Director: Joseph Ruben
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Who can turn the world on with her smile? As a fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and of its star, I must admit that in a head-to-head tooth-off, MTM would wither in the blaze of Julia Roberts’ pearly whites.
Julia Roberts has been dazzling movie goers with her mile-wide grin, infectious laugh, and Playmate-like naughty innocence since the late 80s. Can she act? Does it matter? As the first $20 million woman among a legion of limited-range actors commanding that sum or more, Julia Roberts is a rarity in today’s world—an old-fashioned Hollywood star in the Gene Tierney mold who can act if a director pushes her out of her comfort zone and forces her to, but whose main assets lie in her on-screen charisma and beauty. One look at her list of films and a flashback to the studio build-up to her nonwedding to Kiefer Sutherland show that the old boys of Tinsel Town understood what kind of a property they had in her.
Many of her films cast her as the fantasy trophy woman every man wants. She doesn’t need to come from the American aristocracy to ascend to it—as waitress Daisy Aruja in Mystic Pizza (1988), she is a self-confessed social climber who snags a hot-blooded blue blood with sex and the saucy insolence that such men seem to like. Of course, her breakout role as Vivian, the hooker who catches corporate raider Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990), is as nakedly honest about America’s then-definition of success as any out there; every young turk needs his BMW and his beautiful arm ornament who is, of course, a pistol in the sack, and every woman needs to be a mercenary sexpot who cleans up well to catch one. Vivian going on a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive became Roberts’ signature scene, a representation of the grasping, greedy climber made adorable by Roberts’ naive sweetness.
As Roberts matured, her roles tended to vary, but her iconic status worked most effectively in films that reflected on her persona—her commitment-phobic Runaway Bride (1999), her superstar-marries-a-commoner character in Notting Hill (1999), the reverse-snob triumph of using sex and lies for good in Erin Brockovich (2000). Even Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) became more than a cultural blip because of the way her rich neoliberal character separated her heavily mascaraed eyelashes. In Eat Pray Love (2010), she played a success who throws it all away to find enlightenment, forming a dead-on critique of the characters she played at the start of her career on just another type of shopping spree.
Sleeping with the Enemy is a bit of an aberration in the Roberts canon, showing as it does the downside of being a trophy wife. The film capitalizes on all those things audiences love about Julia Roberts, but allows her to be a woman who uses her tenacity to survive and strive for authenticity. Although Sleeping with the Enemy is a Hollywood movie and a hack bit of filmmaking, it is interesting as perhaps the definitive anti-Julia Roberts vehicle.
Laura Burney (Roberts) has been married for 3½ years to Martin (Patrick Bergin), a filthy-rich investment counselor who calls her “princess,” but sees her more like the bust of Nefertiti he bought her on their honeymoon—his possession, a symbol of his status. They live part-time in a huge beachfront mansion on Cape Cod that appears to have been designed by Luigi Moretti, one of Mussolini’s chief architects. Martin tells Laura what to wear to a party, signals her with a look when it is time to leave, and grabs her for sex when they arrive home. Laura is very good at appearing to be happy when Martin is watching, but the film reveals rather quickly that she looks at sex with Martin as rape and stands in terror of a beating for everything from having her pantry items carelessly stacked to taking off to bury her dead mother without his permission.
Martin likes to sail, but Laura is deathly afraid of the water. Nonetheless, he prevails upon her to go out for an evening sail with their neighbor (Kyle Secor), whose casual remark that he has seen Laura looking out from their home garners her a beating from a jealous Martin. Although the weather report called for calm waters and clear skies, a sudden squall forces them to turn back. When the boat is nearly home, the jib comes loose, and the two men run to the bow to secure it. When they turn around, Laura is gone, and an intensive search for her only turns up her life vest.
Of course, Laura has faked her death. Conquering her fear of the water, she took swimming lessons, preparing for a moment when Martin wouldn’t be watching her. Swimming toward the gap in the boardwalk lighting she made by breaking the bulbs, she runs to their house, dons a wig, grabs a prepacked bundle, and rides a bus to Cedar Falls, Iowa. She rents a house next door to handsome drama teacher and future lover Ben Woodward (Kevin Anderson), gets a menial job at a library, and starts flashing her dazzling smile and naturally curly hair all over the place.
A call to Martin from one of Laura’s swim classmates, however, sets him and his considerable resources on her trail. He tracks down Laura’s mother (Elizabeth Lawrence), who did not die but rather was moved to a nursing home near Cedar Falls. When Laura goes to visit her disguised as a man, Martin is there. She narrowly misses running into him, but we know it is only a matter of time until he shows up on her doorstep.
Based on a book by Nancy Price, Hollywood has upscaled the story to Julia Roberts proportions, making the crummy beach house in the book into a monument to the money-no-taste 80s. The scene during which she fakes her death is the epitome of convenient scripting, and Martin never emerges as anything other than a male version of Glenn Close’s monster in Fatal Attraction (1987). In the final denouement, every horror film cliché gets trotted out as Laura goes to investigate strange noises in the house, looking at her disheveled cupboard with relief, only to return to it shortly and find everything lined up with terrifying regularity. Anyone as frightened of her husband as Laura would run at the first sound and ask questions later.
In addition, the producers at 20th Century Fox felt the need to throw in a Julia playing dress-up scene, using the costume room at Ben’s theatre as an appropriate substitute. I hated being manipulated this way, but I must admit that having Kevin Anderson in the scene improved on it considerably. He’s a wonderful actor who understands how to portray just a guy who comes to understand how he might be frightening Laura, and why. He’s rejected for sex during a heavy makeout session, and accepts no for an answer, but not entirely gracefully. With a lesser actor, Ben would have been a complete gentleman, too good for words. Sadly, Bergin, who is a good actor, was given a character with less opportunity for nuance. It is an unfortunate fact of Julia Roberts films that the script is often formed to create the cardboard theatrics the bean counters demand to ensure success. It happened at the end of Erin Brockovich, and it happens here, too.
Nonetheless, Laura is an interesting character. She would seem to have it all, except that she’s just like millions of women from all classes and walks of life who are abused physically and psychologically by men close to them. Laura acknowledges to a woman she meets on the bus that she stayed with her husband too long, and feels that she is a coward. This is an interesting statement—clearly she was strong enough to get some things for herself while under his thumb, such as a part-time library job, and to hatch an elaborate and risky plan to leave him. It seems clear that her cowardice may be tied to her desire for the luxurious lifestyle he offered, or perhaps just her lack of self-confidence. Laura is a very real woman in recognizing these feelings in herself.
Her romance with Ben is also too fast. As onlookers, we think two such good-looking, age-appropriate people should be together (and, after all, that’s what the Hollywood shell of this movie sets us up to expect), but in truth, Laura is revealing the depth of her lack of confidence by hooking up after only a short period of caution. This is a woman whose lack of skills, as evidenced by the minimum-wage job she lands shelving books, forces her to rely on men to take care of her. Laura is a sister under the skin to Francine Hughes, and was lucky to have held onto her sense of self so that her torment lasted under four years. Fran was put on trial for killing her husband, but Sleeping with the Enemy makes sure there’s a witness to Laura’s attack to ensure that her murder of Martin will be deemed self-defense. So it looks like we have our Julia Roberts happy ending after all, but for once, she gave us a woman who punctured her gassy image.