From Steven Soderbergh to Mike Nichols: Julia Roberts’ 10 best film performances
“You can be true to the character all you want but you’ve got to go home with yourself.” – Julia Roberts
American actress Julia Roberts has become one of the biggest names in the film industry over the course of her career. Primarily known for her iconic role in Pretty Woman, after which she became America’s sweetheart, Roberts has gone on to win three Golden Globe Awards, from eight nominations, and has been nominated for four Academy Awards for her film acting, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Erin Brockovich.
Her film career brought her unprecedented commercial success and she was the highest-paid actress in the world throughout most of the 1990s as well as the early 2000s. It’s a career that Hollywood rarely affords, one which is underpinned by Roberts’ commitment, not to fame and fortune but her work.
Roberts said, “I don’t get at all bothered by a movie I’ve been in that I watch and say, ‘Well, it could have been better.’ I see that maybe I didn’t work hard enough or the vision we worked toward wasn’t executed. I do feel that disappointment. But my greatest sense comes from the experience of performing in the movie. When I have a great experience, that becomes a perfect movie. If it makes a nickel, it’s still perfect. The same is true with a movie that’s a bad experience. If it makes a bajillion dollars, I will hate it till the end of time.”
She added, “Making movies is not rocket science. It’s about relationships and communication and strangers coming together to see if they can get along harmoniously, productively, and creatively. That’s a challenge. When it works, it’s fantastic and will lift you up. When it doesn’t work, it’s almost just as fascinating.”
On her 53rd birthday, we revisit the illustrious career of Julia Robert and take a look at some of her finest film performances.
Julia Roberts’ 10 best films performances:
10. Mystic Pizza (Donald Petrie – 1988)
Mystic Pizza was the film that transformed Julia Roberts into a film star. She plays Daisy Arujo, a waitress at a coastal Connecticut pizza parlour who dreams of falling in love and getting up and out of Mystic. Roberts got most of the critical attention, despite being a part of an ensemble filled with up and coming young actors — Annabeth Gish, Lili Taylor, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Moses and, in his screen debut, Matt Damon.
The actress recalled, “I had gone in for a reading and the casting director had said, ‘You can’t be blond when you see the director.’ I had never coloured my hair before, so I went to Lamston’s [five-and-dime store] and bought black mousse.
“Do you know how much mousse it takes to cover your whole head? And my hair was massive. And really black. So I did the reading and I was all excited, and I’m walking to the train station and it starts raining. All of that black starts running, just pouring… [Laughs] I must have looked like I had come out of a haunted house.”
9. Eat Pray Love (Ryan Murphy – 2010)
Based on the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, Roberts plays Gilbert who embarks on a spiritual journey after a messy and life-changing divorce. She travels across the world, stopping in Italy, India and Indonesia in order to try and locate the source of ennui in her seemingly perfect life.
Roberts revealed, “I met her [Elizabeth Gilbert] in Rome. I didn’t want to meet her before that, because I knew that she and Ryan [Murphy] were in close communication, and I obviously, in this endeavour, the first step I took was to put my complete and total trust in Ryan, which was one of the smarter things that I’ve done in four years.
“So I knew that his paper interpretation of her that he gave me as my reference was all I would need, and I was also worried about falling too much in love with her, so that I would try to be her, as opposed of interpreting her as an actor… And so she came to Rome, and she was a delight.”
8. August: Osage County (John Wells – 2013)
A film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, this star-studded family drama features Roberts as Barbara, the family’s eldest daughter. She is the only one who can stand up to their drug-addicted mother Violet played by Meryl Streep. For her performance as Barbara, Roberts received her fourth Oscar nomination, her eighth Golden Globe nod and her third Screen Actors Guild nomination, proof of her stunning role in this picture.
“I, like everyone,” Roberts said of co-star Meryl Streep, “have only sat in the dark and watched in awe. To get to watch her up close and to see her be a real-life person, working really hard to be that great, it was a privilege.”
She added, “Attacking her physically [in one of the scenes] was… just… awful. I felt like a terrible person who would truly go to hell. I might actually go to hell now, I’ve attacked her so many times.”
7. Charlie Wilson’s War (Mike Nichols – 2007)
Julia Roberts stars as Joanne Herring, a wealthy Houston socialite, in Mike Nichols’ 2007 political drama. She is the primary love interest of congressman Charlie Wilson and encourages him to let go of his cavalier lifestyle and support the Afghan troops against Soviet invaders. For her performance as Joanne, she was nominated for her sixth Golden Globe Award.
“It is different because the things you can and cannot make up are entirely changed,” Nichols said. “The ordinary plot of a movie or a play, you can change the events any time you want. Obviously, when it’s dealing with real people you can’t. I saw an interview with Aaron Sorkin [writer of Charlie Wilson’s War] and he said something that had never crossed my mind.
“He was talking about being in some awe of these characters and these events, and then he said to himself: ‘Well, I’ve just got to plunge in and start making up what they say.’ And I realised that was indeed what he had to do.”
6. Ben is Back (Peter Hedges – 2018)
Peter Hedges’ 2018 film is an investigation of how drug addiction affects the families of the victims who fall prey to the vicious cycle of using and abusing. Roberts stars as Holly, the mother of Ben (Lucas Hedges) who has been sent to rehab for his opioid dependency. When he comes home for Christmas, Holly finds herself in the middle of an emotional and psychological conflict.
Hedges said, “I haven’t seen many film that deal directly with the heroine/opioid epidemic of this moment, so there was that. Also, I feel like there have been films that are about people who are using, and are they going to stop using? Those are very important. But I haven’t seen a movie where someone had the beginnings of some recovery and returned home and was going to have that recovery tested in a particular way. I felt like really telling a story where a mother is willing to go anywhere and goes everywhere on behalf of her kid.”
He added, “For me, it was about looking at someone who had had some recovery and whose past was going to be tested and rise up in front of him and all of the attendant temptations and triggers would accompany one if they came back to where they had make their mistakes. Also, I don’t know if I’d ever seen a story that explored one family over one day. That felt like it made it different.”
5. Notting Hill (Roger Michell – 1999)
A rom-com masquerading as social commentary, Roberts stars as Hollywood star Anna Scott who falls in love with a humble bookshop owner (Hugh Grant). Their relationship is subjected to all kinds of problems because of their vastly different social statuses and Anna’s obnoxious Hollywood boyfriend (Alec Baldwin).
Roberts admitted to being hooked by the film from the time she received the script. “The script was great. When I sat to read it, I did not have any great expectations. I had been given a brief synopsis and it sounded unappealing.
“But when I read it, from the very start with her going into the bookshop and she seems very mysterious and there is this guy having all these troubles and they leave and collide and she is at his house and she kisses him, I thought ‘Jesus Christ, this is great’, I was completely sucked in.”
4. My Best Friend’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan – 1997)
Always a fan-favourite, My Best Friend’s Wedding put Roberts back in the genre usually associated with her. She plays restaurant critic Joanne Potter, who made a pact with her best friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney) that if neither of them married before age 28, they would marry each other. However, Joanne experiences an inner crisis when she finds out Michael is getting married. For her performance as Julianne, Roberts was nominated for her third Golden Globe Award.
“Romantic comedy is a really difficult genre,” the director reflected “I think what kills romantic comedies is they often feel pre-packaged or like frozen food that hasn’t quite thawed — they’re just not really fresh.
“But when I see the film, it’s still got a snap to it. When it’s funny, it’s really funny, and the actors all glow. And I think Julia was extraordinary in the lead role. I mean, who else could’ve pulled that off?”
3. Steel Magnolias (Herbert Ross – 1989)
Based on Robert Starling’s popular play, Steel Magnolias received a lot of critical acclaim for her part as Shelby Eatenton. Since she is about to get married, she goes to a local hair salon run by Truvy Jones (Dolly Parton) with her mother but ends up being involved in the philosophical and hilarious discussions of a group of women in the small-town southern community. For her performance, Roberts won her first Golden Globe Award and her first Oscar nomination.
Sally Field, who played Julia’s mother M’Lynn Eatenton, said: “Herb Ross was basically a choreographer. That means he could be sometimes very stern and sometimes very harsh. My deepest memories of the film were how we bonded together after he told one of us or all of us we couldn’t act. [He] did pick on one of us severely. He never told me I couldn’t act… He went after Julia with a vengeance. This was pretty much her first big film.”
2. Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall – 1990)
The film that immortalised Julia Robert’s film persona in the public consciousness. In Pretty Woman, Roberts plays a sex worker Vivian who is hired by a rich entrepreneur (Richard Gere) to accompany him to a few social events. Things get complicated when they fall in love with each other, not being able to bridge the distance between their respective worlds. For her performance as Vivian, Roberts earned her second Golden Globe Award and her second Oscar nomination.
The original ending of Pretty Woman was pretty dark. Roberts recalled, “[Edward] threw her [Vivian] out of the car, threw the money on top of her, as memory serves, and just drove away, leaving her in some dirty alley.” She added, “I had no business being in a movie like that.”
1. Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh – 2000)
Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 biopic stars Roberts as Erin Brockovich, an unemployed single mother who improbably lands a job at a prominent California law firm run by Edward Masry (Albert Finney). She defies all expectations when she leads the fight against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) regarding its culpability for the Hinkley groundwater contamination incident. For her performance as Erin, Roberts won her first Academy Award, her third Golden Globe Award and her first Screen Actors Guild Award.
“It got real for me at two points: first, at the wrap party,” Roberts said. “Everyone was talking about what they’re going to name the film, since the working title was Erin Brockovich. I said I didn’t know.
“They said, “Go ask Steven Soderbergh.” So I did, and he said: Erin Brockovich. I was like, Shit! At that point, I was like, Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no because everyone was like, ‘What a dumb name for a movie.’ That put me in a position that made me nervous. And then it really became real when, before the film came out.”