Waiting for the Smile
Who’s the fairest of them all? On a gray day in director Mike Nichols’s New York apartment, it’s undoubtedly Julia Roberts, returning to the screen this month as the Evil Queen in Mirror Mirror—Tarsem Singh’s witty Snow White adaptation. As Sam Kashner follows the free-ranging conversation, Roberts and Nichols discuss the professional spark between them (seen in Closer and Charlie Wilson’s War), their lucky breaks, and their durable marriages.
By the time she made Mystic Pizza, in 1988, he had already directed 10 films and was busy making Working Girl and Biloxi Blues. Since they met, nine years ago, they have become the closest of friends. Mike Nichols directed Julia Roberts in Closer in 2004 and, three years later, in Charlie Wilson’s War. Now they’re talking about doing Shakespeare in the Park together.
The first thing I heard was laughter from unheard jokes—it was her laugh, the same one that we fell in love with when Richard Gere suddenly snapped the jewelry box shut on her in Pretty Woman. It’s a shame you can’t hear it in this conversation between Mike Nichols and Julia Roberts, held on one of those gray, shapeless days in Manhattan when you realize that summer is truly over. “I’m Julia,” she says, introducing herself in the middle of Nichols’s living room, offering her hand, a Hindu prayer bracelet circling her slender wrist.
There has been no one like her for quite a while now. Too much has changed—in her life and in ours—since she first dazzled us in her early, insouciant films. But to see her on-screen now is to experience that same simple joy all over again. One never tires of it, like seeing a shooting star: where did that come from? You are grateful to simply have seen it at all. And if you are lucky enough to make her laugh, which Nichols does effortlessly, her voluptuous mouth breaks into a radiant grin. No wonder he seems so taken with her, so obviously delighting in her company—and, for that matter, she in his. No wonder she feels confident enough to play the Evil Queen in Mirror Mirror, coming out this spring. This is not Walt Disney’s Snow White, but a witty, swashbuckling adaptation by the Indian director Tarsem Singh, whom Julia calls “a mad, lovable genius.” Tarsem describes the movie as “more like Gaudí meets the Brothers Grimm, with turn-of-the-century Russian filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein thrown in.” She didn’t want to take on the role at first, until she learned that the movie would be directed by Tarsem. (She and her husband, Danny Moder, loved his 2006 fantasy adventure film, The Fall.) She told her agent to “make a lunch. I’m a crazy Tarsem fan.” As far as Tarsem was concerned, the Evil Queen was the first character he was interested in casting. “I knew that it would dictate the tone and age of everyone else. I was only interested in Julia.”
Julia has always been lucky in her directors. Enter Mike Nichols, “one of the great artists of the 20th century,” as actor Philip Seymour Hoffman said recently. Hoffman appeared with Julia and Tom Hanks in Charlie Wilson’s War and will wrestle with the daunting role of Willy Loman in Nichols’s 2012 Broadway production of Death of a Salesman. But that’s just how many of America’s leading actors and directors feel about Nichols. For Steven Soderbergh, who directed Julia in her Academy Award-winning performance in Erin Brockovich, in 2000, Nichols is both hero and teacher. And when Natalie Portman accepted her Academy Award for Black Swan last year, she reserved a tender thank-you for Nichols, who had directed her in Closer. When Angels in America was filmed for HBO, in 2003, playwright Tony Kushner turned to Nichols as the one person who could steer such a grand ship safely into port. Indeed, images from Mike Nichols’s films are now a part of our cultural DNA—Mrs. Robinson’s seduction of Benjamin in The Graduate; George and Martha’s night of fun and games in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Alan Arkin peeling back the bombardier’s jacket in Catch-22; Shirley MacLaine crossing her legs atop a piano in Postcards from the Edge; a furious Sigourney Weaver brandishing her crutches in Working Girl.
One hopes Nichols and Roberts will make other films together. Like Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor, who collaborated on eight feature films, among them The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, and Pat and Mike, they seem to bring out the best in each other. Meanwhile, think of this as a little one-act play, starring Julia Roberts and Mike Nichols. Call it:
JULIA & MIKE:
A FAIRY TALE BASED ON REAL LIFE.
[The scene: a Manhattan apartment just before lunch.]
VANITY FAIR: I hope you don’t mind that I brought this by.
[V.F. shows them a 1961 Smirnoff advertisement featuring a boyish Mike with his former comedy partner, Elaine May.]
MIKE: No, I’m thrilled—are you kidding? I think this is Avedon.
JULIA: [Looking at photograph] You’ve changed so little, Mike, it’s amazing!
V.F.: So, how would you like to do this?
JULIA: Give us topics … It can be like Password.
MIKE: So, why are we in the pages of Vanity Fair? Is it that Julia has a movie coming out?
V.F.: It’s a conversation between the two of you. I’m just here to provoke you into talking.
JULIA: Provoke us. We love to be provoked.
V.F.: A lot of my questions will be inane.
MIKE: We can match that.
V.F.: I want to know how you came into each other’s lives. Was it for Closer?
JULIA: It was. I owe it all to Cate Blanchett.
V.F.: How so?
MIKE: She got pregnant.
JULIA: She had been cast in Closer and got pregnant and then couldn’t be in it. So I owe a great debt to her.
MIKE: Cate Blanchett said she had done a picture when she was pregnant, and she just wore a corset. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, Well, I don’t think that could work for Closer, since it’s all about sex. And somehow a corset that you can’t remove is not a big turn-on. [To Julia] I hadn’t dreamed that you would consider it, because there were four equal roles in the movie, and I didn’t know you were willing to be part of a group thing. That was very exciting for me. But I didn’t yet know about your modesty …
JULIA: I am a human corset. I think Mike just had such a great understanding of the four of us [Julia, Jude Law, Clive Owen, and Natalie Portman] as people and how we related to each other.
V.F.: That was a good foursome.
MIKE: It really worked. Everybody was there for everybody else. Everybody was so inventive and true. It’s funny, because I made another movie long before about sex, Carnal Knowledge—also four people. But one of them had never really acted, Art Garfunkel, and the other three [Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, and Ann-Margret] were at the very beginning of their careers. I mean, Ann-Margret wasn’t, but she wasn’t primarily an actress at that point. Closer felt like a great string quartet of soloists. It’s what it was in a way. Everybody knew exactly what they were doing and what they hoped to do.
JULIA: That’s what it felt like—we were frighteningly in tune. I think what I liked the most about working with Mike and being friends with Mike is that he’s the most plainspoken and the most encouraging person I’ve ever met in my life. Those two things are like milk and honey to me. I think back on that movie so fondly. I remember the night that movie premiered because I was in the hospital on bed rest, pregnant as a house, and Mike came to see me on the way to the big premiere. It was so sweet.
MIKE: I remember you in bed, proudly showing your belly …
JULIA: Hard to hide it!
V.F.: When you’re working with someone, did you screen a lot of each other’s films? Would you do that for an actress, Mike?
MIKE: I had seen pretty much everything of Julia’s, because I was shocked seeing her in Mystic Pizza.
JULIA: O.K., let’s just stop there for a second—isn’t it funny just to think of Mike Nichols watching Mystic Pizza? Isn’t that … it’s so cute!
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Source : vanityfair.com