The “Juliassaince” of Julia Louis-Dreyfus
‘Seinfeld’ curse? Not a chance. At 53, the ‘Veep’ star is funnier than ever and her star is only rising.
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I wish I could say that my decades-long crush on Julia Louis-Dreyfus started with her stint on Saturday Night Live, but I don’t believe in engaging in revisionist history. My memories of her early 1980s stint on the late-night institution were drowned out by Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal and Martin Short, who were the dominant players at the time, I’m afraid. Besides, even Julia herself has admitted that she didn’t get a lot to do during her years there.
My crush on Julia started with Day By Day, an awful spin-off of Family Ties that NBC aired in 1988. It really doesn’t matter what the show was about—it was totally forgettable, and the fact that it comes to mind at all, 25 years later, is for me a remarkable achievement because I watch a lot of TV. But the reason for that is completely attributable to Louis-Dreyfus, who, playing the neighbor, an officious and bumbling lawyer named Eileen, had punctuated a generic sitcom role with eye rolls, random sighs, and other machinations that would become her signature moves when playing Elaine Benes.
So it’s all the sweeter that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is finally having her moment—the single Seinfeld alum of the four to have spun off successfully on her own, and then taken that success to a whole new level. Not that we’d ever forget the Botticelli shoe–and–flowy-dress-wearing Elaine Benes—how could we, with her hilariously dreadful dance moves, her chutzpah that led her to haggle over a single-ply square of toilet paper, her string of comically awful boyfriends, her ability to judge how “spongeworthy” a date is, and the fact that she sweated JFK Jr. so much she lost “The Contest.” It’s the role that took my initial crush and made it a full-blown love affair, at least from a comedic standpoint.
This month she appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, a 53-year-old sex symbol, with the Constitution tattooed on her naked back (with a signature from John Hancock on her bare backside, but since when does comedy need to be historically accurate?). After years of roles that merely teased us with glimpses of her comic gifts, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has finally arrived, with parts that allow her to use her talents to their fullest effect. She is not only starring in her best TV role to date—as Vice-President Selina Meyer on the searing political HBO satire Veep—but has demonstrated her full range. Last year, she starred in Nicole Holofcener’s dark romantic comedy Enough Said, laying herself emotionally bare in a vulnerable, semi-dramatic cinematic turn when she appeared torn between a romance with Albert, played by the late James Gandolfini, and a new friendship with his ex-wife, portrayed by Catherine Keener. She certainly held her own in the scenes she had with both, and her chemistry with Gandolfini was not only a pleasant surprise, but made me regret that we’ll never see the two of them on screen together again.
In the 16 years since Seinfeld ended, she’s somehow managed to not let the role of Elaine define her career, which is more than can be said about her co-stars. Jerry Seinfeld is Jerry Seinfeld, of course, a stand-up comedian forced to act in his own show as a version of himself. But no matter what roles Jason Alexander takes on, no matter how many toupés he decides to wear, he always seems to be playing a variation on George Costanza. Michael Richards, of course, has also had a hard time living down Cosmo Kramer—and he hasn’t made his job easier by spewing racist insults during stand-up sets. He has an oddness about him that makes all of his roles Krameresque, from Stanley Spadowski on UHF to his current role on Kirstie.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the only member of the cast to have emerged beyond Seinfeld— which isn’t totally unexpected when you consider that Elaine was the only character who made any significant personality shift during the nine years the show was on the air. She began as one of the guys, more comfortable with men than women, but somewhere around the show’s fifth season, the nice, accommodating, bohemian Elaine gave way to the shark in business suits who was less tolerant of her idiot friends and readily admitted that her favorite part of a sexual encounter was the lobster bisque she had at dinner. Whether this was Larry David and Seinfeld’s decision, or Louis-Dreyfus guiding them to make the change, she pulled it off and made us believe that the “new” Elaine had actually evolved—and the character became funnier because of it.
And she took risks beyond Seinfeld: she played Ellie Riggs in the real-time sitcom Watching Ellie—a project with her writer husband, fellow SNL alum Brad Hall—showing that she could actually carry a show, and fake-blind lawyer Maggie Lizer in Arrested Development. And while some may see her Emmy-winning role as Christine Campbell in The New Adventures of Old Christine as a step backwards, they may not realize that Christine Campbell was more than just a hapless single mom; she and her brother Matthew (Hamish Linklater) had a near-incestual relationship, and she once married her best friend Barb (Wanda Sykes) to keep her in the country…and didn’t hate doing it. Even so, in many ways, it was a conventional sitcom, and she squeezed five seasons out of a show that may have run two with another star.
But now we arrive at her “Juliassaince.” Thirty years after she first appeared on SNL—a time in her life she tends to downplay, mainly because the opportunities for women to shine on that show in the early ’80s were few and far between—and 24 years after starting her most famous role, we’re still seeing new sides of her. Selina Meyer is a striving career politician who feels powerless despite being in the second-most-powerful office in the country, chafing at having to deal with ribbon cuttings and clueless senators, knowing that her career ambitions have cost her a chance at having any sort of normal family life.
It’s her most nuanced role to date, and she’s reveling in reciting the sharp, curse-filled lines being written for her by Armando Iannucci. Watching her eyes light up as she says lines like “I’ve met some people. Okay, real people. And I gotta tell ya a lot of ’em are fucking idiots” is Julia Louis-Dreyfus unplugged. Elaine Benes might have been crass at times, but this takes it to a whole new level. And this is the level she should have always been playing at.
The Rolling Stone profile gave a great glimpse of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, comprising all the qualities of the characters she has portrayed over the years: early Elaine Benes’s sense of decency, the goofiness of Christine Campbell, the sweariness of Selina Meyer, and the vulnerability of Eva from Enough Said.
It’s rare to see any actor, much less a woman in the youth-obsessed world of show biz, reach their peak of fame at 53. But Julia Louis-Dreyfus is doing it by showing that there really was no Seinfeld curse to begin with, just a lack of determination to make a career be about a body of work and not just one role. Considering she’s won more Emmys since Seinfeld ended than she won while on the show, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has proven that Elaine wasn’t the end, but a fantastic beginning.
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