Julia Roberts co-stars in Wonder, which opens this week. But Wonder isn’t really a Julia Roberts Movie, and that’s still a weird concept to grasp for some us. For many who came of age in the 1990s, Julia Roberts was more than a movie star; she was an existential fact. From her star-making turn in Pretty Woman in 1990 through the early 2000s (when she took a step back from her whirlwind career to start a family), she was a dominant cultural force. Even when she failed — as in that brief period in the mid-1990s when she attempted more ostensibly serious fare — somehow we all felt embroiled in the fate of career.
The all-consuming totality of the Julia Roberts phenomenon was well-earned. Movie stars might have talent and range, but that’s not what makes them stars; what makes them stars is, ironically, a limitation: The one (or sometimes two) things everyone knows them for, the qualities that define their presence. And Julia Roberts has (has – she still does) more presence than most big actors combined. It’s a presence that encompasses her smile and her laugh (of course), but also her quick-witted delivery, and her warmth — the sense that there’s a real, caring human being up there on the screen.
But presence can be a double-edged sword, too. Julia Roberts eventually proved to be one of the finest performers of her generation, but she never could quite escape being Julia Roberts. Hence, the awesome number of films in which she’s asked to riff on variations of her own persona — a subgenre (or is it a sub-subgenre?) we could call Julia Roberts Plays Herself.
Anyway, it’s a great filmography — better than many would have anticipated. Here are all of Julia Roberts’s performances, ranked.
44. Mother’s Day
Thud. Outfitted with a gruesome pageboy wig, Roberts plays a famous Home Shopping Network guru seemingly admired by everyone in this remorselessly dumb ensemble comedy about a cross-section of Atlanta moms — a shallow, offensive follow-up to director Garry Marshall’s only marginally less shallow and offensive Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve films. Presumably, Roberts made this one (and Valentine’s Day) as a favor to the late Marshall, who after all directed her in Pretty Woman, the film that made her a star. Either that, or he had some dirt on her …
43. Valentine’s Day
… Like, serious dirt. At the time, Garry Marshall’s star-studded roundelay of couples and non-couples making their way through Valentine’s Day was compared to Love, Actually, which had a similarly intercutting, multicharacter structure. But soon it became clear that Marshall had a whole franchise in mind, with more of these holiday-romance cluster bombs on the way. Roberts gets one of the more interesting but less developed characters here, as a soldier on leave seated next to Bradley Cooper on an airplane. What is interesting are the film’s many references to Pretty Woman – interesting, but also sad.
42. Blood Red
Roberts gets virtually no dialogue and precious little screen time in this hilariously over-the-top epic about Sicilian immigrants in America — starring her brother, Eric, who was a much bigger star at the time. She smiles, she broods, she dances. Made at the very beginning of her career (it wouldn’t be released for several years), this is a far cry from the actress we’d get to know in later films. She pretty much completely disappears into the background.
41. Fireflies in the Garden
Hey, isn’t it cool how these ranked countdowns of great performers’ careers always start out with a deluge of amazingly bad movies? This awkward family drama, somehow both simplistic and convoluted, was recut for U.S. release, though apparently the earlier version wasn’t any better. Ryan Reynolds plays a writer who comes home for his mom’s (Roberts) belated graduation, only to wind up having to deal with the tragedy of her death in a car accident. Memories are unearthed, resentments are shared, emotions are felt — and very little of it rings true. Roberts doesn’t get to do much, but when she’s onscreen, she mostly just plays a one-note portrait of a caring mother. We’re constantly reminded that she’s being thoroughly wasted.
40. Grand Champion
This dreadful, family-friendly underdog story about a young widow, her kids, and their prize steer was shot by Roberts’s husband Danny Moder and co-stars her niece Emma Roberts, which may explain why Julia shows up very briefly as a pregnant ticket-taker at a livestock show and exchanges something like four brief lines of dialogue with the leads. She’s there to be a familiar face and to lend the movie some credibility — you can see pretty much half her performance in the film’s trailer — but her brief, winning appearance serves more to remind you of how lacking the movie is.
Look, a movie about an all-girl band (well, an all-girl-and-one-guy band) starring Justine Bateman, Liam Neeson, Trini Alvarado, and Julia Roberts should have been way, way better than this. But this mess, about a garage band that starts to see a hint of success and is immediately torn apart by the usual rock-movie clichés, never really gets going. As the band’s patrician, party-animal bassist, however, Roberts is quite lively, though her subplot takes a backseat to the film’s other story lines.
38. Michael Collins
It pains me tremendously to say that a Neil Jordan film contains one of Julia Roberts’s worst performances, but one must never flee from the truth. The legendary writer-director’s ambitious epic about the life and career of the Irish revolutionary and political leader is overbaked to an almost comical degree: Everybody shouts and gestures and runs around like they’re worried the audience might get bored if they slow down. As Kitty Kiernan, the woman loved by both Liam Neeson’s Collins and Aidan Quinn’s Harry Boland, Roberts seems adrift: Everybody overacts, while she underacts — as if she understands the value of restraint but hasn’t yet figured out how best to do it. Also, she attempts yet another Irish accent, and fails yet again. At least she was given some things to do in Mary Reilly.
37. Ready to Wear
After his umpteenth comeback, director Robert Altman almost immediately ruined his career again with this tepid, unwieldy multicharacter satire of the fashion world. Roberts and Tim Robbins play American journalists in Paris who lose their luggage and bicker over a hotel room and then wind up in bed together. They don’t really do much else, nor do they seem to have any chemistry. One wonders what exactly their story is even doing in this film, aside from helping secure financing.
36. America’s Sweethearts
This largely dreadful comedy had Billy Crystal as a PR flack trying to manage the fallout from megastars Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack’s high-profile breakup, while trying to promote their disastrous upcoming movie. But it was really about Zeta-Jones’s much-trod-upon, confidence-lacking wallflower sister Julia Roberts coming into her own. So you can sort of see the problem here. Julia Roberts doesn’t really take a backseat to anybody — not in 2001, at any rate. She’s charming, to be sure, but it’s hard to buy the movie’s conceit that she’s always been the overlooked sister.
Sorry, revisionists — this is not a good movie. It’s annoyingly stylized hokum from Joel Schumacher, about a group of med students who let themselves “flatline” and then are brought back to life, all in an effort to understand the nature of death. Or something. True, it’s self-aware enough to allow its cast to turn their performances up to 11, but it still doesn’t work; it wants to be elegant trash, but in truth it’s just trashy trash. As the more earnest of the group of med students who kill themselves for science and sport, Roberts actually makes it out okay from the cinematic wreckage — she has a no-nonsense sweetness that serves her well.
34. I Love Trouble
Roberts and Nick Nolte famously did not get along on the set of this Nancy Meyers–scripted romantic comedy about rival Chicago reporters who are forced together while uncovering a sinister bovine hormone conspiracy (no, really). Their offscreen tension makes it onscreen, which actually works sometimes — specifically, in those moments when Roberts’s dogged cub reporter is weirded out by (the fantastically miscast) Nolte’s weathered and womanizing newspaper veteran. But she can only do so much, and the unwieldy and overlong film eventually loses any inspiration or energy it might have once had as it lumbers to its belabored conclusion.
33. Mary Reilly
Made at the height of her fame, this attempt at more dramatic material – the Jekyll-and-Hyde tale told from the perspective of the good doctor’s Irish maid, who begins to discover his secret — almost killed Roberts’s career. Stephen Frears’s Gothic drama is, to be fair, rather watchable — atmospheric and melancholic, with John Malkovich clearly getting a kick out of chewing any and all available scenery. And Roberts isn’t bad, actually: Her character’s queasiness and fear comes through vividly. She just has a terrible accent, and the movie does her very few favors by making her character so passive. Funny how this was considered “serious” while something like Steel Magnolias was not.
32. Dying Young
This shameless Joel Schumacher (him again) tearjerker might have started out as a story about a man with leukemia, but it sort of becomes Pretty Woman all over again — as young, recently separated and vibrantly attired Julia Roberts finds herself answering an ad to help take care of a very ill, very rich Campbell Scott. He’s given up on life, but with her around, he starts to fall in love — and then, so does she. As is his wont, Schumacher leans into the emotional manipulation — heaven forbid the man should ever restrain himself — which actually undercuts the emotions on display. But Roberts does bring sensitivity and range to her part, as she goes from repulsion to attraction to heartbreak to endurance.
Sporting a rare pixie-cut (what else?), Roberts brought an almost pathological joviality to tiny, glowing Tinkerbell in Steven Spielberg’s star-studded, much-reviled sequel to Peter Pan. Which might have been annoying, were it not for the fact that her devotion to Peter (now all grown-up and played by Robin Williams) felt so total. Hook is a strange movie – bloated, to be sure, but also filled with lots of emotional dynamite that’s clearly coming from a very personal place for the director. In the moments when she connects with the film’s pathos, Roberts’s cheerful fairy is quite affecting.
Mike Nichols’s precise, chilly adaptation of Patrick Marber’s savagely barbed play about two men and two women who engage in an elaborate series of meet-cutes and infidelities doesn’t look, at first, like Julia Roberts material: What would her buoyant energy do with Marber’s combination of brutal efficiency and philosophical reflection? So how odd that she comes off better than some of her esteemed co-stars (Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen – the latter two were nominated for Oscars), largely by underplaying her part. Through her restraint, Roberts provokes in us some semblance of empathy for her character – in a movie where everyone else is basically monstrous.
29. Full Frontal
Perhaps because she achieved such massive fame at a relatively young age, and so perfectly embodied the platonic ideal of a Movie Star, Julia Roberts has made a rather shocking number of films in which she appears as a meta-textual variation on herself. Several of these films are directed by Steven Soderbergh. In this digital-video-shot, largely improvised, no-budget ensemble lark, the director demanded (among other things) that his star-studded cast have fun. Did they, though? Roberts pokes sly fun at her image, playing an actress playing in a movie about journalists who fall in love while pursuing a conspiracy (which itself is a riff on her role in The Pelican Brief), but the movie’s drab look and frantic energies make it feel like a bit of a chore.
28. Money Monster
In Jodie Foster’s satire-cum-thriller, George Clooney plays a Jim Cramer-ish TV finance guru whose bullish promotion of one stock has led desperate prole Jack O’Connell to lose his life savings, leading to a hostage standoff in the TV studio. Roberts plays Clooney’s producer, stuck in the production booth making life or death decisions and trying to save her beleaguered host. The movie’s tone is all over the place, but Roberts and Clooney’s chemistry helps ground it; their easygoing banter eventually leads to tenser and tenser exchanges. The dialogue is predictable, but the duo make it convincing.
27. Runaway Bride
This calculating, frightful rom-com reunited the principals of Pretty Woman — Roberts, Richard Gere, and director Garry Marshall — and scored a huge box-office success, but it leaves a sour aftertaste. Roberts is a woman who keeps leaving men at the altar, Gere is the contemptuous, know-it-all journalist who “figures her out,” as it were — right as they fall for each other. It’s a screwball concept given a soft-focus treatment, with an even-more-predictable-than-usual plot and very little character shading. Gone, too, is the volcanic chemistry the two stars had in Pretty Woman. Somehow, though, Roberts manages to be her usual likable self in the film, which probably helps account for its success. Maybe this is a Julia Roberts Plays Herself movie in embryonic form; she clearly identified with elements of this character.
26. Eat Pray Love
In the wake of a messy divorce, a writer wanders the world in search of meaning and passion in this loose adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular memoir. Interesting casting, to be sure: Though in no way anything like Gilbert, Roberts was one of the few stars big enough to get a project like this off the ground. But the movie requires her to be very much not the center of attention and to focus on the people around her. Despite the fact that she seems to be searching for herself, this characters is a listener, and so Roberts cedes the spotlight to her co-stars — especially James Franco, Richard Jenkins, and Javier Bardem. The movie doesn’t really land emotionally — it feels more like a mediocre TV series — but the actress’s generous performance leads to moments of occasional sincerity.
25. Everyone Says I Love You
Woody Allen once made an honest-to-god musical, and it was actually pretty good — with the awkwardly performed (on purpose) songs lending a pleasantly Brechtian quality to the largely plotless multicharacter romance. Roberts plays an unhappy American in Venice who is wooed by depressed, divorced, and done-with-love Allen in a variety of vaguely dishonest ways. Of course, as with many Woody Allen scenarios, what once seemed light as a feather now feels a little creepy. But Roberts is certainly radiant, even if she’s not called on to do all that much.
24. August: Osage County
Hot take: Though acclaimed, this movie is basically terrible — a shrill but also lifeless variant of Tracy Letts’s extraordinary play about a dysfunctional family reunited under tragic circumstances. And one of the reasons the film doesn’t succeed is Meryl Streep’s grotesque performance as the filterless, domineering matriarch. Roberts plays her daughter — always at odds with mom but also coming to realize that she’s turning into her in certain ways. And as she is in so many other not-very-good films, Roberts is a breath of fresh air — without an attachment to the stage, she’s able to bring a dose of naturalism to her part, which helps get us on her side. (Maybe that’s why she was nominated for an Oscar. But then again, so was Streep.)
23. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Roberts is appropriately mysterious and alluring — but still in a very Julia Roberts way — playing a shady agent in this demented biopic about The Gong Show host Chuck Barris and his purported side gig as a CIA assassin. As written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by George Clooney, the film is a tight little, wink-wink puzzle box of metaphor and shifting realities, which can constrain the performers sometimes; they don’t really look like they’re enjoying themselves, but maybe that’s the point. But Roberts eases into her support role — she’s one-dimensional on purpose, her very presence given a postmodern kick by the fact that she is, after all, Julia Roberts. (Here we go again.)
22. The Player
Near the end of Robert Altman’s savage showbiz satire, Roberts appears briefly as herself, playing a part in a movie-within-a-movie about a woman on death row. It seems like a nothing role, but it’s actually crucial to the film’s vision of the industry as a place where the noblest of purposes is flattened and rendered superficial by the demands of ego and profit: The film the characters are watching is meant to be compromised because it now has Julia Roberts in it. Is this the beginning of the Julia Roberts Plays Herself subgenre? At the very least, this was one of the first signs that the actress would be a good sport about all this. Her willingness to undercut her image is refreshing — especially because this was right around the time that she was looking to branch out into more serious roles.
21. Conspiracy Theory
There’s decent chemistry between Roberts and Mel Gibson in this schlocky but slick paranoid thriller. He’s a crackpot New York cabbie who spends much of his time spinning elaborate and unlikely theories about everything under the sun; she’s the Justice Department lawyer who he’s smitten with, and who keeps rejecting his attempts to relay his ideas to her. Needless to say, they wind up in the middle of a full-fledged, murderous conspiracy, which is sort of a dream come true for him. This is a pure movie star vehicle. Gibson makes for an effective motormouthed crazy person — this was before the world realized that he basically was one — and Roberts is elegant and sensitive and beautiful in all the usual Hollywoodized ways.
20. Larry Crowne
In this Tom Hanks–directed comedy-drama about a middle-aged man (Tom Hanks) whose life is upended when he’s laid off from his beloved job at a Walmart-style megastore and enrolls in community college, Roberts plays a perpetually unhappy (and vaguely alcoholic) teacher. Her class is “The Art of Informal Remarks” — something that speaks to the modesty of the characters and their milieu — and she and he are sort of meant to be together, even though she’s married to a rather gross Bryan Cranston. The romance is pointless, the film overlong and unfocused — but it’s actually quite entertaining to watch Julia Roberts play someone who is constantly pissed at the world. “Watch her face as she enters her first class and sees nine — not the state-mandated minimum of ten — students,” wrote David Edelstein at the time. “It’s the relief of a sourpuss who truly would rather not deal with other human beings, especially in the morning with a hangover.”
19. The Pelican Brief
As a brilliant law-school student who accidentally discovers a huge government conspiracy, Roberts has to play a character who slowly comes to understand her dangerous predicament in Alan J. Pakula’s film version of John Grisham’s hit legal thriller. It’s a relatively absorbing suspense drama — and the actress deserves credit for keeping us interested, since the plot itself is quite convoluted. But the highlight here is Roberts’s chemistry with Denzel Washington, playing a cynical D.C. reporter who takes an interest in her story, and finds himself slowly becoming enamored with her.
18. The Mexican
Brad Pitt is a klutzy errand boy for the mob sent to Mexico to retrieve a priceless pistol with a magical backstory; Julia Roberts is his long-suffering girlfriend who angrily dumps him upon hearing the news. Gore Verbinski’s strange action comedy romance follows their seemingly opposing trajectories: Pitt has a mythical, twisty-turny journey south of the border, while she hooks up with sensitive hit man James Gandolfini and goes from vengeful ex to chatty, introspective soul. Gandolfini gets the best moments in the film, and Roberts’s interactions are marked by her openness. Meanwhile, the romance stuff is largely idiotic: She and Pitt are presumably kept apart for most of the movie so they can be emotionally reunited, but their chemistry is negligible; they should have stayed separated. In fact, the whole movie should have just been about Roberts and Gandolfini.
It almost goes without saying that Roberts brings plenty of sensitivity to her role as the devoted mother of a 10-year-old with craniofacial disorder; there’d be no point for her to do this family film otherwise. But what makes this performance special are the added notes of fear and impatience and distractedness that she layers on top of that. Her character is dedicated to her son — to a fault. She doesn’t see the other problems growing around her. It’s a very thoughtful and true depiction of how one’s life can be consumed by being a parent, and of the difficulties of letting go. The actress manages to pull this off with subtlety and grace in a movie that could have easily gone straight for the emotional jugular.
16. Secret in Their Eyes
This drama — a remake of an Oscar-winning Argentine film — flopped mightily upon release, but Roberts was quite compelling in it. She plays a Los Angeles DA investigator whose teenage daughter is raped and killed, and whose desire for revenge fuels much of the story. The plot actually focuses on the efforts of fellow investigator Chiwetel Ejiofor’s pursuit of the culprit, and of his affection for assistant DA Nicole Kidman. But the grief Roberts brings to her part is almost unspeakably raw — which is critical for understanding some of the directions the film eventually takes.
15. Ocean’s Twelve
Steven Soderbergh’s breezy, nonsensical follow-up to his 2001 heist hit might be the best of the Ocean’s trilogy, thanks in part to the fact that it takes itself even less seriously than the other two films. And Roberts embodies the film’s nutty playfulness in the unforgettable scene where she goes into a museum posing as Julia Roberts, and is promptly recognized by Bruce Willis (playing himself). She doesn’t have to do all that much acting, of course — but her appearance in this film offers a fine new twist in her ongoing deconstruction of her own celebrity.
14. Mirror Mirror
The main attraction in this riff on the Snow White legend is director Tarsem Singh’s splendid knack for surreal, eye-popping imagery; every frame of this fantasy adventure is stunning. But Julia Roberts, playing the Evil Queen, also has a lot to do with that: She looks fantastic in costume genius Eiko Ishioka’s out-of-this-world designs, and she clearly relishes the over-the-top nature of her character. This is a part that calls for a real movie star: Someone who can totally command the screen while also having fun with the Queen’s desperate attempts to preserve her beauty. Resolved: Julia Roberts should play villains more often.
13. Sleeping With the Enemy
Fleeing from her abusive, control-freak husband Patrick Bergin, Roberts fakes her death in a boating accident and heads to the heartland, where she tries to rebuild her life and keep a low profile, hoping he doesn’t discover her ruse and track her down. This was seen as a bit of star-vehicle shlock at the time — reviews were blah, but box-office was golden, cementing Roberts’s infallibility as a draw — but rewatching it now, I’m struck by how effectively and poignantly Roberts conveys her character’s trauma and inability to move on. (This comes through particularly in the sequences when she responds to the largely harmless, but weirdly triggering, advances of a potential new suitor.) The movie is a predictable genre piece — with a doozy of an ending — but Roberts is so haunted throughout that she gives it complexity and nuance.
12. Something to Talk About
At the time, this film was marketed as a kind of modern-day comedy of remarriage, in which on-the-outs small-town husband-and-wife Dennis Quaid and Roberts got back together. But it’s actually a far darker film than that. Look beyond some of its more zany contrivances (after discovering her husband’s affair, Roberts lays bare the whole town’s hypocrisy and infidelity at a women’s league meeting) and you see a movie about the difficulty of rebuilding trust, and the ways in which domesticity can thwart women’s dreams. The plot is a little all over the place — it’s a comedy! a drama! a romance! an anti-romance! a melodrama! with horse-racing! — but Roberts touchingly conveys the film’s many moods.
Susan Sarandon got much of the acclaim for this sentimental drama about a divorced mother whose rivalry with ex-husband Ed Harris’s younger new girlfriend begins to change when she discovers she’s dying of cancer. Both actresses are terrific — bringing depth to the film’s high-concept logline — and Sarandon does arguably have the showier part, as the older woman who doesn’t think this young, fabulous creature is worthy of taking care of her children. But look closer and you realize Roberts has to do so much more: She’s a confident and high-powered professional photographer who finds herself at an utter loss when trying just to be a mom to these kids, and the actress balances these extremes beautifully. And she gets the film’s true emotional highpoint, with a speech at the end about all the things she fears about her future as a stepmom.
10. Ocean’s Eleven
Steven Soderbergh’s revamp of the infamous Rat Pack crime caper is far more assured than the original, which was purely a goofy lark; here, there’s actually some care given to things like character motivation and the dynamics of the central Vegas heist. But it’s still bubbly and delightful, and one of its true pleasures is the wonderfully bitter and fast-paced repartee between ex-con and super-thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his ex-wife Tess (Roberts), who now appears to be going with his chief nemesis (Andy Garcia). Many movies might seek to judge a character like Roberts’s. In this one, she gives as good as she gets — she’s able to pierce Ocean’s armor of cool better than anyone else — and she’s a joy to watch.
9. Mona Lisa Smile
Much dismissed at the time as an inferior, female version of Dead Poets Society, Mike Newell’s period drama about an inspirational, free-spirited art teacher (Roberts) trying to convince a group of Wellesley students that there’s more to life than marriage has aged a lot better than you’d expect. Roberts is admirably restrained throughout, giving a sense of slow-boiling frustration at the administration and the society around her, but her performance is also filled with love and concern for the young women around her — even for the marvelously caustic Kirsten Dunst, playing a conservative student perpetually at odds with our heroine. The cast of then-stars and future-stars (Dominic West! John Slattery!) is also quite something. The critical and financial disappointment of this film in 2003 seemed, at the time, like a dagger in the heart of Roberts’s career: She had been paid a then-astronomical $25 million for it. Yes, the movie is predictable and “safe” in all the usual ways, but frankly, it deserved better.
8. Mystic Pizza
In this enchanting romantic comedy about three waitresses at a pizza shop in Mystic looking for love, Roberts plays the sassy, fun-loving one who falls for a wealthy blue blood, played by Adam Storke. (The other two girls are played by Annabeth Gish and Lili Taylor.) Her vitality contrasts interestingly with his reserve — which could make for nice chemistry, but instead results in us largely ignoring him and focusing our attentions on her. Of course, that’s partly the appeal of this movie: The men wind up disappearing into the background, and we’re left with three girls and their moving and close-knit friendship with one another.
7. Pretty Woman
Well, here it is: the rom-com neutron bomb — about the world’s sweetest prostitute and her whirlwind romance with a Wall Street takeover specialist played by Richard Gere — that turned Julia Roberts into a household name. Seriously, how strange is it that, after so many years of being a huge star and starring in countless megahits and winning all sorts of awards, this is still the film with which Roberts is identified by so many? That speaks to her irresistibly effervescent performance — that laugh — and the chemistry between her and Gere. But the movie is … well, it’s kind of icky. In retrospect, it’s not hard to see that it started life as a grittier, darker film, and was only later turned into a breezy rom-com. You can see it in some of its rougher spots, which expose the saccharine script and plotting. But that’s no knock on Roberts: She is the opposite of saccharine. If Pretty Woman had to be the vessel that would introduce her to the wider world, so be it.
6. Steel Magnolias
Roberts garnered her first Oscar nomination for this tender, episodic comedy-drama about several generations of women in a small Louisiana town, bonding around a local beauty parlor run by Dolly Parton. Roberts is quite good as an energetic young woman determined not to let her control-freak mom (Sally Field) or a debilitating medical condition get the best of her. Of course, the film is most notable for — spoiler — Roberts’s death at the end, and her palpable absence in the final scenes speaks to the brightness of her presence in the movie’s earlier parts. But let’s face it: The person who maybe should have gotten that Oscar nomination (and probably the win) was Field, whose profound, inconsolable grief at the end is one of the most shattering things you’ll ever see, like, anywhere.
5. Charlie Wilson’s War
In Mike Nichols’s based-on-fact political satire, Roberts plays the real-life right-wing Texas socialite who used her sharp wit and feminine wiles to engineer womanizing congressman Charlie Wilson’s (Tom Hanks) efforts to illegally arm the Afghan mujaheddin in the 1980s. The actress is clearly relishing the opportunity to deliver Aaron Sorkin’s barbed dialogue (though perhaps not as much as Philip Seymour Hoffman, who steals the show as an explosive CIA functionary). Shot after she got married and started a family, this film represented Roberts’s return of sorts to high-profile acting; she had spent several years doing cameo parts and vocal performances. Seeing her again in a meaty role was a delight, even if the movie is sometimes a little too light for its own good.
Tony Gilroy’s breezily articulate con-artist romance features two electrifying performances from Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, as former flames and ex-intelligence operatives (she for the CIA, he for MI6) who wind up working in corporate espionage in the private sector and plunge several double-crosses deep. There’s backstabbing and betrayal galore, but thanks to Gilroy’s deft touch and the winning cast, it’s all ruthlessly entertaining. And if there’s one thing that Roberts and Owen clearly enjoy even more than the movie’s fast-paced repartee, it’s the devastatingly well-timed silences. Also of note: Unlike in many other stories of romance and deception, the woman is clearly having as much fun as the man. “Both actors seem to be channeling Cary Grant,” Roger Ebert wrote at the time.
3. My Best Friend’s Wedding
Believe it or not, this rom-com was seen as a comeback of sorts for Roberts, after her brief, mostly failed dalliance with more serious material in the mid-’90s. But perhaps her foray into drama wasn’t for naught, for she brings a surprising amount of dedication to this high-concept tale of a driven food writer who sets out to ruin her best male friend Dermot Mulroney’s wedding to Cameron Diaz. Roberts is terrifically scheming and relentless and sexy, and gets to flex her slapstick chops as well — but she also makes us believe the character’s desperation, which in turn serves her well when the film gets more earnest in its later scenes.
2. Notting Hill
He’s a mopey West London bookstore owner who doesn’t really have much that excites him in life. She’s a huge American movie star, in town to promote a movie. This is the pinnacle of two particular types of rom-coms that dominated the 1990s: tales of cynical (usually male) protagonists who urgently need to find something or someone to care about, but don’t realize it, and tales of attractive but unlucky-in-love (usually female) protagonists finding The One in the unlikeliest places. Notting Hill also represents the meeting of the two stars that most came to define these subgenres: Hugh Grant and our Julia. (Seriously, this is like Pacino and De Niro finally facing off in Heat.) The constellation of so many elements at the time looked to some critics like evidence that the film was just a tired slog through the usual clichés. (“Can the moviegoing public fall for the same old crap again?” mused the Village Voice’s Dennis Lim.) But this movie perfected the clichés, while offering a unified field theory of the modern romantic comedy in the process. Worth noting: Notting Hill is also one of the high points of the Julia Roberts Plays Herself subgenre, toying with the sheer magnitude of her stardom by straight-up making it a plot point. Plus, it’s genuinely hilarious: Its depictions of the inanity of junket interviews and the absurdity of the Hollywood machine clearly come from a place of deep knowledge.
1. Erin Brockovich
Believe it or not, there were some of us who thought Julia Roberts was trying a little too hard with this, the (based-on-real-life) movie that won her an Oscar. Playing a decidedly unglamorous, in-no-way-bubbly, and twice-divorced single mom who takes a job as a legal secretary and winds up uncovering Pacific Gas & Electric’s poisoning of Hinkley, California’s drinking water, she was so thoroughly un-Julia that it somehow made us keep thinking of, well, Julia. But that’s part of the problem with movie stars, isn’t it? They never quite stop being themselves, through no real fault of their own. (If anything, this is our problem as viewers.) Watching the movie now, however, her performance gains depth, and one can see how Roberts has immersed herself in the part, even as she brings certain elements to make it her own.
Erin Brockovich is a dramatic story — a very sad one, at times — but it has comic moves. It has one-liners and meet-cutes and ironic coincidences and a jaunty pace. That’s why Roberts, who spent so much of her career trying to reconcile her comic persona with her desire to do dramatic work, is so perfect for it. Plus, she brings a real undercurrent of tenderness to her character’s stridency and persistence. It’s an incredibly compassionate film, and she is its beating heart.