Oscar winner Julia Roberts, one of the universe’s biggest stars, is earning critical raves for her performance in “Ben Is Back.”
The story is poignant and timely, with Roberts playing a loving mother dealing with her opioid-addicted son (Lucas Hedges). USA TODAY film critic Brian Truitt echoed the chorus of praise for Roberts, calling it “her best film work since her Oscar-winning turn in 2000’s ‘Erin Brockovich.’ ”
What’s going on?
“Julia Roberts’ awards season omission for ‘Ben Is Back’ is the most perplexing of anyone this year,” says Dave Karger, special correspondent for movie site IMDb.com. “She gives an incredible performance. In a normal year, she would be squarely in the running.”
But Roberts entered a highly competitive best-actress field late in the season. The film opened in limited release Dec. 7 and has earned less than $1 million to date, though it has been gradually expanding to more theaters.
Her performance hasn’t found footing against established contenders including Lady Gaga for “A Star Is Born,” Olivia Colman leading the critical darling “The Favourite,” an unrecognizable Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and Emily Blunt’s Disney splendor in “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Roberts earned kudos for her Amazon streaming series “Homecoming,” nominated as best actress by Critics’ Choice and Golden Globes voters. So the TV success might have taken away from the film’s shine.
“Nominating Julia Roberts for ‘Homecoming’ was a way for the Hollywood Foreign Press to spread the wealth, and still get Julia Roberts to the Golden Globes” when they’re given out on Jan. 6, says Pete Hammond, awards columnist for Deadline.com. “They love Julia Roberts. But this performance and movie hasn’t penetrated like it should.”
“Ben Is Back” also explores identity issues, sharing similar material with other dramas about parental-child relationships – “Beautiful Boy” (opioid addiction) and “Boy Erased” (a gay conversion-therapy drama that also stars Hedges).
“Two of these are with Lucas Hedges and they all start with B,” says Karger. “It can be hard for people to realize there are three different movies. And it’s a shame because ‘Ben Is Back’ is the best of these.”
But don’t dismiss Roberts, who attended a recent Academy “Ben Is Back” screening. The biggest prize is Oscar, and those nominations aren’t out until Jan. 22.
Last year, British actress Lesley Manville surprised with a supporting nomination for “Phantom Thread,” with no previous honors.
Roberts is still on the (long) list of contenders, says Tom O’Neil, editor of the awards site Gold Derby, who notes the star could be propelled directly into the Oscar race.
“It’s Julia Roberts and it’s an Oscar-caliber performance,” says O’Neil. “You can’t count her out. She still poses a threat.”
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