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America's sweetheart

Julia Roberts's uneven success story peaked with "Erin Brockovich". UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA takes a look at what makes this `Pretty Woman' tick.

IS IT the million-watt smile, or the long nasal drawl? The long frizzy hair, or the gawky, good looks? The edgy intensity? What is it, really, about Julia Roberts that makes her America's sweetheart, but also makes it so very hard for her to be taken seriously as an actress, despite her obvious talent?

"America's Sweethearts"

When one thinks of her brother, Eric Roberts, one thinks immediately of his role as the obsessive Paul Snider in "Star 80", Bob Fosse's brilliant and tragic tale of a starlet who becomes a star. But when one thinks of Julia Roberts, it is first "Pretty Woman" that one thinks of, and then "Notting Hill", and "The Runaway Bride"; and even "My Best Friend's Wedding" — why, even Tinkerbell in Spielberg's "Hook". And all these, long before one thinks of "Erin Brockovich." Even though, as we all know, it is "Erin Brockovich" that got her the Oscar (and, of course, the chance to make one of the silliest acceptance speeches in the history of the Academy Awards).

No, Julia Roberts is definitely not the typical, whispery-voiced, blonde and bimbettish Hollywood beauty. She is thin to the point of being skinny, tall and long-legged, and her hair is an unruly mop of curls. ``I'm too tall to be a girl. I'm between a chick and a broad," she has been quoted as saying with her characteristic grin.

She has wide eyes, and a large mouth. Her voice is nasal and twangy; when she laughs, it is a deep guffaw. You can imagine that all of these would be disadvantages. And yet for the better part of two decades, she was ranked among Hollywood's top-drawing heroines. Some people look at her and see Audrey Hepburn; others (admittedly fewer) see Katharine Hepburn. Julia Roberts could never, perhaps, have done a "Roman Holiday" or a "Breakfast at Tiffany's"; One finds it impossible to think of her in "African Queen".

But who else could have done "Pretty Woman", the story of that Cinderella hooker with Richard Gere as her fairy tale prince? Or who could have done "Erin Brockovich"? For just imagine Susan Sarandon in the role — she would have turned Erin Brockovich into a left-liberal intellectual crusader. Or imagine Jodie Foster, who would have turned it into an undercover FBI agent with a soft corner for Hannibal Lecter. Instead of the struggling, single mother, with both heart and humour that Julia Roberts portrays.

"Ocean's Eleven"

Roberts, born in Smyrna, Georgia, came from an acting family of sorts. Her parents ran a theatre and writing workshop in Atlanta. Her mother was a one-time church secretary and her father, a vacuum-cleaner salesman. They divorced when she was a child. Her father, who took her brother Eric with him, died young.

As a child, she loved animals, and wanted to be a veterinarian. While Eric got into films first, Julia took some time to reach the screen, working at Baskin Robbins, selling shoes, and studying media on the way.

After a few small roles in low budget and television films, including an appearance in a "Miami Vice" show of 1984, she appeared in "Satisfaction" (1988), and then in "Mystic Pizza" (1988), where she plays a pizza joint partner who attracts a rich preppie.

This led to the more memorable "Steel Magnolias" (1989) along with Sally Field, Dolly Parton and Shirley Maclaine, for which she won an Oscar nomination.

"The Mexican"

The forgettable "Flatliners" (1990) followedand then, of course, came the watershed of "Pretty Woman" (1990), with Richard Gere, made by Garry Marshall. She plays Viv Ward, a hooker on Hollywood Boulevard, who is picked up by high-flying, nasty takeover millionaire Richard Gere.

In other words, a contemporary fairy tale. This was the film that not only sentimentalised prostitution (a sweet and innocent movie, wrote film critic Roger Ebert) but also made a real star out of Julia Roberts. And then came a series of uneven successes, from "Sleeping with the Enemy", "The Pelican Brief" and "Pret-a-Porter", to "Mary Reilly", "Michael Collins" and "Conspiracy Theory".

In between, she even made a cameo appearance in the mandatory Woody Allen film, "Everyone Says I Love You" (1996), that every actress longs for. In the following year, she appeared in the successful romantic comedy, "My Best Friend's Wedding" (1997), and then, after a more or less forgettable role with Susan Sarandon in the sincere, feel-good weepie, "Stepmom" (1998), she played with great success, the film star Anna Scott in "Notting Hill", opposite Hugh Grant, and also was the runaway bride, opposite Richard Gere, in "Runaway Bride" (1999).

Onscreen partnerships with Hugh Grant and, of course, Richard Gere, seemed to work as audience favourites. Roberts was, by now, the queen of romantic comedy, and the top-drawing Hollywood actress. It was only the Oscar that had eluded her until then.

"Erin Brockevich"

It was in 2000 that Steven Soderbergh signed her for "Erin Brockovich". Here, at last, was a meaty role, and the chance to work with a Cannes-award winning director — in other words, a chance for Roberts to earn an Oscar. And she did, collecting a record $-20 million salary as well as a Golden Globe on the way.

Roberts plays a single mother, desperate for a job in order to bring up her children. When her lawyer loses a case for her, she talks him into giving her a job.

Working for her lawyer's firm — where her brassy manners and clothes raise eyebrows — she chances upon some incriminating information that reveals the dirty plans of a huge corporation that is dumping toxic waste near a small town.

This discovery, which emerges through Brockovich's persistent efforts and at considerable personal cost, ultimately saves the lives of the residents of the town.

"My Best Friends Wedding"

``Julia Roberts in a plunging neckline'', film critic Roger Ebert wrote, castigating the film: he thought Roberts's performance, and the film's preoccupation with clothes, upstaged the real Brockovich story. He has a point there: after all, Roberts famously even forgot to mention the real Erin Brockovich in her Oscar acceptance speech.

But then, the real Brockovich did dress this way; and the whole point of the film was to show how the unlikeliest of persons, with all her problems, could take on this huge corporation and come out a winner. And Roberts infuses her role not only with her coltish sexiness but also with foul language, energy, and an electric intensity, as she drives through the baking landscape. Erin Brockovish has been her best role. There have been films since then — Soderbergh went on to sign her for the role of Tess Ocean in his "Ocean's Eleven" (2001), with George Clooney. She also appeared in the star-studded flop "America's Sweethearts" in the same year and, with Brad Pitt, in "The Mexican".

In 2002, she appeared in Soderbergh's experimental, self-indulgent and mostly forgettable "Full Frontal"; and she is now an integral part of his next project, "Ocean's Twelve", a sequel to the successful heist film.

She also appeared in a decorative role in George Clooney's directorial debut, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind".


But none of these films have reached the heights of "Erin Brockovich", nor have the roles been nearly as challenging.

Between all these years, her personal life has included relationships with Kiefer Sutherland, Benjamin Bratt, and others; a marriage to country singer Lyle Lovett that ended in divorce, and most recently a marriage to cameraman Danny Moder.

But Roberts is still in the movie business — she is now partnering with "Sex and the City" creator Darren Star to make a realistic film about a prostitute.

Perhaps she will have another chance, after all, to make a decent Oscar acceptance speech.

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