Roberts cements status as a Hollywood force

For many in Hollywood, Julia Roberts' Oscar victory is a coronation long overdue.

As longtime executive Joe Roth said, “As an actress she holds more clout than any woman since Shirley Temple.” She is the first female star to earn a salary on a par with her male peers — $20 million a movie — the first actress whose films have earned more than $1 billion at the box office, and the only actress who can guarantee a film's opening.

On Sunday night, she was clearly the actress of the moment and she took her time to enjoy winning a best actress Oscar for “Erin Brockovich.” Dressed in vintage Valentino, she crowed ebulliently, “I love it up here!” and told the orchestra conductor, “You're so quick with that stick, but why don't you just sit, I may never be here again.”

Roberts' ascension has a fairy-tale quality, from her childhood in the small town of Smyrna, Ga., and her father's death when she was 9 to her smashing debut as America's “Pretty Woman,” and the subsequent hangover early celebrity seemed to give her. Just five years ago, Roberts was in the midst of a prolonged slump, seemingly doing her best to undermine her stardom.

Yet Roberts' reinvention of her career and persona has as much to do with hard-nosed business decisions and changing demographics as it does with the pleasing myth of the princess who discovers her own powers and comes into her birthright. Through talent, marketing savvy and good timing, she has redefined what it means to be a female movie star.

If her early star-making roles recycled the classic Hollywood stereotypes for women — the hooker with a heart of gold (“Pretty Woman”) and the abused wife (“Sleeping With the Enemy”) — Roberts has come to represent our times, playing a woman who is more accessible than a phenomenon like Madonna, and less fragile than the old-time icons like Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe. Whether portraying an arrogant movie star (“Notting Hill”) or a striving paralegal (“Erin Brockovich”), she always plays a character who will not allow herself to be walked on.

And she has bestowed her immense screen charisma on women who have not always behaved properly according to the usual bylaws of the Hollywood blockbuster, breaking such cardinal rules as “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's man” (“My Best Friend's Wedding”), and “Thou shalt not ignore thy children” (“Erin Brockovich”).

Not surprisingly, these messages are particularly pleasing to women who have powered her drive to the top. In this respect, Roberts stumbled into the film industry at the right moment. As the baby boomers aged, the demographics of movie-goers shifted. While teen-age boys and their taste for cartoonish action films dominated the early 1980s, by 1990 — the year of “Pretty Woman” — older females were developing into a potent, if often untapped, force.

“The female audience, particularly older females, have very limited free time, but when there is something they want to see, they wait for it, and show up in droves,” said Terry Press, head of marketing at DreamWorks, which recently released “The Mexican,” an offbeat adventure starring Roberts and Brad Pitt that's been a solid hit.

In the mid-1990s, Roberts appeared to be sabotaging her potential, opting for underwritten parts in such films as “Mary Reilly” and “Michael Collins.” For the media, her turbulent personal life seemed more noteworthy than her films.

The turning point in Roberts' career came with 1997's “My Best Friend's Wedding,” a film that opened up against “Batman and Robin,” the ultimate popcorn flick for teen-age boys. In that film, which went on to gross more than $100 million, Roberts pointedly did not get the guy at the end.

“I just thought the idea of somebody as beautiful and as funny as Julia not always winning was not only true but a good message,” said Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Roberts' one-time agent-turned-producing partner, and best friend. “If anything, that was a movie about power and recognizing your own power.”

It was also around the time of “Wedding” that Roberts became more interested in, and consequently savvier about, the selling of her films, and consequently herself. “She became very shrewd about how her image was represented, the trailers, the TV spots,” Goldsmith-Thomas said.

For those who toil in the studio system, it's often unclear whether a specific marketing edict is coming from Roberts or Goldsmith-Thomas, although there are clearly times when it's Roberts herself. For example, on “The Mexican,” she opted to take the second billing, after deciding the movie really belonged to Pitt but nonetheless performed 75 percent of the publicity tasks, according to the studio.

During the making of “Erin Brockovich,” director Steven Soderbergh became focused on the movie's poster, determined that Roberts' image not simply be reduced to a “Pretty Woman” redux. When Soderbergh showed her a selection for the film, it was Roberts who opted for the poster with her holding a baby, because “she felt that was a good thing to play up that fact, to let people know she was playing a mom,” the director said, adding, “I liked that one too.”

For nominees, the Oscar race is similar to the political primary season as they traipse from film critics' celebrations to guild dinners, raising their profile and campaigning for the Oscar with well-crafted displays of bonhomie and gratitude. Roberts has been masterful in these public appearances.

“She's so good when she does the press,” Soderbergh said with a sigh. “She's found a way to do it and give people enough stuff that they go away feeling like they got something, and she doesn't feel compromised, or violated.”

The sheer longevity of Roberts' career defies the odds, said film writer and critic Molly Haskell, author of “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies.” “Somehow we haven't gotten tired of her. The (audience's) tendency with women is to want fresh blood all the time. With men, the tendency is to like to see a familiar face. It's already happening with Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock, and that process is accelerated if they make a couple of duds. Julia Roberts has managed to go on, which is amazing, especially in this kind of throwaway culture.”

So what could an Oscar mean to the woman who has it all?

“I wrote her a note, ‘Pretty far in a push-up bra?”' said “Pretty Woman” director Garry Marshall with a laugh. “In my opinion, the Oscar will give her peace of mind. This is a girl who really likes to do comedy. They never give an Oscar for comedy, and this will allow her to go back to comedy, that never wins anything.”

Counters Gore Verbinski, who directed “The Mexican”: “The thing about Julia is that the public is so enraptured by her charm that the audience almost demands this familiarity with her. It's as if they're saying, ‘We know our Julia and we know how we like her and we know how we want her to be,' but she's not just a falafel. Her talent is such that she must upset the balance. There's a continent of unexplored emotion there, and my intuition is that she's going to start some new stuff that maybe people aren't ready for.”

Soderbergh notes that “her only difficulty will be in finding great roles because most movies are still written for men.”

Roth, the founder of Revolution Studios and director of the Roberts/Billy Crystal romantic comedy “America's Sweethearts,” often serves as a paternal figure to Roberts. He funded her production company for years, first at his production company Caravan, and later when he was chairman of Walt Disney Studios.

For years, the company produced no films, save for “Stepmom” at Columbia, but Roberts repaid him by ensuring that Disney was allowed half-ownership of “Runaway Bride.” When Roth left Disney to start Revolution in 2000, Roberts moved her shingle, Shoelace Productions, there in a public endorsement that helped the financing of the company.