`Pretty Woman' won her stardom - if not critical acclaim. But with `My Best Friend's Wedding' and `Conspiracy Theory', Julia Roberts is showing signs that she can act as well as flirt
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"Fall in Love With Julia Roberts All Over Again". That was the reviewer's gasp turned into a promotional line for My Best Friend's Wedding in America this summer. And, more or less, audiences did as they were told. After five weeks' business, Julia's picture had grossed $95m (pounds 60m). That isn't a sensational number (Men in Black was at $172m after only three weeks). But this has been a treacherous summer for the alleged colossi of guy-stuff action entertainment. Speed II is a serious flop. Con Air was judged to be too much The Rock again. Disney's summer movie, Hercules, has been a disappointment. Even Batman and Robin has earned only $103m after five weeks. That fourth Batman film had opened very big and then lurched down a gruesome staircase on which every sinking step got larger.

Whereas My Best Friend's Wedding has fallen as gently as Julia's shampooed and blow-dried hair. It will likely end up earning more than Batman and Robin - and it certainly cost less. Girls in the eight-to-14 age range, distressed by all the boyish violence in other films, loved Julia's movie. After all, she has become an adorable adult doll for pre-teens, as well as an authentic sex goddess with a mouth you could park your car in.

Those in her fragrant camp - and I include myself - felt relief. The young wonder from Pretty Woman had fared less well in recent years. She was far from central in Michael Collins, and she suffered a rare box-office disaster with Mary Reilly. She will be 30 later this year in a world full of budding 20-year-old sexpots who went to school on Pretty Woman and who will fill a female lead role for far less than the $12m or so Julia requires. That's about the top salary any actress gets, which means that Julia Roberts must deliver. She had got out of that habit, but now she's back, and she has Conspiracy Theory to follow (it opens before Wedding in Britain), a thriller in which she co-stars with Mel Gibson. That's almost certain to be a hit, which means that Julia Roberts is a star still for another three years or so. Time for her to learn more about movie acting.

If only, somehow, Roberts could be as complicated on screen as the feelings she prompts in anyone who looks at her career. Just as hers is the gravest face to arrive in movies in the last 10 years, so her landslide grin may be the most seductive signal on screen today. The hurt or wariness in her eyes vanishes whenever the mouth opens: it is hugely appealing, very sexy, wicked, sly, yet vulnerable and spontaneous, with every promise of a genuine, quite dark sense of humour. You can't smile as fast as she does without getting a joke and being spiked by it. She likes to smile, and she has a honking, helpless laugh that's louder than her leanness seems to deserve.

But is she content just to be attractive? Does she seek no more than to seduce, to be a free spirit, roaming over the world and among its men? Flirts are always the prisoners of whether or not they are noticed. If Roberts smothered her mouth, we might begin to think more about her astonishing brown eyes, in which there is some deep, nearly confident sense of being wronged, hounded or abused. We are ready for those eyes, and ready for her to trust them more. On the few occasions when My Best Friend's Wedding actually reminds us of sophisticated, romantic comedy, it is because Julia's eyes show us a frivolous person, a flirt, beginning to grow up.

But if I had to give one reason for patience with Julia Roberts, it wouldn't be Wedding or Pretty Woman - by far her most complete and accomplished movie. It would be ... Mary Reilly. You're wondering if I'm crazy - but have you seen that film? There were so many decisive warnings against it. I don't mean to recover a lost masterpiece. There's a lot wrong with the film, or left to our imagining. But it has an atmosphere, a nightmarish sense of place and decor, and in Julia Roberts it finds (or digs up from the grave) a real actress, someone who has willed herself into a quite alien creation: a downtrodden, fearful, unattractive Irish servant girl who may be London's only chance for keeping the peace between Jekyll and Hyde. This character moves through the story towards a raw intelligence and a hope for class - things that beguile her - while getting closer to the sexuality she dreads. That is what makes Mary Reilly worth watching, and what took me back to a feeling I have had over the years - that if Julia Roberts would stop flirting with me, would let up on that look for one moment, I might begin to like her.

She had made five pictures before she did Pretty Woman, she had bagged Liam Neeson romantically on Satisfaction; she had caught everyone's eye in Mystic Pizza; and she had won an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress, as well as the affections of co-star Dylan McDermott, with Steel Magnolias. It's not uncommon for young actresses to get sexually involved with fellow actors - indeed, there are much older people who live lives of steady promiscuity "on location". But just as audiences already wanted to touch and dream of Julia, so her volatile neediness - the flirt's electricity - was evident. That early notoriety may have helped get her the role of Vivian in Pretty Woman. It was surely aggravated by the film. For the perilous way in which Vivian was both "nice" and "wild" at the same time seemed true of Julia, too.

Like many American fantasies, Pretty Woman involved a grotesque finessing of taste or believabilily. It allowed any man to think this gash of a thick-lipped mouth was going to give him head, while encouraging any girl who had stooped over that task to stand emotionally erect. Older men (in which Hollywood has a vested interest) could indulge their dream of getting and educating hot young things as trophy wives. Cynics could chuckle that a whore was just a society hostess after a wardrobe makeover. Elderly, rich, conservative people (big fans of Pretty Woman) could believe in the legend of unruly youth shaping up and behaving "properly". Any man who suspects that the ideal wife is a princess advised by a hooker could feel vindicated.

And so Roberts was nominated again, for Best Actress. Again she didn't win. In hindsight one has to conclude that Hollywood lost its nerve. The Academy gave the Oscar to Kathy Bates for Misery and told their fantasy- come-true to be patient. Seven years on, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman looks more skilful, more varied, more emotionally alive, and so exactly what the Industry wanted that its discretion seems cowardly.

The success came dearly; some critics were in agony at the film's duplicity, and eager to feel superior. Someone was going to be blamed. It wasn't too hard to be persuaded that Julia Roberts was just lucky, pretty and a cunning-cute fidget who would always lack Audrey Hepburn's stillness and purity. No wonder the actress quickly stumbled against her lack of training, succumbed to every urge to make a killing while she could, and swooned over the palpable infatuation of so many men.

What lamentable decisions the films that followed Pretty Woman were, though every one of them did well because the public was still wild to see Julia. In Flatliners, she was one of the gang, wilfully dowdy and nearly gaunt-looking, which showed she had many angles to offer the camera - all the more reason to regret that the film was so modest in ambition. Keifer Sutherland was in the Flatliners gang, too, and Julia was engaged to him for a while, turning up balmily drunk with her fiance on a homemade video tape that one TV gossip show got hold of. Late in the day, the fancy marriage was off, and Julia had stolen away to Dublin with Jason Patric. She liked a lot of men. Some said she was predatory, susceptible to sudden, brief amours. She had a line for interviewers - feisty, mean language sometimes, yet always flirty, too - that said it was her business.

Julia Roberts in Dying Young was perverse defiance of her box-office charm. It proved a decent, slight picture in which the real interest centred on Campbell Scott, a natural and very clever actor, as opposed to someone struggling with her own personality.

Sleeping With the Enemy was the closest Roberts came to a sensible commercial follow-up (and it was a big hit), but it's story potential was under-developed. For someone who was headstrong in her choices (she would refuse Sleepless in Seattle), Roberts was dangerously lacking in the patience and know- how it takes to develop scripts. The talk from the set of Sleeping With the Enemy had more to do with her insistence that in the scene where she is washed ashore at night, nearly naked, the crew should strip off to show solidarity with her. If only she'd battled over the script, which omitted things - like overcoming a fear of water - that might have made her character stronger. Playing the wife of a fabulously successful financier who likes to beat her up at the slightest note of disorder in his own life, she came off as passive, masochistic and even a begging victim. One could see how suited she might have been to the fastidious sadism of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

By the age of 24, Roberts was rich, pampered and lauded, just as she was taxed, hounded and scolded. When she got $2.5m to be Tinkerbell in Steven Spielberg's Hook, some commentators called it an outrage to sense. After that film had been shot, Spielberg let it be known that he had found her "difficult". There were stories that she had a serious drug habit, in the way that all too many Americans of that age do. She denied everything, but still she was away from work for close to two years. In 1992, she was seen in nothing but the death-cell cameo for the movie within the movie in The Player - and she had the wan look of a condemned woman. It was more than a year later, and following the impulsive and inexplicable marriage to Lyle Lovett, that she came back as Darby Shaw, the Tulane law student in The Pelican Brief.

That role was oddly contradictory. Darby has the intelligence to fathom the complex plot that murders two Supreme Court justices; she even guesses how her insight has been passed on to corrupt authorities and what danger that means for her. In a word, she's brilliant. But she's helpless, too. She needs Denzel Washington to save her, and she wanders from one obvious kind of jeopardy to another. Finally, when the threat has passed and the head of the FBI asks her what she wants, this star law student never asks for a real job close to power. She wants to get away from it all and live in safe obscurity. At the end, the journalist played by Washington is being interviewed. Where's Darby Shaw, the heroine, he's asked. Can't say, he answers with a coy grin. Isn't she really another Deep Throat, a convenient cover-all, too good to be true? Washington smiles demurely like the black actor who won at least a fraternal kiss and a hug from the white beauty. "She almost is," he admits. And Julia/ Darby, far away on some desert isle of the mind, but watching it all on TV, gives us that flirty, wistful smile of hers, as if to say, "Well, maybe I am."

The Pelican Brief was a hit - it was John Grisham material under the expert care of director Alan J Pakula. But the ending that kept Darby so immature was an odd reversal of the film Pakula had made years before with Jane Fonda. Klute, a near masterpiece, had a very grown-up notion of what can happen to pretty women out in the harsh world. Even if The Pelican Brief stabilised Roberts's career it was a lost opportunity dramatically. It also showed limitations in her acting: she couldn't deliver the essential reaction shots for a woman in crisis. As Darby saw her lover (Sam Shepard) blown up, Roberts went fussy and dithery instead of conveying the proper, pierced outrage. Was she too polite for the horror?

Someone seems to have persuaded her that she risked sacrificing charm by playing characters who used their minds, as opposed to what the conventions call "feminine wiles". Only that would explain I Love Trouble and Something to Talk About. In the first, she and Nick Nolte were rival Chicago journalists pursuing a story that turned on the efficacy of cow-hormone treatments. It would be flattery to call the picture routine, and hostile to remind anyone that it had thoughts of being a new version of His Girl Friday. There was little rapport with Nolte (he made her seem like a teenager), so Julia was left looking goofy, awash in her increasingly nostalgic smile.

Something to Talk About was backed by three powerful Hollywood women: Goldie Hawn (who surely knows about smiling), Paula Weinstein and Anthea Sylbert; and it was written by Callie Khouri as a follow-up to Thelma and Louise. Lasse Hallstrom, who had worked wonders with the cast of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, was the director. With those credentials, it was an honourable failure. The story played as an uneasy attempt to defend a wronged wife; but courage and independence were abandoned for a sentimental ending. In her key scenes with Dennis Quaid, where they were meant to "get loose", Roberts seemed so tense and awkward that one had to assume the script once had bigger plans, including the idea that her character was sexually frigid.

In several movies, Roberts seemed to shut down on her own sensuality. Maybe Pretty Woman had embarrassed her. Or maybe she felt the gulf between how she looked and how she really was. She resisted nude scenes, prompting talk of body doubles being used here and there. With reason, she seemed afraid of sex in Sleeping With the Enemy. In The Pelican Brief she was nervous even about being touched. More and more, her eyes were filled with foreboding, until at last a film cast her not just as a victim, but as a neurotic, haunted woman.

What happened on Mary Reilly? How did the project get Julia to throw out her smile and her hair? Mary looks like a ghost - the whole film feels as if it's set in a morgue. Her hair is cropped and gingerish around a face that has known nothing but poverty and hopelessness. The face is only a papery mask separating us from the skull.

Mary Reilly wants to win the understanding of Dr Jekyll - indeed she wants to be the doctor's wife, and so there is great interest in the way she becomes the dominant servant in the house. Jekyll is surely attracted, but Mary is so shy and injured he offers his Hyde instead as a rough inducement. We can never tell whether Mary knows that these two men have the same root, or whether they are her dream and dread coming to life. The action is both outward and inward, making for a stunning moment when, rejected by Mary, Hyde sniffs the sexy air and says he was sure she had felt eagerness. The shock on Julia's face at that may be the best thing she's ever done.

The film was crushed by its reviews - and it had been her most daring venture. Maybe Michael Collins was resting up afterwards. Then she turned up in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You. Working with Allen has done a lot for many actresses, and Roberts had a chance to play a screwball beauty along the lines of Carole Lombard as a woman who becomes the victim of her own fantasies as revealed in psychotherapy. It was an intriguing set-up, cheated by the director's persistent need to tell bits of too many stories while fully exploring none. Yet it might have offered something very rare now - the way in a which a beautiful woman is helped to discover her inner nature.

That's the menu on offer in My Best Friend's Wedding, though the film proves far too scattered to take up its own subject. But Julia Roberts is someone who seems intuitively aware of the great depths possible in comedy. She might be an actress to take up the line of Lombard, Hepburn, Stanwyck. She might be a real Lady Eve. She's not there yet and her Hollywood has so few writers and directors who would understand, let alone take on, that challenge. But there is a great need in her hungry eyes - and she is still not quite 30.

! `Conspiracy Theory' (15) opens on 29 Aug, and `My Best Friend's Wedding' (12) on 19 Sept.