There was a time, in the late ’90s, when Julia Roberts was considered the biggest film actress in the world. She was America’s Sweetheart, and when she unleashed that 1,000-watt smile, she could lift the spirits of even the most hardened cynics.
From 1997 to 2000, six movies in a row starring Roberts grossed more than $100 million at the box office, culminating in Erin Brockovich—a drama about a single mother of three who tussles with a dirty energy corporation. Roberts was paid $20 million for the film, which went on to gross an inexplicable $256 million worldwide and bag her the Best Actress Oscar.
Legend has it that when George Clooney and Brad Pitt found out she’d be joining the gang for Ocean’s Eleven, they sent her a card that read, “We heard you get 20 per film.” Enclosed was a $20 bill—a dig at her lofty salary. Cheeky bastards.
But ever since her delicious turn as a saucy Southern debutante in 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War, things haven’t been too peachy for Roberts. There was the disastrous ensemble rom-com Valentine’s Day, presumably done as a favor to her Pretty Woman director, Garry Marshall; the frustratingly banal and wrongheaded Eat Pray Love; and last year’s riff on the Snow White fairy tale Mirror Mirror, which was all pomp and no circumstance. And even cinephiles would have a hard time recalling Fireflies in the Garden or Larry Crowne.
Which brings us to the present. Roberts, at 45, has sprung from movie jail with Joker-like gusto and turned in arguably the finest screen performance of her career in August: Osage County, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday night. Her turn is a master class in deconstruction and a role that brings her career full circle, from Steel Magnolias to the spectacular now.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning play of the same name by Tracy Letts, the film centers on the dysfunctional Weston family of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Beverly (Sam Shepard) is an award-winning poet who is locked in what he calls a “cruel covenant” with his nasty wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). “My wife pops pills, and I drink,” he explains to their newly hired caregiver, Johnna. Violet suffers from mouth cancer and is in the final stages of chemo, which has claimed most of her hair. (That doesn’t stop her from smoking like a chimney.) To keep up appearances, she wears a dark wig and black shades, resembling Dylan circa 1966.
When Beverly goes missing, Violet calls on her three daughters for support. Barbara (Roberts) travels from Colorado with her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin); Karen (Juliette Lewis) speeds in from Florida with her Ferrari-driving, Jock Jams–listening fiancé (Dermot Mulroney); and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) drops in from nearby. The Weston clan is joined by Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale); her husband, Charles (Chris Cooper); and their spineless son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). They all convene at the Weston family home, and over the next several days, a series of ghosts come out of the closet.
August: Osage County is directed by former ER showrunner John Wells from a screenplay by Letts and produced by George Clooney, whom Wells gave his first big break on the aforementioned medical drama. Streep, of course, will be on the receiving end of plenty of awards talk for her showy turn, which includes a series of unglamorous close-ups and a mesmerizing 20-minute dinner sequence in which she verbally undresses every single member of her family with rapacious license.
But it’s Roberts’s performance that surprises the most.
Violet walks all over her two youngest daughters, but Barbara matches her, low blow for low blow. She’s part spitfire like her mother and part tortured soul like her father.
“Thank God we can’t tell the future,” she tells her daughter. “We’d never get out of bed.”
Bill’s been an inconsistent—and relatively lax—presence in their daughter’s life, leaving Barbara to play disciplinarian. Worse, he’s separated from the hard-hearted Barbara in favor of his much younger secretary. Unlike the tragic victim Roberts played in 1989’s Steel Magnolias, the film that put her on the map, Barbara is a survivor with a mouth like a trucker. This ain’t your mama’s Julia Roberts, but a woman scorned.
At the height of her career Roberts was known as the cheery underdog, everybody’s all-American gal. She’s the tragic heroine, the hooker with a heart of gold, the abused wife, the other woman, the shaky movie star. But Roberts has always been at her acting best when she gets combative, flipping two birds to our perception of her. Much as in Brockovich or Closer, her turn in August: Osage County is a brilliant riff on her squeaky-clean image and on-screen victim persona. And it doesn’t hurt that we see Roberts’s full acting talents on display, whether she’s telling a hilarious story of Violet smuggling pills into a hospital in her “cooch” or locking horns with her mom, yelling, “Eat your fucking fish!” at her, or wrestling a bottle of pills from her hands.
This is the rawest and the most assured performance of Roberts’s career.
Welcome back, Julia.