Since her meteorite rise to fame in 1990, Julia Roberts has been one of the few actresses considered “bankable” by the Hollywood elite. The youngest of three children, she was born on October 28, 1967, in Smyrna, Georgia. Her parents ran a theatrical workshop for actors and writers in Atlanta. As a child, Julia wanted to become a veterinarian, but Roberts admits the idea of acting was “just kind of there in my mind all the time.”Her parents divorced in 1971, and her father died of cancer five years later—two events that cast a pall over an otherwise happy childhood. In her teenage years, Roberts developed a contentious relationship with her stepfather. Eager to leave home, she moved to New York City just days after her high school graduation. There, she joined her sister Lisa, who was pursuing an acting career. Her brother Eric had already found success starring in such films as Star 80 (1983) and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984).
Roberts intended to study acting but after a few classes concluded that they were not “very conducive to what I wanted to do.” For a year, she signed on with a modeling agency and auditioned for acting roles with little success. Eric helped her get her first part playing his sister in Blood Red (1988), a drama that was not released until Roberts became a star. After a guest spot on the television series Crime Story, she appeared in the films Satisfaction (1988) and Baja Oklahoma (1988). Her breakthrough role came in Mystic Pizza (1988), in which she stole the picture playing a sexy Portuguese-American waitress. She then won the part of Shelby, a doomed diabetic, in Steel Magnolias (1989). Playing opposite such veteran actresses as Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, and Olympia Dukakis, Roberts was the only cast member to receive an Academy Award nomination.
Roberts’s next film—Pretty Woman (1990)— made her a star. In this romantic comedy, Roberts played a prostitute who enchants a ruthless tycoon (Richard Gere). Although dismissed by critics as formulaic, the movie was an enormous success with moviegoers, becoming the year’s second most successful film. Much of its popularity was due to Roberts, who was hailed for the warmth and humor that she brought to her role. Critic Roger Ebert prophetically wrote, “[Roberts] gives her character an irrepressibly bouncy sense of humor. . . . Actresses who can do that and look great can have whatever they want in Hollywood.” Now Hollywood’s hottest actress, Roberts appeared in two thrillers—Flatliners (1990) and Sleeping with the Enemy (1991). Both were boxoffice hits, largely because of her star power. However, her films Dying Young (1991) and Hook (1991) failed to find an audience. Beginning in 1991, Roberts took a two-year hiatus from film. Tabloids spread unfounded rumors that, feeling the pressure of sudden fame, she was headed for a breakdown. The press also widely reported her affairs with costars Liam Neeson and Dylan McDermott and her last-minute decision not to marry actor Kiefer Sutherland. Her brief marriage to singer Lyle Lovett also fed the rumor mills.
In 1993, Roberts returned to acting in The Pelican Brief (1993), a popular legal thriller that paired her with Denzel Washington. Over the next few years, her career stumbled with a series of boxoffice failures, including I Love Trouble (1993), Something to Talk About (1995), and Mary Reilly (1996). Just as some critics began to dismiss Roberts’ early success as a fiuke, she had a hit with the romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). Roberts stayed with the genre for her next two films, both of which were great commercial successes. In Notting Hill (1999), Roberts played a world-famous actress uncomfortable with her fame, a role that seemed to echo her own experiences. In Runaway Bride (1999), she played a marriage-shy young woman opposite her Pretty Woman costar Richard Gere. Roberts’s next role was the title character in Erin Brockovich (2000), the story of a crusading law office clerk who uncovers a pollution scandal involving a utility company. For her work, Roberts earned $20 million, at the time the highest paycheck ever given to an American actress. The film became her eighth movie to earn more than $100 million, firmly reestablishing her as one of the most popular movie stars in the world. In 2001, Roberts won the Academy Award for best actress for her role in Brockovich.
Sleeping with the Enemy
The Pelican Brief
I Love Trouble
Something to Talk About
Everyone Says I Love You
My Best Friend's Wedding
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Mona Lisa Smile
Beslan: Three Days In September
The Ant Bully
Charlie Wilson's War
Fireflies in the Garden
Eat, Pray, Love
Heath, Chris. “Portrait of a Trash-Talking Lady.” Rolling Stone. April 13, 2000, pp. 70–80+.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Erin Brockovich (2000). Universal/MCA, DVD/VHS, 2000.
Mystic Pizza (1988). MGM, DVD/VHS, 2001.
Pretty Woman (1990). Buena Vista Home Entertainment, DVD/VHS, 2000.
Steel Magnolias (1989). Columbia/Tristar, DVD/VHS, 2000.