Julia Roberts is the Queen of comebacks she never had to make
Saturday - 10/11/2018 12:28
WE’VE lost count of the number of times Julia Roberts has made a so-called ‘comeback’. The truth is, she’s never disappeared.
JULIA Roberts is having a really great 2018.
After spending the first couple months of the year watching her family dramedy Wonder climb up to fourth place on her personal all-time box-office list, she’ll be back on the big screen soon with the Oscar-season drama Ben Is Back opposite Lucas Hedges, and right now she’s on Amazon starring in her first ever TV series, Homecoming.
It’s a great day to be a Julia Roberts fan.
There’s just one word I don’t want to hear in the next few months: comeback.
It’s a word that has followed Julia Roberts since almost the beginning of her career, partly in response to her meteoric rise with Pretty Woman in 1990. That movie was a giant blockbuster (fourth for that entire year, beating out the likes of Die Hard 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and two Schwarzenegger movies), got Roberts her second Oscar nomination in as many years, and instantly made Julia Roberts the biggest female movie star in the world.
And ever since, we have seemingly been anticipating the fall.
So much so that whenever Roberts would have the unimaginable good fortune of following a box-office bust with another hit — you know, the way careers go — the press would shower her with talk of her great comeback.
With even a little bit of hindsight, you can see how misapplied this “comeback” label often got — and how it was just as often applied to coming back from periods of disfavour with the glossy entertainment press, like after she left Kiefer Sutherland at the altar, or when she married Lyle Lovett and broke everybody’s brains.
After the twin successes of Pretty Woman and Sleeping With The Enemy, Roberts a) broke it off with Sutherland three days before their scheduled June 1991 wedding, and then b) appeared as Tinkerbell in Steven Spielberg’s misbegotten Hook, one of the most notoriously poorly-reviewed films of the ’90s.
Roberts took a self-imposed two-year break from making movies (aside from a brief cameo in Robert Altman’s The Player) before she returned as the lead, opposite Denzel Washington, in The Pelican Brief.
You’d have thought that Orpheus himself had trudged back from the depths of hell the way that Roberts’ screen comeback was analysed and scrutinised.
The Pelican Brief was another $US100 million hit, even if more people wanted to talk about her marriage to Lovett at the time. The film has managed to keep a reputation as one of the great ’90s thrillers.
But Roberts’ mid-’90s attempts to stretch her brand beyond fizzy comedies and potboiler thrillers put the dreaded “slump” tag on her, especially after the one-two-three punch of Mary Reilly, Michael Collins and Everyone Says I Love You in 1996.
America wanted a lot out of Julia Roberts. What they didn’t want was whispered panic as the maid to Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, nor were they all that interested in Julia as the love interest to Irish revolutionary heroes, or as a Woody Allen paramour given to song.
So, again, by the time My Best Friend’s Wedding came along, it was a national holiday that Roberts was returning to the romantic comedy genre where we all loved her best.
People magazine at the time pretty much hung streamers and balloons for the occasion, even if Roberts’ own words on the publicity trail expressed a kind of exasperation at having to jump through these hoops:
“Roberts’s decision to do Wedding shows that after several years of increasingly questionable career choices (Mary Reilly, Michael Collins, Ready To Wear), she has learned to lighten up and return to the sexy, funny roles that turned the once-gawky girl … into a star. Pitching the film to theatre owners at the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas last March, Roberts pleaded, ‘My hair is a lovely shade of red and very long and curly the way you guys like it; for the love of God, please see this movie!’”
My Best Friend’s Wedding turned out to be one of the best romantic comedies of the decade — funny how Roberts keeps making excellent movies again and again, almost like the reports of her career on life support were always exaggerated — and it kicked off one of the strongest stretches of her career, including the solid thriller Conspiracy Theory, the destined-for-a-lifetime-on-cable weepie Stepmom, the 1999 rom-com bonanzas that were Notting Hill and Runaway Bride, all culminating in the Academy Award for 2000s Erin Brockovich.
It’s deeply ironic that of all the actors and actors who have won Oscars on the backs of goosed “comeback” narratives, Julia Roberts wasn’t one of them.
From there, Roberts’s career was a bit less susceptible to “slump” charges, because a) an Oscar statue is like Hollywood teflon, at least for a while, and b) she kept making Ocean’s movies that may not have been Julia Roberts Movies, but they were still easy to point to whenever a Full Frontal or a (sigh) Duplicity flopped.
That didn’t stop the press from attaching the “comeback” label to Eat, Pray, Love in 2010, and when that movie did okay financially (and somewhat less than okay critically), the dreaded “failed comeback” label.
Another Oscar nomination for 2013’s August: Osage County shut critics up enough, but it was the unexpected windfall for Wonder last year that got everybody’s attention. And since it was a somewhat unexpected blockbuster, those “comeback” narratives didn’t even get a chance to take shape. Which is maybe too bad; a comeback narrative could have led to a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
This awards season, she’ll try to ride that career upswing to a fifth career nod for Ben Is Back, where she plays the emotionally conflicted mother to returned-from-drug-rehab Lucas Hedges.
Here’s the thing: if you have to keep writing new “comeback” stories for an actor every few years, it means she’s never gone away. Just as often, these comeback stories arise from the perception that some other actor has stepped up to take her perceived America’s Sweetheart crown.
Meg Ryan’s early ’90s ascent coincided with Roberts’ pre-Pelican Brief exile. Sandra Bullock’s mere existence caused critics to drop dirt on Roberts’s casket not once (the pre-My Best Friend’s Wedding ’90s) but twice (before Eat Pray Love, when it was reported that Roberts had passed on both The Proposal and The Blind Side).
The rush to keep declaring Julia Roberts’s career dead, then reawakened, then dead again, then alive once more, is indicative of any number of the ways in which Hollywood makes actors jump through hoops and compete against one another.
This week, Julia Roberts is the star of a brand new Amazon TV series, the quite excellent Homecoming. It’s not a comeback. Not her last chance. It’s what’s next for an actor who has stubbornly refused to go away.