Film Studies: It's time for Julia Roberts to throw away her make-up

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The Independent Culture

When the re-make of Ocean's 11 appeared in 2001 one writer struggling to find interest in that desperate and ridiculous venture - I remember, because it was me - noted that something natural, unavoidable yet distressing was happening with Julia Roberts and her looks. She was growing older. I slipped further towards ungallantry by saying that director Steven Soderbergh (her hero on Erin Brockovich, the guide to her Oscar) had been a little unkind to Julia by asking her to walk, several times, across a considerable space of casino floor. With some actresses, that might be piling glory on beauty, but in this case it only demonstrated that Julia Roberts hadn't really learned to walk yet.

No sooner said and Ms Roberts was making a new life for herself. First the marriage and then the determination to get into the family way - and now she has her twins. You could say that this was clear evidence of a smart actress taking suitable evasive action before 40 dawned - Julia Roberts will be 40 in 2007. I know, she has gone along with the daft reunion of Ocean's 12, she did a suave turn as a femme-fatale super-spy in George Clooney's terribly neglected Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and she had an old-fashioned personality hit playing a wide-eyed art teacher at Wellesley in Mona Lisa Smile. In hindsight, you can see her participation in that last film - shameless and fanciful - as the act of a wise woman establishing a trust fund for the twins. Like too many of Julia's films over the years - Sleeping With the Enemy, Something to Talk About, I Love Trouble - it seemed to have been inspired by nothing but career. (Just as a test, what can you remember about any of these three pictures?).

But then there is Closer, which opens in the US in the very week the twins are born, and which those kids should probably not see until they are 18 or so. Closer is the kind of picture one had nearly given up hopes of seeing: it's just four people, talking to or watching each other, sniping, taunting, rebuking, all in the matter-of-fact tone whereby Julia's character will tell one of her two men that yes, having oral sex with the other guy was much the same as serving him, but sweeter.

Some critics in America have flinched from Closer and from the encounter with Julia Roberts talking in that kind of way. It was always suggested, from Pretty Woman onwards, that her sexiness was a coy act. Now it sounds like weary experience. Those doubters say Closer is so depressing it reminds you too much of life. And, of course, that is revealing of the wretched state in which film and film comment find themselves nowadays. Once upon a time, we used to hope for films that reminded us of life. Now we put up with attempts to make us forget life, or discredit it.

I've only seen Closer the once, and I may be an uncommon audience for the film in that I don't know the Patrick Marber play on which it is based. Still, I'm sure that Closer is the film of the year for me, directed with a simplicity that seems to have come upon Mike Nichols in recent years (notably with Wit and Angels in America) and with three out of four amazing performances. Yes, the film is tough, cold, bleak, pitiless and frightening, but what is Christmas for?

The odd man out, surprisingly, is Jude Law. This has not been a good year for an actor who seemed not long ago to be crammed with promise. The re-make of Alfie (with Law in nearly every shot and talking all the time) was not just awful but a ruinous exposure of his charm. He lacks confidence, and the more you see of him the more it nags. I Heart Huckabees is silly and pretentious. And, in hindsight, I wonder more if Law wasn't a touch too immature for Cold Mountain. In Closer, he is supposed to have written a novel, and try as I might when I look at Law I can't believe he has the stamina to finish reading a book, let alone write one.

As to the other three players, I have not one complaint: this is clearly Natalie Portman's breakthrough film - she is enchanting and lethal, childlike and eternal, in ways that made me think of Louise Brooks. Clive Owen, in probably the hardest or most vulnerable part, is so good that I would immediately mount a season of Pinter plays with him in the leads. And then there is Julia Roberts, looking older and sadder than 37, wearing very little make-up in the searching white light, living with her own faults and weaknesses, and giving a flawless performance of rotten adulthood.

More or less, for 15 years or so, Julia Roberts worked on beauty, charm and the way in which, if in doubt, she would just smile. In other words, her performances deal in attractiveness, youth and charm. Often enough, from Pretty Woman to Erin Brockovich, but above all in Mary Reilly, Julia Roberts gave ample evidence that she could act. (Mary Reilly, by Stephen Frears, written by Christopher Hampton, with John Malkovich as Dr Jekyll and Julia as his housemaid, is a very fine film, and the one effort in which Julia had said, well, I won't be pretty. Response: the public never saw it.) Often enough - above all in Notting Hill - being Julia was sufficient.

Yet any actress knows that happy era is short-lived. The mirror does take its revenge; and actresses bewail the shortage of parts for women past 40. There's justice in that complaint. The movie audience does not much enjoy complaining women, those beset by loss and insecurity. The kids going to movies want the perfection of advertisements, and that's surely one reason why they divorce each other so often. But it's also true that many actresses resist 40, deny it, and try to stay young. And those cheating ways are as quickly palpable as youth itself and a body that still has few worries about staying taut.

The most admirable thing about Julia Roberts in Closer is the willingness to play it without a safety net. She could have taken the trouble to look better and younger without anything that you'd call cheating. But she plays a photographer, a woman who believes in the naked moments of the human face, and who has given up on subterfuges for herself. It is an ensemble film, in which individual performances may not be picked out - and if they are, why Natalie Portman's success is the more spectacular, and the most tied to nude scenes and moments of sexual candour. But hearing Julia Roberts talk directly about sex is not just refreshing, it's startling enough to reveal how much of a tease her career has been so far.

I hope that won't deter her. She has never been better or been involved in a more absorbing picture. One day it is the movie the twins will vote as their favourite.

'The Real Julia Roberts': Channel 4, Thurs, 10pm