversations between her and her mother (Mary Louise Wilson, whose song "Jerry Likes My Corn" was another screwy treat) were models of eccentrics talking past each other until their sentences finally meet at an intersection. They're not so much talking to each other as thinking aloud until their mutual monologues get tangled up like blouse sleeves. Based upon the reviews, I expected Grey Gardens to be campier--more Charles Ludlum--but campiness is often the easy way out, and Ebersole doesn't need to go the full Norma Desmond to sell Little Edie. The tiniest adjustment of her head scarf does the trick.
I wish I could enlighten Jim as to Ms. Roberts charms, but I couldn't do that if I tried. Because I've always thought it was more hype than reality.
posted by Steve @ 12:03:00 AM