In 1999, Julia Roberts had to do the impossible. She had to stand up, in front of $361 million worth of paying audiences worldwide, look into Hugh Grant’s eyes, and say the line ”I’m…just a girl…standing in front of a boy…asking him to love her.”
Julia Roberts is many things to many moviegoers, but just a girl is something she will never be. Sandra Bullock could pull that line off. Ashley Judd, probably. Maybe even Winona Ryder. But Julia Roberts, at 32, is a movie star from teardrop to toenails, from her gleaming surface to the marrow of her overphotographed cheekbones, from one end of that famous smile to the other. Just a girl is not quite to be believed. Which, of course, is what made the line work.
There isn’t much that hasn’t worked for Roberts lately. In 1990, the first time that Entertainment Weekly chose her as an Entertainer of the Year, Pretty Woman had just heralded her arrival, said our writer, ”like Cinderella on a rocket sled.” Roberts, he added, ”has joined…the minuscule elite of actresses who can command more than $1 million a picture.”
That has a sort of Dr. Evil ring to it, don’t you think? Let’s look at the stats for ‘99. First of all, we can update that $1 million to $20 million, and trim that ”minuscule elite” to a party of one. Roberts is now the highest-paid actress in the world, and by any measure the most popular; this summer, Notting Hill and Runaway Bride became her sixth and seventh films to top $100 million at the U.S. box office, a feat achieved by no other actress in history. For good measure, she guest-starred opposite her boyfriend, Benjamin Bratt, as a malevolent fundraiser with the heart of a cobra on TV’s Law & Order, and won an Emmy nomination for her week’s work.
That role was a welcome stretch for the actress, and her next movie, a Civil Action-style Steven Soderbergh drama called Erin Brockovich (opening this spring), should be another. But on screen, she blazes most enduringly as an icon of romantic longing, so it’s only fitting that she ended this decade by making what were, in effect, sequels to the two defining romantic comedies of the 1990s: Pretty Woman and Four Weddings and a Funeral. As a tempestuous A-list movie star (sound familiar?) falling hard for Hugh Grant, and as a veteran of weddings that never took place (sound familiar?) who’s targeted by Richard Gere, she played off various facets of her reputation with a comedian’s light touch and the security of an actress who’s seen so many tabloid headlines about herself that, after a decade, she can laugh them off. (Another measure of her underestimated skill: When, in recent years, have you seen either Grant or Gere do better work?)
Perhaps, one day, Roberts will be known as the kind of actress who vanishes into her roles. There’s plenty of time for that later. Right now, we don’t want her to vanish. We want her to be a movie star. As for that just a girl line, don’t forget the words that precede it: ”The ‘fame’ thing,” she says to Hugh Grant, ”…it isn’t really real, you know?”
Another lie. But she does have a way of making us believe.