Julia Roberts has been at the top ranks of Hollywood royalty for so long that it's unusual to see her sharing a movie with another star of similar status. (Because, really, how many are there?) Next week's 'Larry Crowne' is one such rare summit meeting, reuniting her with Tom Hanks (who also directed). Hanks plays a man who goes back to college when he finds himself jobless in mid-career; Roberts is a teacher who's similarly in need of a fresh start.
Usually, of course, Roberts gets to carry a movie on her own. And that's usually enough. After 20 years, audiences know what to expect from her: a spunky, driven heroine, maybe with a Southern accent indicating further feistiness, maybe a bit goofy or gawky with a cackling laugh, -- but a woman not to be underestimated just because of her casual manner or striking good looks.
Some of Roberts' best performances have fit this type; so have some of her worst. Often, she does well when challenged to step out of her comfort zone by a top director (like Steven Soderbergh or Mike Nichols) or a co-star (like Richard Gere, or Hanks, who last starred opposite Roberts in Nichols' 'Charlie Wilson's War' four years ago).
'Larry Crowne' has prompted us to look back at the remarkable careers of both Hanks (here) and Roberts, ranking their roles from best to worst. See if you agree with our rankings, and let us know where you think 'Larry Crowne' belongs on the list.
1. 'Erin Brockovich' (2000) Erin Brockovich
Soderbergh served up this juicy role to Roberts at just the right time; the 'Pretty Woman' Roberts would have lacked the maturity, while the 'Eat Pray Love' Roberts might have lacked the fire in the belly. On the surface, the crusading paralegal is a typical feisty, determined Roberts heroine, but the actress makes her a fully lived-in character, whose troubled past and whose every flaw and foible is apparent in her fierce glare, in the way she carries herself, and in every tantrum and tirade. Bonus points for pulling it all off in high heels and the world's tightest push-up bra. For steamrolling her way past all doubters, Roberts deservedly won her only Oscar to date.
2. 'Pretty Woman' (1990) Vivian Ward
Another time when Roberts took advantage of an unlikely opportunity and knocked it out of the park. On paper, there's no reason this Cinderella story of a street hooker-turned-belle of the ball should have worked, especially with this raw starlet and Gere, then an aging matinee idol in need of a comeback. But her sheer charm and charisma (aided by that horsey laugh and that mile-wide smile) meshed with his bemused worldliness to create irresistible chemistry. The role that made her not just a star but an icon, it's also the first role people remember when they think of Roberts, and it will be so for the rest of her career.
3. 'Charlie Wilson's War' (2007) Joanne Herring
Acting opposite Hanks, under Nichols' direction (and with an Aaron Sorkin script), Roberts plays someone entirely new, a wealthy Texas matriarch so powerful she can get world leaders and U.S. Congressmen to do her bidding. She's full of contradictions - a professed Christian who enjoys casual sex and whose pet cause is the autonomy of Muslims in Afghanistan who are fighting Soviet invaders; a woman in a retro blond beehive who has her finger on the pulse of international affairs. She's tough, sexy, thoroughly self-confident and secure in her power, not the least bit neurotic or dizzy. Hanks' wily politician finds her bewildering, dazzling and awe-inspiring, as does the viewer.
4. 'Mystic Pizza' (1988) Daisy Arujo
Roberts' first major movie role is still one of her most winning. As one of three small-town waitresses who are all struggling with romance, Roberts puts to good use her stunning good looks, inner fire, and (at the time) lack of movie baggage that would have given viewers a preconceived notion of who her character is. Like the rich boy who falls for her, the viewer doesn't quite know what to make of her. She keeps everyone on their toes.
5. 'Closer' (2004) Anna
Working with Nichols for the first time, and having Jude Law and Clive Owen as foils, Roberts follows this adultery drama down the rabbit hole and winds up in a deeper, darker place than she's ever explored, before or since.
6. 'My Best Friend's Wedding' (1997) Julianne Potter
After a mid-'90s slump, Roberts seemed to have something to prove, and she came roaring back with this romantic comedy about a woman determined to steal the groom (Dermot Mulroney) away from an impossible-to-hate bride (Cameron Diaz). Roberts dares to be unlikable but wins everyone over anyway.
7. 'Something to Talk About' (1995) Grace King Bichon
A coddled Southern belle, Grace is forced to stand up for herself for the first time in response to her husband's (Dennis Quaid) cheating, and when she does, she turns her extended family and the whole town on its ear. It's fun to see Roberts go nuclear, but it's also poignant to see her and Quaid try to muddle through something that looks like a real marriage.
8. 'Sleeping with the Enemy' (1991) Laura Burney
This thriller marks one of Roberts' earliest trembling-lip heroines, a woman nearly broken by a ruthless man who nonetheless finds the strength to save herself. Blunt but effective.
9. 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' (2002) Patricia Watson
Working opposite George Clooney (who also directed), with a Charlie Kaufman script, Roberts plays a femme-fatale spy, sexy and confident. It's a unique role for her, and she seems to be having loads of fun playing it.
10. 'Steel Magnolias' (1989) Shelby Eatenton Latcherie
Roberts earned her first Oscar nod for playing a woman who is, yes, spunky and Southern, but also frail and rash. She holds her own opposite a cast of veteran actresses, most notably, Sally Field, as her worried mother.
11. 'Runaway Bride' (1999) Maggie Carpenter
In her reunion with 'Pretty Woman' co-star Gere and director Garry Marshall, Roberts pokes fun at her own impulsive marital history (betcha Kiefer Sutherland's never watched this movie) while seeing if lightning can strike twice. It can.
12. 'Eat Pray Love' (2010) Liz Gilbert
Roberts does just fine in this adaptation of Gilbert's best-selling memoir of her gastronomical/spiritual/romantic journey around the globe, but her performance is largely comfort food, devoid of spice or surprise.
13. 'Charlotte's Web' (2006) Charlotte the Spider
Once she became a mom herself, Roberts had no trouble displaying the motherly wisdom in her voice role as the eight-legged barnyard matriarch of E.B. White's beloved children's classic. Still, she's no Debbie Reynolds (who voiced the role in the 1973 cartoon musical).
14. 'The Pelican Brief' (1993) Darby Shaw
Another trembling-lip heroine, seemingly tailored to fit Roberts by author John Grisham and the great thriller director Alan J. Pakula. Still, her chemistry with fellow fugitive Denzel Washington is awfully tentative; it would have been a stronger movie if they'd displayed any romantic interest in each other.
15. 'Flatliners' (1990) Dr. Rachel Mannus
Joel Schumacher's medical-sci/fi-horror chiller gives Roberts some rote daddy-abandonment issues to work through. Nonetheless, she's vibrant and appealing; it's no wonder both Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon vie for her affections.
16. 'Stepmom' (1998) Isabel Kelly
This tearjerker, about a divorced mom who resents her ex's new girlfriend (so do the couple's kids), really belongs to Susan Sarandon, who pretty much wipes the floor with Roberts. The younger actress does show flashes of youth and sass (as well as typical Roberts spunk and persistence) that hint at the kind of mom she will grow into being.
17. 'Prêt-à-Porter' (1994) Anne Eisenhower
In the massive ensemble cast that helps director Robert Altman send up the fashion world, Roberts has a small, one-joke role as a journalist who misses the big story because she spends Paris Fashion Week in a hotel room having a torrid fling with Tim Robbins. It's pretty funny, though, to see the usually in-control Roberts play someone who's a helpless slave to her libido.
18. 'Mary Reilly' (1996) Mary Reilly
Roberts was widely lambasted for this accent role, and unfairly so. Playing the housemaid through whose horrified eyes the viewer sees the Dr. Jekyll story (he's played by reliably creepy John Malkovich), Roberts de-glams herself with a choppy haircut and minimal makeup but remains the tale's steady moral center.
19. 'The Player' (1992) Julia Roberts
Even more than in 'Prêt-à-Porter,' Roberts' walk-on as herself is a very small, one-joke role, but it's a good joke, about the kind of lazy Hollywood stereotyping that was already beginning to define her career, even at that early stage.
20. 'Mona Lisa Smile' (2003) Katherine Ann Watson
As a teacher whose free-spirited ways turn a 1950s all-female college upside down, Roberts seems to be aiming for Robin Williams-in-'Dead Poets Society' territory and missing. Still, give her credits for working with top director Mike Newell, for being the old lady among a cast of fresh-faced ingenues (including Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal), and for trying something different.
21. 'Full Frontal' (2002) Francesca / Catherine
Roberts plays a dual role in Soderbergh's experimental film-within-a-film. It's one of five films they've made together, and she's clearly on his wavelength, but this is the sort of film he makes every once in a while that's strictly for his own amusement. For Roberts completists only.
22. 'Valentine's Day' (2010) Captain Kate Hazeltine
This ensemble romantic comedy seems to mark Roberts' once-a-decade favor to Garry Marshall, the director who made her a breakout star. The film doesn't do any favors for her, as her storyline gets lost in the shuffle, though it's kind of fun to see her and niece Emma Roberts collaborating.
23. 'Duplicity' (2009) Claire Stenwick
This tricky caper, which reunites Roberts with 'Closer' co-star Clive Owen, isn't as much fun as it should be. Everyone seems to be trying too hard to impress the viewer with their cleverness and charm, rather than simply displaying those qualities.
24. 'Conspiracy Theory' (1997) Alice Sutton
A team-up with Mel Gibson, this should have been a meeting of A-list peers. Instead, this gleefully paranoid thriller is all Gibson's show, with Roberts reduced to a mostly reactive, damsel-in-distress role.
25. 'Everyone Says I Love You' (1996) Von Sidell
Roberts gets points for stretching in this Woody Allen musical as a woman successfully wooed by a man (Allen) who knows which of her buttons to push because his daughter has spied on her psychotherapy sessions. Unfortunately, Roberts doesn't have the vocal chops to pull of the song chosen for her. And watching her throw herself at Woody Allen is shudderingly creepy.
26. 'Michael Collins' (1996) Kitty Kiernan
Another missed opportunity sees Roberts reuniting with former fling Liam Neeson, under the direction of Neil Jordan, for this epic of Irish independence. But she and Neeson have few scenes together, and she doesn't get to do much otherwise except pine over his absence. Jury's still out on her Irish accent.
27. 'Dying Young' (1991) Hilary O'Neil
Playing the vivacious, uncultured nursemaid to ailing, wealthy, well-educated, handsome Campbell Scott, this weepie reunites Roberts with 'Flatliners' director Joel Schumacher and 'Mystic Pizza' co-star Vincent D'Onofrio. Roberts reprises her brassy, working-class spitfire act from 'Pizza,' but she's outclassed by the rest of the cast and overwhelmed by the unavoidably grim subject matter.
28. 'Ocean's Eleven' and 'Ocean's Twelve' (2001-2004) Tess Ocean
There are so many A-listers in these Soderbergh capers that Roberts is reduced to a relative wallflower. Besides, these are strictly boys'-club movies, and Roberts is there just as a trophy to be fought over.
29. 'Fireflies in the Garden' (2008) Lisa Waechter
This melodrama, in which Roberts plays a scholarly family's matriarch who becomes the focus of a family tragedy, has never been released in U.S. theaters, probably because of poor reviews on the festival circuit. This despite a cast that also includes Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss and Emily Watson. Roberts' role, presented largely in flashback, is pretty thankless. She's well-photographed, though, by her cinematographer husband, Danny Moder.
30. 'The Ant Bully' (2006) Hova
Roberts is perfectly charming in her voice role as an ant-nurse who helps teach a boy shrunken to ant size the ways of the colony. She's upstaged, though, by Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Paul Giamatti in flashier roles.
31. 'Grand Champion' (2002) Jolene
A family tale of a boy and his prized steer, the film is also something of a family project for Roberts, with Danny Moder as the cinematographer and niece Emma in a prominent role. Roberts herself has a forgettable walk-on.
32. 'I Love Trouble' (1994) Sabrina Peterson
Roberts and Nick Nolte are both horribly miscast as rival reporters who fall in love while chasing a scoop that could endanger both their lives. They're supposed to remind us of the crackling chemistry of a classic screwball couple like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in 'His Girl Friday,' but they have no spark, and they both come off as pampered, well-tanned Hollywood wannabes, not hard-boiled, danger-seeking Chicago scribes.
33. 'America's Sweethearts' (2001) Kathleen "Kiki" Harrison
In this unfunny romantic comedy, Roberts is the mousy assistant to her movie-star sister (Catherine Zeta-Jones). When she loses a ton of weight (she's buried under a fat suit early in the film), she suddenly attracts the affections of her sister's ex, fellow star John Cusack. Even stilll, she's upstaged by Zeta-Jones, not to mention Billy Crystal and Christopher Walken in manic supporting roles.
34. 'The Mexican' (2001) Samantha Barzel
C'mon, Hollywood, you cast two Beautiful People like Brad Pitt and Roberts in a movie, you want to see them together. You don't want to see them spend the whole movie separated, by some ludicrous McGuffin plot, and make her spend all her time with James Gandolfini, as a scene-stealing gay hitman. What a waste.
35. 'Blood Red' (1989) Maria Collogero
An epic about an immigrant family of California winemakers, the film is notable primarily for being Roberts' first movie (she shot it in 1986) and for marking her only on-screen work with big brother Eric, back when he was a big star and she was a 19-year-old trying to break into the business. Little sister has just two lines in the movie, but it got her toe in the door.
36. 'Satisfaction' (1988) Daryle
Another really thankless early role for Roberts, playing the most promiscuous member of Justine Bateman's all-girl rock band. Watchable now strictly for its camp value.
37. 'Hook' (1991) Tinkerbell
In what was probably the worst miscasting of her career, Steven Spielberg hired her for his 'Peter Pan' sequel to play a cute, harmless, squeaky-voiced, happy pixie. She's an annoying chatterbox, not the pouty, vain, silent, mysterious Tink of Disney's 'Peter Pan.' Spielberg must have directed her to play the character as more kid-friendly, but the result is as big a misfire as anything else in this shrill, bloated take on the Neverland saga.
38. 'Notting Hill' (1998) Anna Scott
Playing the world's most famous movie star (and tabloid target) shouldn't have been a stretch, neither should striking romantic sparks with Hugh Grant while working off a Richard Curtis screenplay. And yet everything about her performance here is gratingly wrong - drippy, self-satisfied, full of false modesty. "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." Ugh! No! You're glamorous Hollywood royalty. Suck it up and act like it.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.