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In the movies' `Roberts formula,' money can buy love

Why do guys in the movies usually think they have to pay for the company of Julia Roberts? Don't they know money can't buy love? Why doesn't anybody just waltz in and sweep her off her feet, like in an old-fashioned love story?

"Dying Young," the latest film by the woman described as Hollywood's hottest female star, begins like many of her others, with a man who thinks his wealth will be able to purchase her affection. He is the 28-year-old son of a very rich man, and he takes out an ad in the paper asking for a "young and attractive woman with some nursing experience."

She arrives for the job interview in a red miniskirt, and claims she had some experience in her younger years as a Candy-Striper. He looks at the miniskirt, decides she has experience aplenty, and offers her the job: Room and board and $400 a week, in return for supporting him through the horrors of chemotherapy. Of course he is not really looking for a nurse. He's looking for love, and fears he may not have long to find it.

This set-up leads to the archetypal scene in most Julia Roberts movies, all versions of "Pygmalion," in which she plays an uneducated working-class woman who is swept off her feet by a rich man of a higher social class. When she caves in and starts to love the guy, and he can stop writing the checks. Only one variation is permitted, in which she drops the rich creep and starts to love a regular guy who has turned up in her life. The Roberts Formula seems so established, it's almost as obligatory as the formula used in many of the movies by the number one male star, Tom Cruise (the neophyte, the mentor, the older woman, the craft, the arena, etc.). Consider the Julia Roberts filmography:

* "Mystic Pizza" (1988). Roberts plays Daisy Araujo, a young woman of working-class Portuguese ancestry, who works in a pizzeria near a coastal resort of the rich and famous. A rich kid named Charles Gordon Winsor Jr. walks into her life and sweeps her off her feet, and at first she is impressed, although eventually he stages an embarrassing scene in front of the snobs in his family, and she drops him.

* "Pretty Woman" (1990). Roberts plays Vivian Ward, a hooker on Hollywood Boulevard who is picked up by a rich businessman (Richard Gere). He is not interested in sex. Neither is she, for that matter, but she charges him for his time, and stays on the payroll until they fall genuinely in love, and he can stop writing the checks. Meanwhile, he explains the investment business to her.

* "Sleeping with the Enemy" (1991). Roberts plays a young woman named Sara, who has married a rich creep (Patrick Bergin) who considers her a possession, like his house and his car. He bought her, and she's his--as a partner in his sick scenarios in which love and tenderness are alternated with savage beatings. Eventually she runs away, takes another identity, and falls in love with the nice guy next door (Kevin Anderson).

* And now comes "Dying Young," in which she eventually falls in love with the rich kid and he can stop writing the checks. Her home-study subject this time is art history. "Dying Young" does have an aborted version of the nice kid next door. He's a working-class guy in the Northern California coastal town the young couple hides out in. He's warm and understanding, and there are scenes in the movie suggesting that Roberts, worn down by the demands of her self-centered lover, might find consolation with him. But in the end she stays with the original version of the story formula.

The key element in all of these scenarios is the rich man, usually older, who thinks he can win Julia Roberts by using his money and impressing her wioth his power and knowledge. Isn't it a little amazing that Hollywood's top female star has found herself in this situation four different times?

Well, no, actually it isn't all that amazing--if you'll allow me to use a little pop psychology. Ask yourself these questions: (1) who writes most movies, (2) who directs most movies, (3) who produces and finances most movies, and (4) who acts as agents for the top stars? The answer in all four cases is usually the same: Middle-aged rich men.

Movies, as we know, are dream machines. In them we can realize our fantasies, which include, in the case of many men, the notion of falling in love with someone like Julia Roberts. When men daydream about desirable women, I imagine, we usually think through a scenario by which the woman is brought into our arms. Young guys dream in romantic terms, but older guys may not consider themselves quite so sexually desirable as they once were, and so they construct scenarios based on power and money. (If power is indeed the ultimate aphrodisiac, maybe that's because it excites the people who have it.)

Imagine your average Hollywood rich and powerful guy. He is in his 40s. He is probably married with children. He may be balding, he may be fat, he may be short, he may not look very much like Robert Redford. He works in a modern corporate culture in which lip-service is paid to the notion that women must be treated with respect. In the old days, he would have had a casting couch in his office, and he might have been able to summon an actress to his inner sanctum and had his way with her. Those days are over, especially with rich and powerful stars like Julia Roberts. The wrong guy makes a pass at her, he'll never have lunch in this town again.

So what does he do? He makes a movie in which his fantasies are realized. And what does he fantasize about, this rich and powerful Hollywood guy? He doesn't fantasize about some handsome young kid, some virile Tom Cruise or Matt Dillon, sweeping Julia Roberts into his arms and carrying her up the stairs or off into the sunset. Not for a moment. His fantasies are about how if Julia Roberts could somehow be lured close enough, with money and power as the bait--why, then, after long dinner conversations at Morton's, she'd eventually see what a witty, fascinating and sexy man this middle-aged Hollywood guy really was.

How does Julia Roberts find herself in one movie after another that services this fantasy? Maybe because Hollywood is a culture run by rich and powerful middle-aged men who cannot, after all, be blamed for fantasizing about this ravishingly beautiful and intriguing woman. It's not that I haven't enjoyed some of her movies; "Mystic Pizza" and "Pretty Woman" were a lot of fun, even if the two more recent films were drippy. My career advice for Julia Roberts? For a change, find an idealistic screenplay. Find a young-hearted director. And make a movie filled with heart and romance and the newness of things.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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