As Kevin McCormick, producer of her new film, puts it, she's a ''blue-collar Audrey Hepburn.'' It's a good call on Julia Roberts a fresh, exciting, watch-me earth princess with an appeal so broad-based it's rivaled only by chocolate ice cream. On the strength of her three hits, Pretty Woman, Flatliners, and Sleeping With the Enemy, Roberts is the only woman in Hollywood who can come close to a man in box office bankability and almost salary. There's no question that she's the actress most Americans want to see on the screen. The question is, when will we get to do that again?
Roberts' next film is Dying Young, a 10-hankie weeper that Premiere magazine has already dubbed the hot movie of the summer. The trouble is, Dying Young might not open this summer, and when it does open, it might not be called Dying Young.
Joel Schumacher (Flatliners) is directing the movie and Sally Field is producing along with McCormick, but the gods of uncertainty apparently rule. Based on Marti Leimbach's 1990 novel of the same name, Dying Young tells the story of a working-class woman (Roberts) who is hired to care for, and falls in love with, a leukemia patient (Campbell Scott). In the original ending, as Roberts and a friend (Vincent D'Onofrio) drive away from Scott's house, a gunshot is heard, suggesting he has killed himself. Several test screening audiences rejected this downer of an ending and also expressed great displeasure at Roberts' relationship with a man other than the stricken hero. So several pages of script have been rewritten, a feel-good ending has been shot, and D'Onofrio may have a smaller role in the last scenes.
Which leaves the problem of the title. Dying Young has never knocked 'em dead at Twentieth Century Fox: The fear is that moviegoers will think that Roberts dies young, and, Steel Magnolias aside, who's going to pay $7 to see that? Forever Young was in the running for a while (Fox was hoping to buy the rights to the song from Bob Dylan just as Disney had purchased Pretty Woman from Roy Orbison but a deal has not been worked out) and All for Love has also been batted around, although, as McCormick says, ''the longer I see Dying Young in print, the longer I assume that's the title we have. I only know what I read. Same with the release date. I don't know when that's going to be.''
The movie was originally scheduled for August; Fox's official position is that late summer is still possible. But McCormick's producing partner is pushing hard for a fall opening. Field, who developed Dying Young for Roberts after they made Steel Magnolias together, believes the film will be taken more seriously in the fall and have a chance for Oscar consideration.
After Steven Spielberg's holiday-bound Hook (with Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams), Dying Young just might be the last moviegoers see of Roberts for a year or two. The 23-year-old actress is ''overwhelmed'' by her Hollywood karma, says a source close to the star, and after her June 14 marriage to Kiefer Sutherland, 24, she'll probably throttle back on her career. There's some concern, adds the source, about how Kiefer will handle being the less commercially viable partner. But Roberts may be angling for a solution. She's in negotiation with Carolco to make a Western called Renegade, for a possible $8 million, and when scheduling conflicts pushed Mel Gibson Carolco's choice for a leading man out of the running, Roberts was quick to offer a substitute: Kiefer Sutherland.
Gregg Kilday, Craig Modderno, Kate Bales