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COVER STORY : Give Us Something to Smile About

August 06, 1995|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic.

The big question for Julia Roberts' career is when is she going to realize that it's OK to smile again.

Though it wasn't technically her debut, Roberts and her trademark radiance first came to serious public attention with "Mystic Pizza" in 1988. While her co-stars Lili Taylor and Annabeth Gish made strong impressions, it was Roberts and that killer smile that Hollywood remembered.

For the next couple of years that smile was unstoppable. Roberts got an Oscar nomination as the bride in "Steel Magnolias," a play that should have been left on stage, and then got a second one for "Pretty Woman," the top-grossing film of 1990, in which, to quote historian David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film," she "played the kind of adorable whore whom a respectable man could take to the opera and put through college." More than that, Roberts became a certified American phenomenon, with all the positive and negative impact on her personal life that that implied.

Her next three films, "Flatliners," "Dying Young" and "Sleeping With the Enemy," had the unhappy distinction of being commercial in intention without being distinguished. Roberts also had the simultaneous misfortune of living out the romantic tumult common to people her age in the unforgiving glare of publicity. Whenever her picture appeared in the papers, she was understandably not in a mood to smile.

After a break from work, she warily re-entered the system with cameos in "Hook" and "The Player." Since then, she has had major roles in four pictures: "The Pelican Brief," "I Love Trouble," "Ready to Wear" and now "Something to Talk About."

Though diverse in many respects, one factor unites this quartet: They feature the actress with the most appealing of smiles wearing a variety of sour and unhappy looks for most of--if not all of--her time on screen.

Having America fall in love with you, as the country did with Roberts in "Pretty Woman," can be a serious burden--so much so that it must be tempting to throw it off by any means necessary. And being an actor known for a physical characteristic can't be gratifying to the ego.

Even Jimmy Stewart, perhaps tired of having the most likable grin of his generation, made a group of pictures in the 1950s where he played decidedly close to nasty.

Still, there seems something willful and almost self-destructive in the way Roberts has taken a series of not particularly interesting roles that call for her to be continually unhappy on screen. A smile like hers is so revivifying it makes a visit to the movies worthwhile all by itself, even if the picture isn't otherwise of interest.

But seeing her miserable in miserable pictures such as "I Love Trouble" and "Ready to Wear" and knowing she could change things for an audience with a few smiles seems cruel and unusual punishment for those who have already suffered enough. As Preston Sturges beautifully demonstrated in "Sullivan's Travels," there is nothing bad about making people feel good.

"Something to Talk About," Roberts' current film, can be viewed as a move in a better direction. True, her character is in agony for most of the picture, but she does get to flash a rusty grin or two near the end. More positively, Callie Khouri's script is the best-written, most idiosyncratic one Roberts has taken on in years. And when it comes to getting the respect of audiences and critics, as well as broadening yourself as a performer, paying attention to the quality of material is more likely to pay off than simply wiping the best smile in the business off the face of the earth.

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