book excerpt

‘She Was Committed to the Dark Side’

How My Best Friend’s Wedding messed with Julia Roberts’s image and changed rom-coms for good.

My Best Friend’s Wedding changed the rom-com genre. All it took was a spate of rewrites. Photo: TriStar Pictures
My Best Friend’s Wedding changed the rom-com genre. All it took was a spate of rewrites. Photo: TriStar Pictures

When TriStar Pictures announced that Julia Roberts, who’d broken out in Pretty Woman in 1990 and subsequently become the subject of endless tabloid fixation, was set to star in another rom-com, no one was particularly surprised, Scott Meslow points out in his book, From Hollywood With Love. But the project was bolder than it first appeared. As any fan of the 1997 film can attest, My Best Friend’s Wedding is less a conventional happily ever after, in which we traipse along with our lovable protagonist long enough to see her falter but eventually be rewarded with love in the end, and more like a challenge to the audience: “How much do you like Julia Roberts, anyway?” Meslow asks. Enough to sympathize with her character Julianne as she swiftly and methodically sabotages a happy relationship in the name of her own selfish pursuits? Enough to sit by and watch her not get the guy? It was a role that was tough to write and even tougher to make convincing on screen. Here’s the story behind it all, according to Meslow.


My Best Friend’s Wedding didn’t just need the right star — it needed a filmmaker who understood how to make audiences care about a character whose flaws were actual flaws, and not just the cute “flaws” screenwriters designed to make a glamorous actor seem more down-to-earth and approachable. P.J. Hogan was the right director for the job. “The main note [while developing and producing] Muriel’s Wedding was, ‘The main character’s not sympathetic. We hate her,’” says Hogan. “And I was like, ‘Well … I love her.’” Julia Roberts had been a fan of Muriel’s Wedding, and she was convinced Hogan, who had made audiences across the world care for Muriel Heslop, had the sensibility to walk the very specific tightrope My Best Friend’s Wedding would require.

When Hogan sat down to read the script, he discovered, to his surprise, that My Best Friend’s Wedding was a closer cousin to Muriel’s Wedding than he had expected. “What really surprised me was that it wasn’t really very romantic,” he says. “In fact, my experience of reading the screenplay was, ‘Wow, I’m not sure I like her very much.’ And usually in romantic comedies, everything the main character does in order to win love and to find happiness is totally justified. Even if it’s kind of awful. What Meg Ryan does to Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle is kind of awful. And as I was reading it, I was thinking, God, it’s got that damn romantic comedy problem. She’s kind of awful. And I got to the end, and she didn’t get the guy. And I thought, Oh, my God, that’s the point. This takes the form and smashes it on the floor. Most romantic comedies are about how all’s fair in love and war, which is something I have never really believed in. And this was a screenplay about how all is not fair in love and war. It was a romantic comedy that wasn’t very romantic.”

Hogan knew what My Best Friend’s Wedding could be, but the question was: Did Julia Roberts have the same vision? In theory, the director is in charge on a movie set — but when a studio is building an entire movie around an A-lister, that star has tremendous power over the production, and Roberts’s deal allowed for a significant amount of creative oversight. Hogan agreed to meet with Roberts so he could figure out whether she saw My Best Friend’s Wedding the same way he did: as a trenchant deconstruction of the same genre on which Roberts had quite literally built her own superstardom. “I thought, Julia has to make a death-defying leap,” Hogan says. “She has to bring the audience along with her, with the character, and somehow still have them not hating her by the end.” He had been a fan of Roberts from afar, but meeting her — much like Garry Marshall, Richard Gere, and seemingly everyone else who came into her orbit — left him awed at her sheer charisma in person. “I thought, immediately, This will work. I’ll go with this actress anywhere,” Hogan says. At the same time, she not only shared his vision for a rom-com as subversive as he wanted to make — she took it further than he’d planned. “Julia was absolutely committed to Julianne’s dark side — which no one, I think, had allowed her to do in her previous [romantic comedies],” says Hogan. “She was so committed to the dark side that I was a little bit worried.”

The next step was finding the right actor to play Michael, the best friend who is so incredible that he can send someone as radiant as Julia Roberts off the deep end. Actors in contention included Matthew McConaughey, Edward Burns, and Matthew Perry, whose career had exploded after the 1994 premiere of Friends, and who briefly dated Julia Roberts around that time. (As for why Perry didn’t land the role: “I think it may have just been I didn’t want them to break up while shooting,” says Hogan.)

But if not for one truly disastrous table read, My Best Friend’s Wedding could have been a very different movie, because Hogan had an actor he thought would be perfect for Michael in the back of his mind all along. “My first choice was actually Russell Crowe,” says Hogan, whose wife, the writer-director Jocelyn Moorhouse, had worked with Crowe on 1991’s Proof. “Russell was, I thought, probably the most amazing actor I had ever encountered. I kind of knew Russell was going to be a really big star.”
There was just one big hurdle ahead: getting Julia Roberts to sign off on Crowe. Hogan was worried. “Julia had casting approval. No one was getting in this movie if Julia didn’t approve,” says Hogan.

Still, Hogan was convinced Crowe was the actor for the job, so he invited him to a table read opposite Roberts and hoped sparks would fly. “I don’t know what went wrong,” says Hogan. “It was one of the worst table reads I’ve ever experienced. Russell was seated opposite Julia. He gripped that script, and he stared at that script, and he didn’t look at her once. He read every line in a monotone. At one point, Julia was literally leaning over the table, staring, like, inches from Russell’s face, trying to make eye contact. And he wouldn’t look at her. At the end of the reading, Russell came up to me and said, ‘I thought that went pretty well.’ And then I knew: Russell was not going to be in My Best Friend’s Wedding.

Meanwhile, the creative team behind My Best Friend’s Wedding was in a similarly far-ranging hunt for an actress to play Kimmy, Michael’s fiancée. “Kimmy was a really important part, because you’re up against Julia Roberts, who the audience expects to get the guy at the end,” says Hogan. “If Julia’s character wipes the floor with Kimmy, the film isn’t going to work. Julia is a movie star, and movie stars don’t usually share the screen with other movie stars. But whoever plays Kimmy has to be a movie star as well.”

Still, Julia Roberts was concerned that an actress who was too charismatic — and who Michael ultimately chooses over Julianne — might steal the movie from her altogether. Many, many young actresses auditioned, including Drew Barrymore, Calista Flockhart, and Reese Witherspoon. In the end, Hogan settled on model-turned-actress Cameron Diaz, who had broken out in The Mask a few years earlier but was still one year away from the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary, which would propel her to superstardom. “There was something about Cameron’s sunniness that implied strength,” Hogan says. Julia Roberts disagreed, preferring Drew Barrymore for Kimmy — and with casting approval, she could have booted Diaz out of consideration altogether. Hogan recalls “a lot of negotiation” that ended in a modest compromise: Diaz could stay if Hogan would cast Dermot Mulroney, whom Roberts “adored,” as Michael.

With the core love triangle in place, there was one last major role to fill: George, the “best-looking, smartest, most loyal, most compassionate, most caring” character in Ronald Bass’s original draft. In the final cut, George — who, despite the movie’s title, is clearly Julianne’s actual best friend — practically runs away with the entire movie, delivering the biggest laughs and anchoring the gorgeous, bittersweet ending. But during casting, Hogan and Bass were still working on the rewrite; the original draft, in which George plays a smaller role, attracted virtually no attention from the actors they had originally targeted. “No name actor wanted that part,” says Hogan. “If memory serves, Julia wanted Benicio del Toro. A brilliant actor, but … not known for his comedy.”

Then again, neither was Rupert Everett, a journeyman British actor who had mainly appeared in historical dramas like Dance With a Stranger and The Madness of King George. “Basically, Rupert played cads who got killed in the end,” says Hogan. “So when Rupert’s agent said, ‘This part is for Rupert Everett,’ I said, ‘Well … I don’t think so.’ And the agent was really, really ballsy about it and said, ‘No, I know Rupert. Rupert is this part.’” Hogan agreed to a meeting with Everett and walked away convinced that the droll, breezy, and witty actor might actually be what My Best Friend’s Wedding needed (though it still took a few screen tests before Everett formally won the role). Bass and Hogan’s rewrite of the original spec script — which was already intended to beef up George’s role in the story — was done with Everett’s voice in mind. The character’s nationality was even changed from American to British to accommodate him.

The new, larger role for George was just one of several ideas Hogan had suggested to punch up the original script. There was just one problem: Bass had a clause in his contract at the time that said no one could rewrite his scripts. “P. J. sat in my living room and he said, ‘How are we going to get around this, that I can’t rewrite you?’” says Bass. “And I said, ‘We’re going to ignore it. You and I both have to be satisfied with everything that happens.’”

The first rewrite session did not go entirely smoothly, due in large part to the presence of the Ronettes — Bass’s all-female group of young screenwriting consultants. “I had been warned about the Ronettes, but I thought it was sort of an urban myth,” says Hogan. “But I arrived to work with Ron, and there was Ron in the middle of a big circle that reminded me of like a group therapy session. And they were all young women. And he would have an idea, and the Ronettes would pitch where the story could go now, or what could happen here. With My Best Friend’s Wedding, I think that was a really great way to work for Ron, because he was certainly not lacking for the female perspective on that screenplay.”

But what worked for Ron Bass didn’t work for P. J. Hogan, who arrived to that first meeting wholly unprepared for the audience that would be picking apart his every idea. “I sat down, and all the Ronettes took out their notepads, and Ron said, ‘Shall we discuss the script and your ideas to improve it?’” says Hogan. “And I froze. It was like being auditioned. And I just said, ‘Ron, I can’t work this way, I’m sorry. I’m sorry to everybody in the room, but I really can’t do this. Would you mind, Ron, if the Ronettes left and I just worked with you?’ And Ron was a little upset with me. He thought it was very disrespectful to the Ronettes. Which, I suppose, it was.”

Bass and Hogan’s screenwriting partnership faced another test early when Hogan came in with a concept for a seafood restaurant sing-along to “I Say a Little Prayer,” a Burt Bacharach and Hal David composition that was originally performed by Dionne Warwick. George — now pretending to be Julianne’s fiancé — tells an elaborate lie about their courtship that crescendos in the entire restaurant joining in, including servers wearing little red lobster claws on their hands. It is by far the most cartoonish scene in the movie, and Bass — whose script was in the slightly heightened mode of any good rom-com, but otherwise essentially realistic — was baffled by the decision to inject something so wacky into the movie. “I said, ‘You realize, don’t you, this is a six-minute scene where they’re just fucking singing a song?’” says Bass. “He said, ‘Yeah. I wish it was ten.’”

As ridiculous as the scene seemed on its face, Hogan also had a battle-tested defense for it. Muriel’s Wedding had relied heavily on the music of ABBA to illuminate the inner life of its awkward main character, and Hogan had seen firsthand how much it helped audiences slip into her world. As Hogan saw it, My Best Friend’s Wedding wouldn’t just be a romantic comedy. It would be a stealth musical — albeit one where the musical numbers would be parceled out sparingly enough that audiences wouldn’t even consciously notice it. That’s the reason why My Best Friend’s Wedding opens with a dreamy, candy-colored rendition of “Wishin’ and Hopin’”; or why a key emotional scene at Kimmy and Michael’s wedding is scored with three goofballs harmonizing “Annie’s Song” after sucking from a helium tank; and why the first part of the movie pivots around Kimmy’s endearingly awful performance of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” at a karaoke bar.

Hogan and Roberts ended up dueling over the climax to that all-important karaoke scene, in what turned out to be a microcosm of the tonal tug-of-war at the heart of My Best Friend’s Wedding. In the scene, Julianne has set Kimmy up to embarrass herself, secretly knowing that she can’t carry a tune. She hopes that Michael will be mortified and repulsed at his fiancée’s awkwardness. But the plan backfires when Kimmy refuses to be shamed, gamely sticking it out and belting out the final verses to an appreciative crowd while Michael looks on adoringly.

On the day the scene was shot, the big question was how Julianne would react to Kimmy’s performance, and Hogan and Roberts found themselves at odds. Hogan wanted Julianne to admit that she’d lost the round and clap along with the rest of the crowd. Roberts felt that, even in defeat, Julianne wouldn’t give Kimmy an inch. “She did not want to do it,” Hogan says. “She said, ‘No. There’s no way. I lost. I’m not clapping for her. I hate her.’ And I said, ‘Julia, please, just give me one take where you clap. We’ve got to have some sort of light here.’ And Julia begrudgingly did it, but said, ‘I’m only doing it once.’ And of course she and I knew that would be the take I’d use.” Sure enough, that’s the take that made the movie.

Debates like this popped up throughout the production of My Best Friend’s Wedding, with the tone of the entire movie itself hanging in the balance. While My Best Friend’s Wedding generally plays it fairly light — particularly in the extended interlude where George arrives in Chicago and pretends to be Julianne’s fiancé — there are also moments of great discomfort that can be blamed squarely on Julianne. In most romantic comedies, these transgressions are forgiven, or at least swept under the rug, as necessary evils on the path to true love. It may be horrible when Charles spurns Henrietta at the altar in Four Weddings and a Funeral, but the film (and the audience) forgives him just minutes later, when Carrie shows up at his door and justifies the heartbreak that led to that point. My Best Friend’s Wedding has Julianne do similarly awful things to blameless people, but without the comforting assurances that it’ll all be worth it when Michael realizes they should have been together all along. When Julianne goads Kimmy into offering Michael a job opportunity Julianne knows he’ll hate, or ghostwrites an email designed to create a rift between Michael and Kimmy’s father, My Best Friend’s Wedding is dancing right on the edge of making its heroine completely irredeemable.

The uneasy questions that were laced into the movie — just how bad is Julianne? and what consequences should she face for it? — sparked feverish debate about the movie’s ending from the very beginning. No one on the creative team behind My Best Friend’s Wedding believed that Julianne should successfully win Michael’s heart away from Kimmy; that was, after all, why Bass had written this story in the first place. But if not Michael, couldn’t Julianne meet somebody? The studio was concerned. “They didn’t say she should get the guy, but there was very friendly pressure for her to get a guy,” says Hogan. “And, you know, the argument wasn’t completely illogical. She’s at a wedding. People meet people at weddings.”

The original ending for My Best Friend’s Wedding finds Julianne sitting alone at Michael and Kimmy’s wedding, sadder and wiser as she lets the man she loves slip away. She goes outside to call George. Suddenly, a devastatingly handsome single man, played by John Corbett, approaches. “Hi, I’m Andy Connelly. We haven’t met,” he says. And while Julianne (quite reasonably) responds that she’s on a phone call and he’s being rude, she decides to go dance with him after some prodding from George, delivering the only bad advice he’s given in the entire movie. “If I was there, you wouldn’t miss one dance,” George sighs. “But I’m not.”

As Julianne twirls with Andy Connelly on the dance floor, giggling joyfully, the implication is unmistakable: Julianne is being rewarded, via the scales of cosmic justice themselves, for giving up on her scheme at literally the last possible moment. Test audiences — who are often dismissed, fairly or not, for pushing movies into safer and blander directions — absolutely despised this mealy-mouthed compromise of an ending. Bass witnessed it firsthand at an early test screening in Arizona. “The air in the room just disappeared,” says Bass. “The whole point of the movie was that she would survive not getting the guy. They hated that so much. That’s exactly what they didn’t want.” Hogan was similarly horrified. “I had been really worried that the audience would turn on the character — and in that first preview, the audience did turn on the character,” he says. “In a big way. They wanted to tear the film off the screen.” Sony Pictures executive John Calley stalked up to Bass and delivered an ultimatum: “Fix this. You’ve got until tomorrow at two o’clock.”

Rattled, both Bass and Hogan left the screening and tried to figure out what, if anything, could save My Best Friend’s Wedding without compromising everything they liked about it in the first place. Hogan was flummoxed, and comments from a focus group held immediately after the screening didn’t offer much useful criticism. One woman suggested that Julianne deserved to be alone forever. A man said that if either of his two daughters acted like Julianne had acted, he’d kick them out of his house.

In the middle of this panic, it was Jerry Zucker — the producer once intended for the director’s chair — who had the answer: While the test scores were daunting, My Best Friend’s Wedding was actually a lot closer to the movie it needed to be than it might seem. From his seat, he observed that the audience had actually enjoyed most of the movie. It was only near the end — when Kimmy had instantly forgiven Julianne for her many transgressions, and when Julianne had subsequently been rewarded with a charming stranger on the dance floor — that they turned on My Best Friend’s Wedding altogether.

This romantic comedy, which had been so carefully engineered to interrogate its heroine, had ultimately gone too easy on her. A precise series of reshoots were conceived and shot to fix that problem. First came the climactic confrontation between Julianne and Kimmy at Comiskey Park, which was tweaked so Kimmy would explicitly call out Julianne’s awful behavior instead of forgiving her right away. “You kissed him! At my parents’ house! On my wedding day!” she yells.

And when Julianne tries to reply, she cuts her off: “Shut up. Now: I love this man, and there is no way I’m gonna give him up to some two-faced, big-haired food critic.” The second, most essential fix came down to the ending, which had a very particular needle to thread. No one wanted to watch a Julia Roberts rom-com with Julia Roberts sitting alone and miserable at the end. But a deus ex machina with John Corbett’s smiling face hadn’t worked either. Wasn’t there some way My Best Friend’s Wedding could land between those two poles? How about in the form of the movie’s best-loved character, who was otherwise tragically absent from its closing scenes?

My Best Friend’s Wedding’s actual ending is as sublime as that of any romantic comedy of the era. As Julianne sits alone at the wedding, her cell phone rings. It’s George, of course, checking in on his friend one last time. “I can just picture you there, sitting alone at your table in your lavender gown,” he says. “Did I tell you my gown was lavender?” she replies.

As “I Say a Little Prayer” plays over the soundtrack, George delivers his big speech, teasing Julianne about a mystery man before he’s revealed to have shown up in person to sweep her off to the dance floor. “Although you quite correctly sense that he is gay — like most devastatingly handsome single men of his age are — you think, What the hell. Life goes on,” he says. “Maybe there won’t be marriage. Maybe there won’t be sex. But by God, there’ll be dancing.”

To Ron Bass, this late-in-the-game rewrite had the added bonus of bringing My Best Friend’s Wedding closer to the kind of movie he had wanted to make all along. “The point of the movie is that the person you love the most in your life doesn’t have to be the person you’re sleeping with,” says Bass. “It might be your child. It might be your parent. It might be your colleague at work. It might be your best social friend. It’s the person who you love. And it’s not a crime to say that that love was the most important thing to her.”

My Best Friend’s Wedding opened on June 20, 1997. It was a date that was widely regarded around Hollywood as a sign that the studio had no faith in the movie, because it was opposite what was sure to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer: Batman & Robin, which featured George Clooney’s first (and last) performance as the Caped Crusader. “Everybody told us we were fucked,” says Hogan. Even Roberts’s agent suggested she should spend the summer promoting her other movie, the action-thriller Conspiracy Theory, which wasn’t due to hit theaters until August.

Though Batman & Robin premiered on top that first weekend,
as everyone had predicted, it collapsed after some brutal word-of-mouth reviews by its second. Meanwhile, My Best Friend’s Wedding endured, drawing audiences throughout the entire summer. By the time Conspiracy Theory hit theaters that August, My Best Friend’s Wedding had already grossed well over $100 million, becoming Roberts’s biggest hit at the U.S. box office since Pretty Woman.

While Roberts never made a rom-com quite as unconventional again, she had proved that there was an appetite for romantic comedies that challenged a series of tropes that were, by 1997, already beginning to feel a little entrenched. There are few more reliable premises for a romantic comedy than a love triangle, but Roberts had harnessed her own star power, and her status as a rom-com heroine, to make one in which the resolution could be genuinely surprising to the audience. “I felt like Julia never got her due from My Best Friend’s Wedding,” says Hogan. “You know, that’s the great thing about Julia. She wanted to mess with her image. She really wanted to. She just believed that somebody in love is capable of doing terrible things. And if somebody said, ‘You’re messing with the cash cow here’ … Julia never cared about that.” If you could make a rom-com where Julia Roberts doesn’t get the man of her dreams and end up with a blockbuster-size hit … well, what other kinds of romantic comedies might audiences be interested in seeing?

Excerpted from the book FROM HOLLYWOOD WITH LOVE by Scott Meslow. Copyright © 2022 by Scott Meslow. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers.

Things you buy through our links may earn us a commission.

‘She Was Committed to the Dark Side’