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For more than a decade, Julia Roberts was box-office gold, becoming the world’s biggest actress and the first female to command a $20 million salary for her Oscar-winning performance in Erin Brockovich, released in 2000.
Roberts — who starred in 17 movies in the 1990s, including classic rom-coms Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride and Notting Hill — was so powerful she saw her paycheck upped to $25 million for the 2003 drama, Mona Lisa Smile. (After Mona Lisa Smile, she started making fewer films as she focused on raising a family.)
Fast-forward to present day when Roberts’ box-office pull is in question, much like several of her male contemporaries, including Johnny Depp and Will Smith. In the U.S., a major movie star is no longer a guarantee that audiences will show up. The actress, 48, has suffered a string of misses since her last two hits, Eat Pray Love and Valentine’s Day, both released in 2010.
Last fall, The Secret in Their Eyes, a tough thriller about a woman (Roberts) who seeks revenge for the death of her daughter, opened nationwide to $6.7 million, one of the lowest nationwide starts of her career. The movie, co-starring Nicole Kidman and Chiwetel Ejiofor, was small in scope, to be sure, costing $19.5 million to make, but topped out a disappointing $20.2 million nationwide.
“Nowadays, female leads are usually plucked to be posterized if they’re of the comedic variety, not necessarily for their acting prowess. Julia Roberts was one of the last true actresses that earned her name above the title of a film with acting alone. That’s how big her draw was. What happened? Well, since Eat Pray Love in 2010, she hasn’t really done anything that’s connected with audiences or the zeitgeist of the times,” says box-office analyst Jeff Bock.
“Still, she had a decadelong stretch from 1990-2000 that really is unmatched by an actress in terms of box office, which is why I think studios are still interested in casting her in hopes of catching just one more glimpse of the iconic mannerisms — the trademark laugh and smile — that catapulted her to $100 million-plus hit after $100 million-plus hit,” Bock continued.
Indeed, Roberts still lands her share of roles. On Thursday, she was cast as Room star Jacob Tremblay’s mother in the Lionsgate drama Wonder.
Over the April 29-30 weekend, Mother’s Day, debuted to $8.4 million domestically — 85 percent behind Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day, which opened to $56.2 million in 2010. Roberts was one of the ensemble leads in both movies. In Mother’s Day, she stars alongside Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson and Jason Sudeikis.
Insiders close to Roberts note she made the two movies as a favor to Marshall, who directed her breakout movie Pretty Woman, and that neither were strategic career choices. Plus, they were ensemble titles.
Other recent films featuring Roberts that failed to resonate at the U.S. box office in a meaningful way include Snow White movie Mirror Mirror (2012) and Larry Crowne (2011), co-starring Tom Hanks.
Roberts’ next test is director Jodie Foster’s Money Monster, reuniting the actress with her Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve co-star George Clooney (it’s likewise a box-office test for him).
Money Monster makes its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival next week before Sony opens the financial thriller in U.S. theaters on May 13. In the film, Clooney stars as a financial TV personality who is taken hostage on air by an unhappy viewer; Roberts plays the producer of the show.
Money Monster will also make a major push overseas, where movie stars still have more clout. Mirror Mirror, for example, earned $118.1 million overseas, compared to $64.9 million domestically, not accounting for inflation.