Cinematheque honoree Roberts embodies 'magic something'


SWEET CINEMA: Key roles in Roberts' career

Ask producers, studio executives, directors and casting agents to define "that magic something" they spend their days seeking, and they will most likely shrug before saying falteringly, "You just know it when you see it." Or they'll just point to Julia Roberts.

In an era when most stars grow up in the spotlight or spend years struggling to get there, Robert's journey from high school student in Smyrna, Georgia, to international icon is as stunning as it was simple. The actress, who is being honored this year by American Cinematheque for her career achievements, moved to New York City, scored parts here and there on TV shows like "Crime Story" in 1987 and "Miami Vice" in 1988, and then landed a part in 1988's "Mystic Pizza." The coming-of-age story about three teenagers co-starred Lili Taylor and Annabeth Gish, but it was Roberts, as a waitress who falls for a guy from the right side of the tracks, who emerged as the dazzling discovery.

"I have a feeling that 'Mystic Pizza' may someday become known for the movie stars it showcased back before they became stars," critic Roger Ebert wrote presciently at the time, continuing, "Roberts is a major beauty with a fierce energy." A star is born, indeed.

In the intervening years, Roberts has built a career on that fierce energy -- becoming the biggest female movie star in the world. She was the first actress to command a $20 million paycheck, and that was before she picked up an Academy Award for her turn as a crusading single mother in Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich" (2000). In the last decade, she has built on that success, branching out as a producer and Broadway performer, not to mention possibly her most challenging role of all, mother to three young children.

"She's one of those people who can do anything, and she's never been afraid to take risks," says P.J. Hogan, who directed Roberts in 1997's "My Best Friend's Wedding." "There are a lot of roles she's played that other actors wouldn't have had the courage to."

In some ways, it seems that Roberts was destined for success. While many actors seem diminished in ensemble movies, being surrounded by other actors only made Roberts' star power all the more apparent: For 1989's "Steel Magnolias," directed by Herbert Ross, she played a Southern belle opposite the likes of Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine and Daryl Hannah. It was the perfect part for the young star, proving she could evoke vulnerability, humor and tenderness all with the same ease -- and throw in a wicked death scene to boot. The result, only two years into her movie career, was an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win.

Roberts didn't take her newfound fame sitting down, however. Garry Marshall, who directed 1990's "Pretty Woman," remembers that when he first met the actress, she couldn't contain her nervous energy. "She leaned against things. She jumped around. But she never sat," says Marshall, who would go on to incorporate the tic into Roberts' character. Oddly enough, she seemed just as uncomfortable during her initial screen tests for the unlikely role of a prostitute with a heart of gold searching for her Prince Charming.

Marshall recalls that none of the potential leading men managed to ignite any chemistry with Roberts. "It's not like she said, 'Hello, my name is Julia Roberts' and then did three jokes, and I just didn't know her," he explains. After two screen tests fell flat, the director called in a favor from his friend Charles Grodin. "I said to her, 'He's not going to stick to the script, so just try to follow along in character.' And she was marvelous. She has a certain free spirit, and when she laughs naturally, she just lights up the screen. I remember calling Jeffrey Katzenberg and saying, 'Cast the guy, because I've got a movie. I know how to make her work, and she's a champion.'"

Ultimately, the film would become a pop culture touchstone, earning $178 million domestically on a budget of $14 million and yielding a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination for Roberts. Of course, "Woman" also launched her into that rare stratosphere of celebrity reserved for only the industry's biggest stars. "We used to go out and grab something to eat during filming," Marshall remembers. "But after the picture came out, we'd go to the same restaurants, and we'd have to enter and leave through the kitchen while another car that looked like hers went in one direction to throw people off while she got in another. She was the same girl, but life had changed on her."

As Roberts' audience allure continued to rise, so did her salary. She earned $300,000 for "Woman," $500,000 for Joel Schumacher's 1990 thriller "Flatliners" and $1 million for her role as a woman on the run from her abusive husband in Joseph Ruben's 1991 hit "Sleeping With the Enemy." That same year, Roberts appeared in two somewhat less successful ventures -- Schumacher's tragic love story "Dying Young" and Steven Spielberg's $70 million production "Hook" -- but she did manage to bring home $7 million for the latter film.

Choosing roles that interested her and keeping her focus on the job at hand helped Roberts ride out the doldrums, according to those closest to her. Director Hogan remembers being especially impressed by the way Roberts could block out a host of onlookers screaming her name in order to nail a scene in "My Best Friend's Wedding."

Hogan remembers how nervous he was during his first meeting with the actress. "I remember being sure she'd see I had no idea what I was doing," says the director, whose only credit at the time was 1994's Australian import "Muriel's Wedding." "But she's such an enormously generous person, she went out of her way to make me feel comfortable. I remember looking up and thinking it was Julia Roberts, but somebody fun and normal was inhabiting her body."
As for any fears he might have directing her, they quickly dissipated when he realized he just had to "turn the camera on and see what happened," he says. "She'd throw curveballs, and when they connected, they were hilarious. I know this may sound strange, but I didn't understand what a movie star was at the time. Then I saw the first few days of dailies, and I knew. There's something that happens between Julia's face and the camera, and you're entirely unaware of it on set, but there it is. There's a magic that takes place that you just can't account for."

Roger Michell, who directed Roberts in 1999's "Notting Hill," recalls a similar experience. "When you say 'action,' something very odd happens," he says. "She comes alive in the lens in the most extraordinary way. It's not quite like life itself, but a sort of superconcentrated superlife. I've never known an actor like it. She does spontaneity better than anyone else, and she does it take after take."

Her natural screen presence certainly contributed to the boxoffice prospects of her films, with "Notting Hill" taking in more than $116 million and 1999's "Runaway Bride," her reteaming with Marshall and "Pretty Woman" co-star Richard Gere, raking in more than $152 million at the boxoffice.

It was that back-to-back success that would push Roberts' salary to $20 million when she signed on to play the lead in "Erin Brockovich," the story of a real-life crusader. The role cast Roberts in a new dramatic light and earned her an Oscar. "I remember thinking Julia would get an Oscar," Hogan says. "I was just so glad it was so quick."

Just as quickly, Roberts returned to choosing roles on her own terms, taking parts in Soderbergh's 2001 heist flick "Ocean's Eleven" and its 2004 follow-up, "Ocean's Twelve," as well as a small part in her "Ocean's" co-star George Clooney's 2002 feature directorial debut, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." She also began upping her power as a producer through her company, Red Om Films, which is behind the "American Girl" series of TV movies and a feature film now in production, "Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery," which is set to release next summer. As for more adult-minded fare, Red Om is developing the film adaptation of Kathleen Jacobs' novel, "The Friday Night Knitting Club," to which Roberts is attached to star.

Even though she's chosen to step out of the spotlight for the last several years -- in order to raise a family with cinematographer Danny Moder and to try her luck on Broadway with a revival of Richard Greenberg's "Three Days of Rain" last year -- Roberts hasn't exactly left Hollywood behind. In December, she'll appear opposite Tom Hanks in Universal's anticipated release "Charlie Wilson's War," directed by Mike Nichols and based on Texas congressman Wilson's covert dealings in Afghanistan. She's also set to take a part in Dennis Lee's autobiographical drama "Fireflies in the Garden," due out next year.

Lee believes that Roberts' experience as a mother might have added more depth to her as an actress, but it clearly hasn't dampened her spontaneity. The writer-director remembers that while he was interviewing Moder -- who has since signed on to be his director of cinematography -- he mentioned that he had given the script to Roberts. The following day, Roberts asked the director to meet her at a cafe near her home in Venice, Calif.

"Her agents didn't know we were meeting, and neither did mine," Lee says. "We talked about the script, and at the end of the meeting, she said, 'Well, I think it's time to call my agents and let them know I'm going to be a part of it.'"

According to Lee, she sat still the whole time.