Never had we imagined that the smile could get any bigger. But it did last March, on Oscar night. She accepted her award and the lips parted from ear to ear, from sea to shining sea, even as her memory grew dim. In her now infamous, rambling, exuberant, makes-for-great-television acceptance speech, she unfortunately failed to thank, among others, the real Erin Brockovich, the legal eagle whose fight for justice had inspired the movie that brought the star to the podium. Not even the desperate time signals from orchestra conductor Bill Conti could slow her down. "I was having an existential moment," she explains, months later. "I forgot people and I feel bad. But I don't wish I had written anything down. You can't go back in time, you can't fix it, you can't change it. I did write Bill Conti a little note thanking him for his patience. But I don't believe in 'If only I had...'"
And why would Julia Roberts believe in regret? For the gods have not only blessed her with a $20 million smile, they've been smiling on her ever since 1985, when she graduated from high school in Smyrna, Ga., and headed to New York City to be with her big sister Lisa. "The whole point of me moving was to reunite with her," says Roberts. Acting was an afterthought--"something that I could attempt to do in New York"--but fate saw her coming. On the count of three--Mystic Pizza, Steel Magnolias, Pretty Woman--Roberts was a star. Now, at age 33, with an Oscar and a recent string of hits that includes the summer of '99 doubleheader Notting Hill and Runaway Bride, Roberts is flying higher than any full-grown actress (yes, we are aware of Shirley Temple) in history--a salary equal to her male peers and the ability to get behinds the world over into seats on opening weekends.
"I don't measure my success in dollars," says Roberts, raising an eyebrow and narrowing her eyes at a journalist. "That's your job." Duly noted. Since 1990, Roberts has generated nearly $1.5 billion in domestic ticket sales. But even as she has become a regular part of our Friday nights at the movies, she's become an integral part of our weekdays at the water cooler--most recently because of her breakup with actor Benjamin Bratt, her boyfriend of nearly four years. (They actually split not long after the Oscars, but she still calls him "the greatest guy.") We follow her personal travails because we project our dreams onto movie stars, and so we want her to live happily ever after. A decade ago, as Pretty Woman's naughty-but-nice hooker, she became a sex symbol for the safe-sex era. But we resisted her in less glamorous roles like Mary Reilly's grim-faced maid.