Sandra Bullock: America's $56m sweetheart

She may be Hollywood's most bankable star, but it is her humour and honesty that win her fans as well as her performances on screen.

If you subscribe to the age-old theory that to find out what's going on in Hollywood all you ever need to do is follow the money, then today's movie business is all about one woman.

She is Sandra Bullock, a 46-year-old, recently divorced, mother of one who was once America's favourite girl next door but has recently grown into its best-loved housewife. Last year, this made her almost twice as successful as any other actress on the planet.

That, at least, is the conclusion of Forbes magazine, which in the unashamedly vulgar manner of a publication dedicated to celebrating enormous wealth this week announced that she topped its annual "Celebrity 100" list of the world's highest-paid female performers. Bullock's earnings in the past 12 months were $56m (£35m). To put that sum in context, Cameron Diaz and Reese Witherspoon, in joint second place, managed $32m each.

The achievement was all the more remarkable since it followed the most topsy-turvy of years, which saw Bullock heralded as both the best and worst actress in town. In March, she became the first ever performer to pick up a Razzie, for worst acting performance of the year, and then an Oscar, for best, on consecutive nights. Accepting the former, she joked: "Thank you for ruining my career with a very bad decision." Picking up the latter, she asked: "Did I really earn this, or did I just wear you all down?"

There was a lot of Sandra Bullock in both comments. They lay bare her warmth, her very un-American grasp of irony, and her famously self-deprecating sense of humour. They also betray her inner steeliness and capacity for perseverance which saw her wait tables for most of her twenties, as she struggled for a big break, and has allowed her to extend her acting career way past the age when most other leading ladies are drifting into retirement.

Those qualities have also served Bullock particularly well this summer, when she was caught up in a tawdry marital scandal of the Tiger Woods variety. Her husband Jesse James, a celebrity motorcycle mechanic and descendant of the famous outlaw, was caught having an affair with heavily tattooed model.

In the ensuing tabloid frenzy, she has remained composed and surprisingly dignified, appearing in public only to announce, via the front page of People magazine, that she recently became a single parent, after adopting a "perfect" three-year-old boy called Louis. If anything, the victim status actually enhanced her reputation as America's modern-day sweetheart.

She holds a unique place among Hollywood's female elite. Angelina may have the mystique, Nicole and Julia the glamour. Reese and Jennifer have the colourful love lives, and Meryl, of course, boasts the finest acting chops. But if you want to hire a down-to-earth leading lady who will work her backside off to separate cinema-goers from their hard-earned cash, then Sandra Bullock is where your casting call starts and ends.

Her turn in this year's blockbuster The Blind Side, the true story of a southern housewife who adopts a homeless black teenager and helps him become a famous American football player, not only won her an Oscar but also generated $300m at the box office. Her other hit, The Proposal, defied awful reviews to make $320m. Even All About Steve, a hopeless mess for which she won the Razzie, returned a half-respectable $40m.

"Those figures were for films which cost relatively small amounts to make," says a source at CAA, her talent agency. "It's amazing: she has this ability to attract four quadrant audiences – male, female, young, old – to what are essentially chick flicks. The Proposal was a classic example. The headlines after this year's Oscars were all about Kathryn Bigelow. But believe me, the person people were waving the $20m contracts at the next day was Sandra Bullock."

The secret of her success can be summed up in the title of one of her most famous films, Miss Congeniality. On and off screen, Bullock is naturally likeable. No one would call her the world's greatest actress, of course, and not all the projects on her CV are impressive. (Some are truly awful.) But what marks her out from the majority of her peers is a complete lack of actorly ego.

"Sure, I've done movies in which I was embarrassed by my performance, or might not have cared for a co-star," she recently confessed, in a typical burst of honesty. "Then I'd have to tell lies, like, 'Oh, we love each other; everything was perfect!'" In another interview, she laughed about the number of cheesy comedy sequels on her CV – "the 3s and 4s", she lamented, rolling her eyes.

In the standard environment in which Hollywood stars meet their public – the hotel-room press junkets, red-carpet interviews and chat-show sofas – that brand of honesty makes Bullock a breath of fresh air. She picks her nose. She cracks jokes at her own expense. Sometimes she won't even bother with make-up.

"She's self-deprecating to the extent that whatever people say about her, she's already said it, but in a much more funny way," says Gayl Murphy, a show-business commentator who has interviewed her several times. "She's in on the joke, and will mock herself. That's so rare in Hollywood. It makes her seem like your next-door neighbour who lucked out and became a billionaire."

There were, of course, several lucky breaks on Sandra Annette Bullock's long journey to fame. Born in Virginia, to a German mother who was an opera singer, and a father who worked as a voice coach, she did ballet in childhood, was a cheerleader in her teens, and dropped out of university, in her final year, to seek fame and fortune as an actress. It took a while to work out, and Bullock spent years serving tables in Manhattan, while she plodded from audition to audition. "Once a waitress, always a waitress," she recently said.

Her big break came as Keanu Reeves's sidekick in the 1994 action film Speed, which was swiftly followed by a lead role in the rom-com While You Were Sleeping, followed by a long string of unambitious but nonetheless successful romcoms, together with a forgettable sequel to Speed.

In recent years, she has also stepped outside her comfort zone to take roles in darker, edgier films, which she now makes alongside traditional popcorn fare. The process began with a small role in the critically acclaimed Oscar hit Crash in 2005, and continued in the star-stuffed 2006 movie about Truman Capote, Infamous, in which she played Harper Lee.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Bullock's production company, Fortis – which she founded in the late 1990s with sister Gesine – has built up a shrewd reputation, thanks in part to Bullock's reputation for clever business dealings: for The Blind Side, a passion project, she took a relatively small up-front salary in favour of a cut of box office, a decision worth tens of millions of dollars.

Her vast wealth is nonetheless being spent wisely. She quietly gave $1m to victims of the Haiti earthquake this year (she did the same for Katrina charities a few years back), and has spoken of carrying out DIY renovations of her various homes, in New Orleans, Hollywood, Orange County, and Austin, Texas.

She has recently spent the lion's share of her time at the Texas location, away from prying cameras, concentrating on motherhood and her large collection of household pets. (She and James, whom she'd married in 2005, owned seven dogs.) Though offers have poured in, she has no new films on the horizon until next year.

That quiet, unassuming industriousness is Sandra Bullock all over. "She's the exact opposite of a star who does the Hollywood thing," adds Murphy. "Only rarely is she even in her house there." Other stars would be cashing in on Oscar success. She is, however, taking time out. A $56m year can afford you that luxury, but "people just love her for it".

A life in brief

Born: Sandra Annette Bullock, 26 July 1964, in Arlington, Virginia.

Family: Her German mother was an opera singer and her father John was a voice coach. She and her sister, Gesine Bullock-Prado, spent their childhood in Nuremberg.

Education: Fluent in German. Bullock studied theatre at East Carolina University.

Career: Since her role in the 1994 blockbuster Speed, Bullock has become one of Hollywood's most successful actresses. She won an Academy Award for The Blind Side last year.

She says: "I don't understand why there needs to be a love interest to make women go see a film. I think society sort of makes us feel that way – that if you don't have a guy, you're worthless."

They say: "The bold, the brave, the very very beautiful Sandra Bullock." Robert Downey Jnr

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