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Julia’s Success Clears Way For Other Women

Josh Young New York Times

Julia Roberts’ career has come a long way since she was scooping ice cream in Greenwich Village in 1985.

In 10 years, the actress, now 27, has starred in four films that have earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office: “Pretty Woman,” “Sleeping With the Enemy,” “Hook” and “The Pelican Brief.” She recently starred in “Something to Talk About.”

Thus, she has become a rainmaker for women’s films. Because she can bring audiences into theaters on opening weekends, scripts like “Something to Talk About” are sent to her first.

If she says yes to a project, the movie gets a green light. And since Roberts can’t make all the movies offered to her, other actresses, including Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer and, most recently, Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, have profited by accepting parts she has turned down.

The box-office successes of these stars has contributed to studios’ willingness to take chances on more female-driven films.

Action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger also get films made, based on their participation. But the world has never been lacking in action movies, as it has in women’s films.

Although women’s movies were big up until the 1950s, it took Roberts’ success (proved when she brought audiences in on a first weekend for a bad movie like “Sleeping With the Enemy”) to help bring them back. More recently, studios have begun counting on the box-office draw of Demi Moore and Pfeiffer as well.

Paradoxically, Roberts was working in an ice cream store the first time she was responsible for giving another actress her break in film. Back in the summer of 1985, when Roberts served frozen yogurt to a New York University film student named Bret Carr, her contagious smile and carefree attitude were her most obvious assets. Carr was struggling to flesh out the female character in “Making Time,” a script about a woman helping a young director.

“Julia was so sweet and flirtatious in an unthreatening way that she became the inspiration for the character,” Carr said.

By the time he raised enough money to begin production, two summers had passed. He couldn’t find Roberts (who by then was filming “Mystic Pizza”), so he interviewed more than 100 actresses for the part and ended up casting an unknown actress named Sandra Bullock.

Not that “Making Time” kicked off Bullock’s career; Carr ran out of money after shooting only 20 minutes.

Earlier this year, Bullock became a bona fide star when she played a token booth clerk in the hit romantic comedy “While You Were Sleeping.” That, too, was a part Roberts had been up for.

Other parts offered to Roberts include the crazed weatherwoman in “To Die For” (which went to Kidman), the reporter engaged to the wrong man in “Sleepless in Seattle” (which went to Ryan) and the television anchor in “Up Close and Personal,” due in the spring (a part played by Pfeiffer).

Elaine Goldsmith, Roberts’ agent, believes that her client’s success has been essential in convincing studios that women’s films can be winners at the box office.

“When ‘Pretty Woman’ came out, followed by ‘Sleeping With the Enemy,’ Hollywood realized that women could do what men could do, which is open a movie,” Goldsmith said. “Now more than before, and not only because of Julia, there are a lot of strong female roles out there. When you have success in one area, people duplicate it.”

Several recent successful studio films have told women’s stories. Over the summer, Bullock played an endangered computer operator in “The Net,” Pfeiffer was an ex-marine teaching defiant high school students in “Dangerous Minds,” Alicia Silverstone outwitted dweeby high school boys in “Clueless” and Roberts had the lead in “Something to Talk About,” which has made nearly $50 million since it opened in August.

In “Beyond Rangoon,” Patricia Arquette played a doctor trapped in Burma during a revolution. “Moonlight and Valentino,” a women’s ensemble film; “Persuasion,” a woman’s film based on Jane Austen, and “To Die For” opened last week in many areas. “How to Make an American Quilt,” another women’s ensemble film, opens on Friday.

“There is no question that has eased the way,” Sid Ganis, the president for worldwide marketing of Columbia Pictures, which released “The Net,” said of Julia Roberts’s impact on Hollywood. “It is proof of something that we have always known, that women - in the right film - can be as strong at the box office as men.”

“Sleepless in Seattle” was also first offered to Roberts. After she expressed interest in the part of the woman who meets a man through a radio show, Tri-Star asked her how she felt about Nora Ephron as the director. Roberts said she liked Ephron’s work and agreed to meet with her on returning from a long trip abroad.

Tri-Star made a deal with Ephron to direct, but when Roberts returned, she had a change of heart about the movie. Since the studio had a prominent director on board, however, it proceeded to cast the film - with Ryan.

“The beauty of the situation was that years earlier Meg was going to do ‘Steel Magnolias,’ but she got offered ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ and Julia came in and took the part” in “Steel Magnolias” as Shelby, the young diabetic, Goldsmith said.

Although some films that Roberts turns down become hits, others don’t. “Sleepless in Seattle” soared past the $125 million mark at the domestic box office and enhanced Ryan’s stature with studios. But Geena Davis took two roles that Roberts turned down - playing a single mother in “Angie” and a political consultant in the romantic comedy “Speechless” - and both films were disappointments.

Kidman, before she took “To Die For,” snapped up another part that Roberts had been offered, the role of a woman coping with her husband’s impending death in “My Life,” which sank at the box office.

Pfeiffer has been the beneficiary of three scripts rejected by Roberts, and the roles have shown off her diversity. She stepped into Catwoman’s suit in “Batman Returns” and then starred as the object of Jack Nicholson’s affection in “Wolf.”

In “Up Close and Personal,” also starring Robert Redford, she will portray a television personality modeled after Jessica Savitch, the NBC anchor who was killed in a car accident in 1983.

But these days it’s not Michelle Pfeiffer who is being compared to Julia Roberts; it’s Sandra Bullock. “While You Were Sleeping” spawned endless comparisons between the two auburn-haired actresses. Goldsmith complains, “Why can’t each actress have her own persona and her own success?”

But according to Molly Haskell, author of “From Reverence to Rape,” a book about women’s roles in films, both actresses share qualities that keep studios and audiences happy.

“They appeal to both men and women,” says Haskell, “whereas some women seem typecast, like Susan Sarandon as the thinking women’s heroine for a female audience and Demi Moore as more of a sexy heroine for men. They’re modern in the sense that they’re independent minded, but there is a softness and vulnerability to them. And they’re not going to take your man away.”

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