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Roberts, Julia (1967—)

Roberts, Julia (1967—)

Julia Roberts became a firm candidate to the title of America's sweetheart with her role as Vivian Ward, a humble hooker retired from the bitterness of street life by a handsome millionaire (Richard Gere) in the romantic comedy Pretty Woman (1990). Though Roberts would try serious dramatic roles in the early 1990s, her talents and audiences' attention peaked with her romantic comedies. By the end of the twentieth century she would become the highest paid female actress of her generation, earning $20 million dollars per picture.

The youngest sister of actor Eric Roberts, Julia began her career in 1986 with a minor role in a film starring her brother, soon followed by a leading role in Mystic Pizza (1988). A year later, Roberts received her first Oscar nomination at age 22 for her tragic role as a dying bride in Steel Magnolias (1989), the film she made just before Pretty Woman. The phenomenal success of Pretty Woman and her nomination as Best Actress for her role in this film plunged Roberts into the full glare of the public eye, turning her private life into fodder for the predatory sensationalist press. Her string of romantic relationships and one failed marriage to singer Lyle Lovett perpetuated public interest in her.

Roberts, like others including Meg Ryan, has fought hard to dissociate her image from the romantic role that made her famous, but has hardly succeeded. The remarkable box-office performance of the comedy My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) indicates that the public prefers to see Roberts in romantic roles. Though her performances in serious roles in suspense films like Flatliners (1991), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), and The Pelican Brief (1993) were sound, they met only with moderate acclaim. Roberts' dramatic roles in Neil Jordan's Michael Collins (1996) and Stephen Frears' Mary Reilly (1996) lacked credibility. Like other leading actresses in search of a good role, such as Demi Moore or Sandra Bullock, Roberts has founded her own production company. Her work as producer might well change the course of her career, something which Hollywood seems unable to do. But Notting Hill (1999), her film with Hugh Grant, is a comedy in the line of Pretty Woman and indicates best the limitations of her career.

Roberts' difficulty breaking away from romantic comedies paralleled the difficulty actor John Travolta had in overcoming his association with Saturday Night Fever. Both Travolta and Roberts became connected so closely in the audiences' imagination to their characters that the chance for them to develop a more varied career was limited by public expectations. Travolta managed to overcome his fusion with Saturday Night Fever and his years of obscurity thanks to Quentin Tarantino's providential intervention with a role in Pulp Fiction. Roberts, however, continues to be in the public eye. She is the champion of the romantic comedy, and no other actress has yet challenged her ability to charm audiences. Unlike Ryan or Bullock, Roberts can portray the all-American sweetheart and the alluring sex symbol. This is what makes her charm unique, but it is also the main dilemma she faces to consolidating her successful career. She might be condemned to be Vivian Ward forever, no matter who she chooses to play.

—Sara Martin

Further Reading:

Connelly, C. "Nobody's Fool." Premiere. December, 1993, 70-73.

Joyce, Aileen. Julia: The Untold Story of America's Pretty Woman. New York, Pinnacle Books, 1993.

McInerney, Jay. "I'm 5'9" with a Famous Smile." Harper's Bazaar. September, 1995, 400-405.

Schneller, J. "Barefoot Girl with Cheek." Gentlemen's Quarterly. February, 1991, 158-165.

Sessums, K. "The Crown Julia." Vanity Fair. October, 1993, 234-241.

Thornton, B. "Right on the Money." Harper's Bazaar. June,1997, 138-141.

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