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Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen in a still for the film "Mirror Mirror"
Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen in a still for the film "Mirror Mirror"

Lynn Crosbie: Pop Rocks

Why isn't Julia Roberts smiling? (Hint: She's evil) Add to ...

Julia Roberts appears to be shaking the Larry Crowne shame off (a movie Globe critic Rick Groen called “formless and benignly vacuous”) and regrouping. On the cover of Vanity Fair this month and – amazingly – unsmiling inside, she blandly discusses, with director Mike Nichols, her celebrity, children and various film roles.

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It is unfocused, numbingly dull press, interesting only because the magazine featured her at all, meaning her career is on the ascent again and this canny publication knows it.

There are clues as to why she’s making the oddly unsmiling appearance: It’s immediately mentioned in the story that in her upcoming film, Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh, Roberts plays, against type, the Evil Queen determined to feast on the heroine’s heart.

And the interviewer, at one point, makes this assertion (after Nichols mentions Cinderella): “Metamorphosis, transformation. That’s what holds us, I think, in every story.”

It is true that Pretty Woman was, in its time, the new and definitive Cinderella story, modified only in that “Cinderslut” (the tale’s original title) dictated the terms of her rescue to the handsome john/princely hero.

Yet, ever since the tiny Grimm Brothers were nervously listening to their nurse recite old tales of ravenous wolves, psycho-killer bridegrooms and cannibal hags in candy houses, the fairy tale has been in a constant state of revision.

Originally transmitted orally, even the written texts have been re-imagined, largely through the political lenses of writers such as Angela Carter, Anne Sexton or Tanith Lee.

Such writers sought – as did Robert Munsch with The Paper Bag Princess – to retrieve the damsels in distress, the crones and the dancing girls (who dance themselves to death) from these gender-limiting texts and liberate them.

This feminist project would result in such outstanding modern restatements as the film Ginger Snaps (written by Karen Walton, a terrifying spin on Little Red Riding Hood and the tale’s deep, dark horror of women and blood), Julia Leigh’s erotic film Sleeping Beauty and a great deal of truly inspired pornography.

So, with Leigh’s film, which came out in 2011, Roberts’s movie, which opens on Friday, and Charlize Theron’s Snow White and the Huntsman, opening in June (with Theron also playing the bloodthirsty queen), one wonders if fairy tales – so long consigned to being the watered-down products of Disney – might be big business again, and if so why?

When Mac Cosmetics debuted its Disney villainess line last year, it went straight for the older women in the older films, with the more painterly and beautiful animations. The company even produced a video in which one could make one’s self up like Sleeping Beauty’s magnificent Malificent, a dead ringer for Joan Crawford with a slinky black silhouette, purple-shadowed green eyes and crimson lips.

Theron and Roberts are likely attracted to the Evil Queen because she too is magnificent (and malevolent and malleable).

As women in Hollywood age, meaning when they reach their mid-40s, they can do one of two things: play matronly frumps married to elderly men, or genuinely transform, like the shape-shifting, infinitely fascinating cruel women of fairy tales.

When Jennifer Aniston played a “horrible boss” last year, she finally turned out a good movie: Women are only powerless, as cinematic icons, if they refuse to metamorphose.

Roberts is beautiful, but she can’t just stand there and smile any more. Theron has already proven she can change and, by becoming the almost sexy, trashy monster Aileen Wuornos, she won not only acclaim but our sense that she has reserves of deadly power.

When asked to comment about Theron at a recent press conference, Roberts snapped that she didn’t even know her! What a wonderfully haughty remark – as if she can’t form an opinion of her work, like all of us, by seeing her movies!

Whether an Evil Queen fight breaks out or not, both actresses are smart to ride the fairy-tale wave: Like so many beloved fantasy franchises, including Harry Potter and Twilight, the supernatural’s offer of transformation is the draw. There is no better metaphor for aging women in Hollywood than the Evil Queen, who sees a younger, prettier girl in her mirror, and strikes back, winning, ultimately, by transfixing us with her hatred and rage.

When Susan Boyle strolled onto the Britain’s Got Talent stage three years ago, the crowd laughed at the sight of her; the judges actually pursed their lips in disgust at her age (then 48.) She winked and smiled, and sang everyone to their feet, cheering. She was poised and calm; she changed before our eyes. She sang of dreaming a dream that love was real.

Evil is real too: May more and more beautiful actresses find their sceptres and ravens, and rage, rage, with their diabolical spells.

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