Entertainment

Julia Roberts may have bigger audiences for her ads than for her movies

Posted May 3

Last month, when Julia Roberts was named by People magazine “the world’s most beautiful woman” (for a record-setting fifth time) I set aside the obvious superficiality of that title and began to think about what movies I’d seen her in lately.

I mean, really, is her job to act or to be beautiful?

OK, in Hollywood those two jobs are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but as I thought about Roberts’ last few movies … well, I couldn’t think of any.

Does “Notting Hill” count? “Erin Brockovich”? “Runaway Bride”?

Yikes! It’s been nearly two decades since she had those three hits in a row, which I know after looking up her credits on imdb.com.

The site also verifies that Roberts is still doing a film or two each year — and I had indeed seen quite a few of them. They just weren’t all that memorable.

Most recently, Roberts did a voice for “Smurfs: The Lost Village.”

Actually, I didn’t see that one. Back in 1983, I reviewed “The Smurfs and the Magic Flute” for the Deseret News. That was 34 years ago, and if 34 more years go by before I see another Smurfs movie, that’ll be just fine.

But I digress.

If you look at Roberts’ most recent theatrical films you’ll see a list of Hollywood pictures that underperformed at the box office and were generally met with a mixed to thumbs-down reception by national critics — “Money Monster,” “Mother’s Day,” “Secret in Their Eyes,” “August: Osage County,” “Mirror Mirror,” “Larry Crowne,” “Eat Pray Love,” “Valentine’s Day,” “Duplicity.”

However you may feel about some of these films personally, none managed to reach the heights anticipated by their respective studios.

This isn’t meant to disparage Roberts, a fine actress who has simply been saddled with less-than-stellar scripts lately. And several of these — perhaps all of them — must have looked good on paper but for one reason critics and/or the moviegoing public failed to respond to them.

I’ve written before about a press conference I attended many years ago in which Donald Sutherland, coming off a string of box-office flops, was asked why he had made so many bad movies, to which he responded with a smile, “I don’t go into a picture saying, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be a bad one!’ I think they’re all going to be wonderful.”

And when movies work, even the filmmakers often can’t explain it. One prominent director once told me movies have so many cooks in the kitchen that any film that becomes a box-office hit and/or a critical darling is really just a “happy accident.”

To understand what he meant, stay in your seat for that interminable end-credits scroll sometime and notice how many jobs are listed, much less all those names.

As for Roberts, she may still be a stunner at age 49, but to casting agents she is no doubt seen as simply a woman of a certain age in an industry that worships at the feet of youth. Age is not respected. Especially when it comes to women.

So unless she’s willing to don a skimpy costume to play Wonder Woman’s mother, well, who knows when her next box-office bonanza will occur. (Hey, even Robert Redford showed up in a superhero movie a couple of years ago.)

Anyway, as I was mulling over all of this, I found myself wandering through a local drugstore, where I saw a poster with Roberts’ face next to a pitch for Lancôme perfume products — which, a bit of Googling later told me, has been earning her multiple millions since 2009, according to jezebel.com.

Hey, we all need a part-time gig sometimes to make ends meet. And for this job she really does just need to be beautiful.

Then I noticed a bunch of similar posters (a bit smaller) for various products being pitched by Jennifer Aniston, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Garner, Andie MacDowell and Katie Holmes.

And they’re all no doubt drawing in much bigger audiences for these ads than for their movies.

Not that movie stars shilling for commercial products is anything new, of course; it dates back to the earliest days of motion pictures.

Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow were in magazine ads for eye makeup during the 1920s; Myrna Loy, Kim Novak, Rita Hayworth, Loretta Young and other stars sold Lux soap; various cigarette brands were touted by Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Joan Crawford and Ronald Reagan, to name just a few; and then there was Barbara Stanwyck for Lipton tea, Sandra Dee for Coppertone suntan lotion, Doris Day for Lustre-Creme shampoo, Shirley Temple for Puffed Wheat cereal, and Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour for Whitman’s chocolates. And way too many more to name.

Back then, of course, the ads included the title of each actor’s latest film, and the money probably went to the studio that held their contracts.

But today the studio system is dead, so the money goes to the star, making these already well-off women that much wealthier.

Nothing wrong with that. Capitalism, baby.

But I’d still like to see them make better movies.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.

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