As Palm Springs honors Julia Roberts, why she's the MVP in 'August: Osage County'

Posted by · 11:30 am · November 22nd, 2013

I caught up with “August: Osage County” last night and found it, as colleagues had led me to expect, something of a mixed bag. Even with the playwright himself on adaptation duty, Tracy Letts’ exhausting but enjoyably spiky Pulitzer Prize-winning play is diminished in its translation to the screen: compressing the material to two-thirds of its luxurious three-hour runtime reveals a number of its strains and superficialities, with the newly short shrift given to certain characters (notably Misty Upham’s Johnna) affecting its cumulative emotional impact.

Still, as a big and bold-faced performance showcase, the film works rather well. Meryl Streep is on brashly entertaining form as the literally and figuratively cancerous-mouthed Violet Weston, a character set to become a new grande dame standard in American theatre. She’s chosen to play it to the hilt, and Violet is a creation who can sustain that approach — though I still think a number of Streep’s contemporaries would been at least as good and gained considerably more from the role.

Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis and Margo Martindale all tackle the material with varying types of gusto, but the clear MVP of the cast, for me, was Julia Roberts. That’s not too surprising a turn of events. Barb Weston, Violet’s embittered and increasingly rageful daughter, is arguably the true protagonist of the piece, and provides ample emotional fodder for any actress up to the task: she may not quite have thespian centerpiece of Violet’s toxic dinner-table spill, but her dawning, furious fear of turning into her mother makes for the richest character arc of play and film alike.

Roberts nails it with searing specificity: skeptics who feared America’s onetime sweetheart wouldn’t embrace Barb’s ugly surges of feeling and physical recklessness should feel duly chastened by a performance that escalates in intensity in perfect sync with Streep’s gradual exposure of Violet’s defences. (Roberts’ “eat the fish” climax is aptly, and thrillingly, unhinged.) It’s the actress’s finest work since her Oscar-winning star turn in “Erin Brockovich,” though the performances are hardly equivalent: one’s a triumph of personality-led movie-star tailoring, the other a risky but successful against-type plunge. (Her fine, tetchy work in 2004’s “Closer” fit the latter description, but this is a ballsier, and better, performance.) 

Whether or not you’re as impressed by the performance as I was, the notion of Roberts as a Best Supporting Actress hopeful is patently ludicrous: as the Tony Awards recognized, the very structure of the material pits daughter against mother as a co-lead, with the remainder of the ensemble observing the fallout from the sidelines which are themselves pretty heavy on secondary conflicts.

Dropping her status to supporting benefits no one but Streep, who hardly needs the help: the queenly nature of the role, combined with her own industry status, ensures most voters would see her as first in the pecking order if both actresses were in the same category. I actually think Roberts would stand a better chance of a co-pilot nomination in the lead race than in the supporting one, where she and her co-stars will only splinter each other’s support. (Nobody’s going to win for the film, so why not look to secure as many acting nods as possible?)

Anyway, my current hunch is that Roberts will wind up frozen out of either category, at the Oscars and elsewhere, which is why I’m at least glad to see the Palm Springs Film Festival giving her confusing campaign a boost. The actress will receive the Spotlight Award at the festival’s January 4 awards gala, joining Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Bruce Dern and director Steve McQueen on the list of honorees. Palm Springs hasn’t exactly shied away from obvious Hollywood royalty with their selections this year, and the notion of Roberts — neglected wallflower that she’s been all her career — getting a Spotlight Award is a tiny bit amusing. Still, recognition is recognition.

The prize has previously been presented to three actresses who later landed a supporting Oscar nod — Amy Adams, Jessica Chastain and (in another iffy category call) Helen Hunt — so Palm Springs is putting its weight behind the campaign in its current categorization. I’d be happy to see Roberts’ terrific work nominated in a stray Best Original Song slot, if that’s what it takes, but here’s hoping Oscar voters, who have independently corrected campaigns before, see her for the Best Actress contender she deserves to be.  

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