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Marina Katz

From "Steel Magnolias"
to "Erin Brockovich":
After a lost decade,
Julia Roberts could finally
develop as an actress.


Julia Roberts was born on 28 October 1967 in Smyrna, Georgia. She was born into acting as her parents ran a drama workshop in Atlanta and from an early age she took part in performances written by her father. Despite this, when she was very young she wanted to be a vet. In 1971, when she was four, her parents split up. The eldest child, Eric (15) stayed with his father, while Julia and her elder sister Lisa went back to Smyrna. Her father ended up as a vacuum cleaner salesman and her mother as a secretary but neither of them was interested in fame and fortune.

Julia was not a particularly brilliant schoolgirl. She had not been seriously affected by her parents separation because she had been so young. However, when she was just eight her father died and this was a more serious blow. She got over the trauma by concentrating on her favorite subjects at school. At high school she discovered Walt Whitman and, through his work, her love of literature.

Julia was able to use her experience of parental death later in life during the filming of Flatliners (1990). In that movie Julia was a young medical student who, together with friends, plays dangerous games with near-death experiences. Her visions while "flatlining" force the character to confront the death of her father in childhood.

Early Movies
At the age of 17 Julia went to New York to live with her sister who, according to the actress herself, was very supportive. Julia was able to start working in a modeling agency thanks to her legs and her photogenic looks but her goal from the start was to become an actress. Her first break came thanks to her brother who was already an actor. In fact, Eric had already been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Runaway Train (1985). Eric Roberts never attained stardom, mainly due to his problems with alcohol and drugs.

Julia got the role of Eric's sister in the movie Blood Red (1986). This film led to several more until she came to the critics attention after her performance in Steel Magnolias (1989). The film was based on the real life of playwright Robert Harling's sister and was adapted from a hit Broadway play. Not only did the picture win Julia a Golden Globe (as supporting actress) but it put her in touch with some of America's finest actresses. It was during filming that she started a great friendship with Sally Field who was her producer the following year for the movie Dying Young (1990) directed by Joel Schumacher.


Julia really attained international stardom with the movie Pretty Woman (1989). Interestingly, this film was originally going to be called $ 3000, the sum agreed between rich businessman Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) and prostitute Vivian (Julia Roberts) in exchange for her services. The original story was about the turbulent relationship between a junky hooker and a businessman, a film charged with social criticism and rounded off with a dramatic climax. However, Disney's subsidiary, Buena Vista, bought the rights and the new director, Gary Marshall turned it into a romantic comedy!

The movie's secret is the combination of Julia's freshness with Gere's pent-up character, a perfect chemistry between the leads of an otherwise rather silly story. Audiences everywhere fell in love with Julia's enormous, authentic smile and the fairy-tale was a huge box-office hit both in the USA and around the world.

During Flatliners (1990), Julia's second movie with director Joel Schumacher, she began a romance with Kiefer Sutherland, who divorced his wife with whom he had had a son. As a result, Roberts and Sutherland became the focus of Hollywood's gossip columns. In March 1991 they got engaged and announced that they would get married on 14 June that year. However, the wedding was called off after the publication of some photos of Kiefer with a professional stripper. Immediately after the separation Julia ended up in the Cenar Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles. Rumors spoke of a "nervous breakdown" but it wasn't long before she was involved in a new project, this time directed by Steven Spielberg in Hook (1991), the story of Peter Pan's return to Neverland. The story, in  which Julia plays Tinkerbell, of a search for lost innocence must have struck a cord with Roberts at that particular juncture.

The Wilderness Years
Despite the apparent variety of Julia Roberts' roles in the early and mid-Nineties, she was cast again and again as a female victim - a dependent woman who needed a man to solve her problems or to save her from a predicament, unable to take the initiative of her own accord. The pigeonholing of Julia had started back in 1990 with Sleeping With The Enemy where she is the victim of an abusive husband, and it continued with The Pelican Brief (1993), where she is the victim of a political conspiracy. Good movies in themselves, though typecasting Julia more and more.

Conspiracy Theory
(1997) was a sort of "Pelican Brief on acid", but despite Mel Gibson's delirious excesses, Roberts is again the victim with the face of scolded puppy caught up in a whirlwind of intrigue. In Something To Talk About (1995), Julia is the victim of an adulterous husband, in Michael Collins (1996) a passive woman caught between two passionate men. In Mary Reilly (1995/6) the victimization reaches new heights. Julia's performance is excellent, but again she is terrified and confused, unsure if her employer is a man or a monster . And while Julia was doing these depressing movies, she earned the reputation of being moody and difficult to direct. The sensationalist press got their teeth into her love life and wouldn't let go. The actress was appearing in hit films and giving commendable performances, but still her career was not going well.

Back On Track
After eight long years we were finally allowed to see Julia Roberts' infectious smile again (last seen in Pretty Woman) in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997). But more than that, we saw a complete woman with all her contradictions and even a spiteful streak which makes the character three-dimensional and interesting. From that moment on Julia has seemed to be back on track. In Notting Hill (1998) Julia was charming and beautiful, but also frustrated, angry and -dare I say it-  bloody-minded. Her role reflected her own experiences with the media. In Stepmom (1998) we saw Julia's character getting hurt again (by a woman and by children, this time) but crucially she finds a solution to her problems herself (in an impeccable performance). Runaway Bride (1999) offered us that smile again in a romantic comedy which sold itself as the comeback of the Gere-Roberts twosome.

However, it has been in Erin Brockovich (2000), a drama based on the real-life story of a secretary who becomes the driving force behind a lawsuit about an ecological disaster, when we have seen Julia Roberts' new-found maturity as an actress. Her character is a single-mother who gets her chance in a law firm. She is not a particularly educated person though she possesses raw determination but she copes at the job better than the men. At last Julia is playing a strong, independent, intelligent -and above all fearless- woman.

It may seem incredible that after a century of cinema, a major actress has to do two dozen movies before she is offered a role in which she is attractive and successful but there it is. Roberts has a range of character types and excellent timing in her acting, let's hope directors from now on allow her to use them.

Source: Think in English


as: since, given that, because (puesto que)
ran: directed, managed (dirigían)
workshop: studio, class, study group (taller)
vet: veterinary surgeon (UK English), veterinarian (US English) (veterinaria)
split up (split-split-split): separated (se separaron)
vacuum cleaner salesman: hoover (UK English) (vendedor de aspiradoras)
blow: calamity, catastrophe, misfortune (golpe, desgracia)
got over: overcame, improved in health (superó)
subjects: area of academic study (e.g. mathematics, history or language) (materias)
near-death experiences: close-to-death experiences (experimentos próximos a la muerte)
supportive: caring, understanding, helpful, kind (comprensiva)
goal: objective, aim (objetivo)
break: (colloquial) opportunity (oportunidad)
attained stardom: reached, achieved, obtained the status of being acknowledged as a star (alcanzó el estrellato)
led to (lead-led-led): caused, resulted in, brought about (dio lugar a)
finest (superlative of "fine"): best, most talented (más talentosas)
junky hooker: (colloquial) drug-addict prostitute  (prostituta drogadicta)
pent-up: constrained, inhibited, suppressed (desinhibido)
silly: absurd, frivolous, ridiculous  (tonta, ridícula)
gossip columns: articles in newspapers and magazines about the private lives of famous people  (columnas de chimentos)
to get engaged: formally and publicly agree to get married (se comprometieron)
called off: cancelled (cancelado)
stripper: person (typically a woman) who takes off his/her clothes in public (desnudista)
nervous breakdown: period of mental illness characterized by anxiety, depression, insomnia and confused thoughts (depresión nerviosa)

Tinkerbell: a fairy who is Peter Pan's friend (Campanita)
must have struck a cord with
: must have said sth. which Julia could identify with (debe haberse identificado con)
predicament: dilemma, bad situation (dilema)
pigeonholing: characterizing, classifying, labeling (encasillamiento)
on acid: (slang) with LSD, in a way which is unreal, unbelievable and hallucinogenic (alucinante, irreal)
scolded puppy: castigated baby dog (cachorrito castigado)
caught up: involved (involucrado, atrapado)
whirlwind: tornado, twister  (remolino)
moody: ill-tempered, irritable, petulant, temperamental (fácilmente irritable)
got their teeth into: attacked persistently like a dog (atacaban sin tregua)
commendable: admirable, laudable (admirables)
career: (false friend) professional development (carrera profesional
infectious smile: contagious smile, a smile which makes other people smile (sonrisa contagiosa)
spiteful streak: cruel, vindictive trait (tendencia vengativa)
to be back on track: be moving in the right direction (haber retomado la orientación correcta)
bloody-minded: cruel (cruel, sanguinaria)
twosome: duet, couple  (dúo)
driving force: energetic and vigorous element  (elemento enérgico)
lawsuit: civil action, case, litigation, trial (juicio)
raw: unrefined, frank, unlimited (ilimitada)
to cope: get by, manage, survive (sobrevive)
range: diversity, variety (rango, diversidad)
timing: ability to do or say sth. at precisely the right moment (habilidad para elegir el momento  oportuno)
from now on: from this moment into the future (de aquí en más)