Is Julia Roberts still the leading female star in the world of movies? Audiences around the world will vote with the ticket stubs this week as Duplicity, her first major solo starring role in many years, rolls out into expectant multiplexes. Tony Gilroy's glossy thriller about a pair of corporate spies – Roberts and Clive Owen – who are bound up in mutual deception and sharp banter returns us Roberts the movie star, the box-office drawcard with the dazzling smile and ready charm. Pretty Woman: Redux!
The 41-year-old has worked intermittently during this decade, but her priority has been starting and raising a family. Now a mother of three, Roberts has been a part of arthouse ensembles (2004's Closer), a strong supporting presence (2007's Charlie Wilson's War), a distinctive voice (2006's Charlotte's Web) and catnip for George Clooney (2001's Ocean's Eleven and the 2004 sequel). What she hasn't been is front and centre, the star of a commercial release and the prominent name above the title.
Roberts returns to Hollywood's trenches with a vast accumulation of goodwill. The successive releases of Notting Hill, The Runaway Bride and Erin Brockovich in 1999 and 2000 literally earnt one billion dollars in ticket sales, with the latter, cannily directed by Steven Soderbergh, also earning Roberts a Best Actress Academy Award. It capped an impressive decade that had begun with her breakthrough hit, 1990's Pretty Woman, the kind of fairytale role only a true movie star can sell to audiences.
She may have timed her comeback well. As the economic news worsens globally cinema attendances are starting to rise. People want to be entertained for a few hours to forget financial and employment stresses, a need that calls for either expensive special effects, cheap comedies or someone who looks like the were born to be projected onto a very large screen. The latter is exceedingly rare.
Stars are a subtle mix of allure and likeability, technique comes a distant second. There is a moment in Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter where Tim Robbins and Roberts play reporters ensconced together in a hotel room. Robbins pops the cork on a bottle of champagne and Roberts' face erupts in giddy excitement, engulfing the viewer. Even the late Altman, the master of the unexpected moment, didn't dare leave out such an explicit sharing of cinematic joy.
One of the best measures of Roberts' standing is no-one could stamp themselves as a successor during her absence. Sandra Bullock, who'd been a capable understudy, had her career conk out in 2002 with Murder by Numbers and Two Weeks\' Notice. The great hope was Reese Witherspoon, who at that same time made Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama to suggest a curious mix of the assertively cute and the doggedly irascible, but she found a different path to follow as June Cash in Walk the Line.
Witherspoon is a better comedienne than Roberts, but she does not project a shared sense of intimacy. Roberts had a flighty vulnerability early on – it accentuates the unrealised sexual tension between her and Denzel Washington in 1993's The Pelican Brief – that became a breezy, joyous familiarity. But it was never overtly sexual. The scene in Notting Hill where a table of drunken businessmen boast of how they'd have their way with Roberts' fictional alter-ego, movie star Anna Scott, is a deft piece of Richard Curtis writing, but it doesn't ring true. It's what makes Roberts and Hollywood's one other genuine female superstar, Angelina Jolie, polar opposites.
The current pretender to Roberts' throne is Katherine Heigl, the Grey's Anatomy doctor who grabbed onto Knocked Up after Anne Hathaway demurred and is now engaged in a rigorous schedule of romantic comedies, with The Ugly Truth to follow 27 Dresses later this year. Heigl has the easy physicality, that almost oversized quality, that Roberts has, but she tends to play the wound up and slightly annoyed, getting by on sarcasm. Her snippiness can be entertaining, but it doesn't endure.
Of course Roberts' star will dim at some point. Given the institutionalised sexism of Hollywood it's a testament to her success that she's still the queen of the castle at age 41. At the same age Katherine Hepburn was doing Adam's Rib with Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis was about to shoot All About Eve and Mary Pickford, America's original sweetheart of the silent era, was beginning her long and wealthy retirement.
Engaging in badinage with Clive Owen that was penned by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) could be just what audiences want from Julia Roberts. Hopefully she'll make the most of this next phase of her career, because she's almost the last of a long and worthy line of iconic female movie stars. We may miss her more than we anticipate once she's gone.