The Playgoer: Julia panned

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Julia panned

But let's get onto the important stuff.

Three Days of Rain has opened and the pile-on has begun. Brantley turns in one of his loopiest, most cringe-inducing reviews in years, but I can't say it's not an enjoyable read. To cut straight to the chase, though:

...stiff with self-consciousness (especially in the first act), only glancingly acquainted with the two characters she plays...

We all wanted our Julia to do well. That she does not do well — at least not by any conventional standards of theatrical art — is unlikely to lose Ms. Roberts any fans, though it definitely won't win her any new ones among drama snobs. Your heart goes out to her when she makes her entrance in the first act and freezes with the unyielding stiffness of an industrial lamppost, as if to move too much might invite falling.

Sometimes she plants one hand on a hip, then varies the pose by doing the same on the other side. Her voice is strangled, abrupt and often hard to hear. She has the tenseness of a woman who might break into pieces at any second.

Unfortunately it's in the second act that Ms. Roberts plays the character who is always on the verge of a breakdown, and in this part she's comparatively relaxed, perhaps because she has a slipping Southern accent to hide behind. In the first act she's supposed to be the normal one...

Ms. Roberts often gives the impression that she is parsing her lines, leaving lots of dead air between fragments.

As I first predicted back in July, this particular play was a really bad call for her to make a Broadway debut in. But when will movie stars (and, more importantly their producers!) learn that the transition just isn't that easy.

I say it all comes down to the voice vs the face. In film we take in the actor's face, on stage the voice. Which is why a stage actor doesn't have to be especially pretty or handsome to be sexy, if they've got the voice. And which is why the most beautiful or hunky celluloid stars can come off as total spazzes from the back row.

Maybe Julia's producers have no regrets, though. Who are we kidding, this show is already sold out from now to the next millenium. All she needs is a Tony...

UPDATE: Other reviews, same views--NY Sun, NY Post, LA Times. Her one defender so far? Linda Winer in Newsday.


Ben Ellis said...

You're right to say that the difficulty of the transition is too often underestimated. The biggest problem for actors who are in the habit of TV and movie acting is a crucial and simple one: they leave gaps of silence between the end of the other speakers' lines and the beginning of their own, giving a clunky, deflated feel to their scenes. Because they are used to the function of action-reaction being given to the camera, their instincts are displaced. It often takes a hell of a lot of work to get them to act/react within each moment, whether they think the focus is on them or not. (They are exceptions, of course, such as the well-trained and intelligent Cate Blanchett.)

Screenstar-led theatre might be profitable, but its success is similar to that of freakshows. In a way, this kind of show shouldn't be called theatre but a rehearsed exhibit. Its success isn't going to led to more people engaging with theatre at other venues, because it isn't theatre that they're engaging with here. It's the chance to applaud somebody breathing who's previously only been visible as plasma in their living room.

Anonymous said...

I saw Julia Roberts in a reading at the Cherry Lane Alternative years ago. She was totally at ease, natural, lovely, captivating.

Why go onto Broadway? Why not do an off-Broadway play? Some of the best stage actors I know have a tough time filling a Broadway house.

And shame on people like Joe Mantello, who should know better than to subject an inexperienced star to a Broadway house.

Anonymous said...

Ben Ellis makes some very smart comments about the difference between screen acting and stage acting above, but I have to wonder why the virulent tone of much of the criticism we read (not on this blog) flows only in the direction of movie and TV actors who take a shot at live performance, never at stage performers who can be brilliant, or at least winning and charismatic, in a theater but whose appeal utterly vanishes when they do a movie, a TV series, or an episode of "Law & Order: SVU". It seems almost too cruel to list most of their names, but a quick look at the Tony winners and nominees from the last ten years provides endless examples of stage actors who, on screen, push too hard, or overemote, or make too much of a moment, or can't master the more naturalistic delivery audio-recorded language requires.

When movie actors blow it, it's always taken as further proof that they're not "real" actors, just beautiful people who've gotten lucky enough to find fame in an easier medium. When theater actors blow it, movie critics, who seem a less insular and overwrought lot than theater critics, kind of shrug it off. I admit I haven't seen Roberts in Three Days of Rain, but I can't imagine her performance is more technically maladroit than, say, Nathan Lane's in the film version of The Producers. And I thought Brantley's description of her movie range was completely inept (if he really feels she gave the same performances in Pretty Woman and Closer, he should confine himself to further gushing about the difference between movie stars and Movie Stars, because he clearly knows nothing about movie acting beyond that).

Playgoer said...

I actually will take issue with Damien about the "vice-versa" issue. Though I haven't seen the Producers movie, I'll give you Lane.... But other than that, name all these other stage actors who can't hack it on camera? Maybe they don't have successful careers. But just one episode of Law & Order will actually PROVE that New York stage actors are usually fabulous on screens big and small. (I would even venture that the consistent level of acting is what makes L & O so successful.)

The old saw that stage actors will always be too "big" and hammy for film & tv has to be retired.
Philip Seymor Hoffman, anyone? Liev Scheiber?

It's also interesting how lots of indie filmmakers have turned consistently to crusty old stage vets (even "hammy" Brits) like Ian Holm, Michael Gambon, Ben Kingsley and, yes, Ian McKellan for their incredibly nuanced and technically adept performances.

The list can go on and on of those good actors who show up the "straight to video" stars every time they're on screen with them: Dylan Baker, Patricia Clarkson, David Straithairn, Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Billy Crudup, Mark Ruffalo.... Again it's indie directors that have often taken a chance on these actors. And it paid off bigtime, because they brought a depth and character immersion little imagined in Hollywood.

Don't forget, too, that many of our favorite younger Brit & Aussie movie stars by necessity trained and worked extensively on stage first: the aforementioned Ms Blanchet, Ralph Fienes, Ken Branagh, Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina.... The old stereotypes don't hold anymore, I say.

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to imply that stage actors, by and large, can't act on film; I agree with almost all of the examples you cite. But let me pick one I don't agree with, not because I think he's a bad actor but because I think he's a very, very good one: Liev Schreiber is, to me, an actor who comes electrifyingly alive on stage but on screen is not particularly interesting. And not because he's too big or hammy; it's because his particular virtues don't include a kind of openness and emotional transparency that movie closeups were designed to express--and which is one of the things that makes Roberts a really good movie ACTRESS and not just someone who fits Brantley's gushy and outmoded "star" definition. Yet would anybody say that Schreiber is a lesser actor because of this? No (at least, I wouldn't), and it's only the double standard I'm objecting to.

(David Edelstein makes the case for Roberts as a movie actress very well in this week's New York mag, by the way--and he didn't like her on stage but really understands her skill.)

Movie actors face huge challenges, including creating a character in roles shot out of sequence, with editing and choice of takes out of their control--they don't, sometimes, even know whether a long shot or closeup is going to be used, or how long they can hold a moment. Those who can do it well, consistently, shouldn't be dismissed as people who just can't hack it in the tougher medium of theater when they fail on stage. There's a certain pleasure I think theater critics take in imagining that this "proves" something about Julia Roberts--that what she does doesn't take much skill and that now we know what she's really made of--and that's what I don't buy.

My name is Damien, and I hope I never write a sentence as bad as "My name is Damien, and I am a Juliaholic." But I like her.

Playgoer said...

Does anyone want to comment on the Brantley review itself, btw? Isn't it a tad over the top, even for him? Has he lost it? Or is he just so desperate to still please a star even if his conscience tells him how bad the show was?