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It's a Joy and Triumph in This Arena

Academy Award Affirms Roberts' Role as a Force in Hollywood


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. She's also the first actress whose films have earned more than $1 billion at the box office, and the only one who can guarantee a film's opening.

On Sunday night, she was clearly the actress of the moment and 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 teenage 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.

"As time went by, they became the most powerful theatrical and most powerful video audience by far," said Ed Minz, the head of CinemaScore, a firm that tracks the demographics of opening night audiences. (While Hollywood prizes the youth market for the frequency of their moviegoing, patrons older than 25 constitute 60% of the film-going audience, according to the latest available statistics.) Minz notes that women don't necessarily choose films with female stars, but they definitely choose Roberts.

"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.

According to CinemaScore data, Roberts' audience has been 62% female, making her a female powerhouse. "Roberts helped the female market [along]. She didn't control the whole marketplace, but she definitely figured in." Minz said.

To be sure, she wouldn't have become such a juggernaut without significant male appeal as well. "Her demographic is female, but she is not a put-off to men," Press said. "You can get a man to go to a Julia Roberts movie as opposed to other actresses that men will absolutely refuse to go to see."

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 teenage 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' onetime agent-turned-producing partner, and best friend. "If anything, that was a movie about power and recognizing your own power."

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