Understanding the Appeal of Julia Roberts

Posted: August 17, 2011 in Braak
Tags: , ,

Last night, I wanted to watch The Running Man, but it is not available on Netflix instant.  And so, since I couldn’t watch two US governors BATTLE TO THE DEATH, then I wanted to watch a movie with nice people for whom everything just works out.  Also, I really felt like watching a movie that was two-thirds gerund.

Anyway, it made me realize the essential appeal of Julia Roberts.

Now, as you may know, I am a MASTER of theater.  That means that I am an expert in the subject of acting and related aesthetics, which qualifies me to comment on this subject, and so I will.

Julia Roberts is pretty, yes, but it’s not like she’s that pretty.  And she’s a decent enough actress, but it’s not like she’s Dame Judy Dench or anything.  But Julia Roberts has one particular talent that is, in fact, almost unique among actors, and I believe it to be the source of her enduring appeal AS WELL AS the reason why people call her things like “America’s Sweetheart.”  (I actually don’t know anyone who does that, but I am assured that it is the case.)

Here is Julia Roberts’ frankly amazing skill:

She can laugh genuinely on camera.

I am not joking at all when I say that this is pretty unusual.  Of all the kinds of emotions to portray onstage or on film, genuine laughter is by far the most difficult.  And why?  Because unlike sorrow, or anger, or fear, or happiness, or many of the other emotional states evoked by your process, laughter hinges entirely on your being surprised by what just happened.  And surprise is a really difficult thing to capture when you already know everything that’s going to happen.

Have you ever noticed how, in so many Julia Roberts movies (I have seen a lot of Julia Roberts movies.  SO FUCKING WHAT?) she always plays a character that other characters look at with this sort of weird, bemused look on their faces?  Like maybe she’s actually from space or something?  That’s not acting on their part; those are actors staring at her and saying, “Are you kidding?  This is the twenty-third time we’ve done this same stupid fucking joke, and you are still laughing like you mean it?  Are you from space or something?”

No matter how good you are at acting, you have to admit that laughing like you mean it is hard, and it’s something Roberts can do.  And there are two things to understand about this:  the first is that the purpose of laughter is, essentially, reassurance.  It’s a social cue we use to remind people that we’re all on the same team, that there’s no danger, that everything is going to be okay.  And the second is that, since no one else can fucking do it, actors who can laugh genuinely are leaps and bounds more reassuring than those who can’t.

They are a rare breed, and that rarity makes them twice as effective.

So, anyway, the Hollywood Industry:  if you want to find another actress who’s going to have the same kind of appeal on film, and ultimately the same staying power, as an actress like Julia Roberts, then all you have to do is:  look for someone who can laugh genuinely onscreen.

(Hint:  it’s probably Emma Stone.)

  1. Daniel says:

    … and yet she’s incapable of walking naturally. For some reason, she’s developed an incredibly self-aware way of moving that’s really distracting.

    The first time I noticed it was in Ocean’s 11. When she first appears, she walks across the casino floor with what is supposed to be an elegant, confident stride. Instead she clomps across the room like a kid trying on new shoes. Very odd.

  2. braak says:

    That is definitely true, and I guess it goes to show which thing is more essential in a movie.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    I cannot think of Julia Roberts laughing – that “oh you just slapped a jewelry case down on my fingers, you scamp!” goofy laugh – without thinking of two times it was parodied:

    1) On “Arrested Development,” where Charleze Theron has it done to her and reacts with a similar great big laugh – which might make more sense later, when Certain Facts come to light, and

    2) On “30 Rock,” when Jack does that to Liz and her response was, “OWW! Who DOES that? Dag, man!”

  4. Mark says:

    Nailed it. I noticed this exact thing after watching Erin Brokovich. For all of her movie-star oscar pandering in that movie, her scenes with Aaron eckhart show genuine laughter. It’s rare and refreshing and sucks you in like you’re watching an old friend have fun. An amazing quality amongst actresses to be sure. But, to be fair she does walk like a man and Emma stone is not the next Julia Roberts.

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