Once upon a time, in a magical place called the 1990s, Julia Roberts was queen of the box office. So great was this monarch’s appeal that, in the especially charmed summer of 1997, she had not one, but two films open within seven weeks of each other that both landed in the year’s top 20 highest-grossing releases.
The dual success of the romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding ($127 million, good for #6 on the list) and the paranoia thriller Conspiracy Theory ($76 million; #16) showcased a multifaceted star in full command of a range of acting talents and was arguably even more impressive than the feats of her top male competition. Between those releases, eventual top earner Men in Black posited Will Smith as the new king of summer after 1996 champ Independence Day, though Roberts’ ability to excel across two very different films and genres plays a notch above his pair of big-budget sci-fi/action/comedies about aliens.
However, Roberts wasn’t exactly a sure thing heading into the warm months. Despite a solid supporting turn as Woody Allen’s love interest in the writer/director’s musical, Everyone Says I Love You, Roberts’ 1996 output was dogged by what Vogue critic John Powers referred to as “reaching rock bottom as Irish country girls” in Mary Reilly and Michael Collins. So severe was her fall that she “earned” a Worst Actress Razzie nomination for Mary Reilly, but “lost” to Demi Moore for The Juror and Striptease. The Emerald Isle double dip had many moviegoers wondering if the star who’d dazzled them earlier in the decade with films as diverse as Pretty Woman and The Pelican Brief would do so again.
As has long been the case for slumping actors, the solution to recapturing Roberts’ allure was simply returning to the types of films that made her so lovable in the first place. My Best Friend’s Wedding, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on June 20, is so committed to reminding viewers of her star power that her NYC-based food critic is dubbed Julianne “Jules” Potter — homophones are fun — and early in director P.J. Hogan’s film, it’s clear we’re in full-on smiley, laughing Julia Roberts territory.
Though Jules is a fairly unhappy person, the prospect of marrying her handsome friend-with-benefits Michael (Dermot Mulroney) — with whom she has an “if we’re still single by 28, we get hitched” pact — induces sparkly, toothy grins. In a flirty scene later on where Jules and Michael take a boat ride along the Chicago River, Roberts’ pearly whites are in such full effect that one wonders if they’re about to envelop the entire screen.
Such core movie-star charms are expected of Roberts, but the friends’ bond inspires her to dig deeper into her rom-com toolbox after Michael’s shocking revelation that he’s getting married that weekend in the Windy City to college student Kimmy (Cameron Diaz). While coming to terms with the discombobulating news and formulating a plot to win Michael as her own, Jules exhibits an assortment of expressions, some genuine and others affected, as she connives to get her way.
Lesser performers might have amped up the role’s self-serving villainy, playing Jules as a pure antihero in need of an applause-inducing comeuppance, and a less secure movie star might have tried to downplay the character’s immaturity and her more devious actions. But Roberts’ charismatic interpretation makes Jules generally worthy of support, even while in the midst of despicable acts.
It helps that practically all of these efforts get thwarted by true love, with Michael falling even harder for Kimmy when she powers through a painful karaoke session that Jules arranges at a crowded bar, and again when Jules’ attempts to have Kimmy unintentionally undermine Michael’s career result in an outburst of honesty on the bride-to-be’s part that stresses how well-suited the couple is. The gradual dawning of her efforts’ futility is evident on Roberts’ emotive face, and her near death from embarrassment while her fake fiancé George (Rupert Everett) recounts/improvises their meet-cute, culminating in a full-cast singalong to “I Say a Little Prayer,” showcases yet another side of Roberts’ talents.
Rounding out the performance is an unexpected penchant for physical comedy. Whether falling off her bed, knocking into a server who’s carrying a full tray of food, leaning too far back in a chair, or getting hug-tackled by Diaz, Roberts handles the karmic punishment with vaudevillian aplomb. Pretty Woman made Roberts famous, but My Best Friend’s Wedding may be her most fully realized rom-com role, and it’s no wonder that audiences went for it.
By contrast, it’s a bit of a miracle that Conspiracy Theory (released Aug. 8) landed in the Top 20, though that’s no fault of Roberts. She’s quite good as Justice Department lawyer Alice Sutton, first politely deflecting the advances of unhinged NYC taxi driver Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson), then taking an active role in helping him evade nefarious forces that want to silence his accidental whistleblowing.
Roberts’ dramatic rapport with Gibson recalls her dynamic alongside Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief, but screenwriter Brian Helgeland unnecessarily bloats a would-be lean screenplay with a deep dive into Jerry’s past and repetitious scenes of our heroes attempting to outrun their pursuers. It’s one of those movies where, sensing the story is nearing its conclusion, you check the status bar and see that another hour remains. And while reaching the end credits proves a long sit, Roberts’ expanded role over that stretch helps the time pass as she displays a smooth calmness under pressure that would be employed to great effect four years later in Ocean’s 11.
As such, Conspiracy Theory’s financial success stems less from the quality of the film than the prospect of seeing two of the ‘90s biggest stars in a Richard Donner thriller — and the fact that, following My Best Friend’s Wedding, Roberts was again viewed as a reliable leading lady. If moviegoers so chose, they could even make a double feature of both films at many theaters across the country throughout August 1997 and witness a performer who could seemingly do anything.
Reinvigorated, Roberts’ star burned bright through subsequent rom-coms (Notting Hill; Runaway Bride) and multiple Steven Soderbergh collaborations — namely Erin Brockovich, which proved that the third time was indeed the charm for Roberts with eponymous films, earning her some of the best reviews of her career and the Academy Award for Best Actress.
But as the age of the modern movie star faded, so too has the quality of parts that have come her way. Though certainly not back to her Razzie-nominated level, Roberts seems primed for another return to form — perhaps via a one-two punch along the lines of her big summer a quarter of a century ago.