Total Recall

Definitive Julia Roberts Performances

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at the roles that helped define the Mother's Day star's career.

by | April 27, 2016 | Comments

She’s an Oscar-winning thespian and one of the world’s most bankable superstars — and this week, Julia Roberts reunites with director Garry Marshall for the ensemble dramedy Mother’s Day, which gives us the perfect excuse to take a fond look back at some of her best-remembered (and all-around best) roles. There’s stuff to make you laugh, cry, and give you food for thought here — just like a great Julia Roberts movie. It’s time for Total Recall!

Mystic Pizza (1988) 75%

Just a year after making her big-screen debut in the largely unloved Justine Bateman rock dramedy Satisfaction, Roberts rebounded with a role in Mystic Pizza. Although the movie wasn’t a huge hit, its amiably affectionate look at a group of small-town friends’ coming-of-age travails resonated with a cult audience that’s only continued to grow over the years — not least because Roberts was only one member of a ferociously talented young ensemble cast that included budding stars such as Annabeth Gish, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lili Taylor, and a debuting Matt Damon. “Though in essence this is little more than a girls’ romance novel brought to life, it has been filled with heart and humor,” wrote Janet Maslin for the New York Times. “The place, the people and even the largely predictable situations in which they find themselves are presented in an entirely winning way.”

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Steel Magnolias (1989) 68%

Roberts earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work in this Herbert Ross dramedy, which — much like Mystic Pizza the year before — takes viewers on a gently memorable tour through a handful of ups and downs experienced by a predominantly female cast of characters. While not quite as critically successful as Pizza, Steel Magnolias was a major commercial success, and remains a tissue-worthy touchstone for dramedy-seeking fans of heartwarmingly old-fashioned entertainment. “Steel Magnolias is essentially a series of comic one-liners leading up to a teary tragedy,” admitted Roger Ebert. “But let it be said that the one-liners are mostly funny and the tragedy deserves most, but not all, of the tears.”

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Pretty Woman (1990) 63%

Okay, so it’s far from Julia Roberts’ best-reviewed film. But no matter how many movies she makes, she’ll always be most closely identified with Pretty Woman, and any list of her most definitive works is incomplete without a mention of the Garry Marshall blockbuster that catapulted her to megastardom. And while the plot — about a well-heeled businessman who hires an escort to accompany him to a handful of functions, only to fall in love along the way — is fairly unseemly no matter how many Roxette songs you put on the soundtrack, there’s no getting around the sparks thrown by Roberts and Richard Gere in what could have been a pair of largely thankless roles. “Yes, yes, the ’80s are over,” admitted the New York Times’ Caryn James. “But isn’t there room in the time capsule for Pretty Woman, the romantic comedy about a lovelorn corporate raider and a sweet, wholesome streetwalker from Hollywood Boulevard? This one truly deserves a place. It is something special.”

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My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) 73%

Aligning one of the most preposterously attractive love triangles of the 1990s, My Best Friend’s Wedding imagined a scenario in which a successful sportswriter (Dermot Mulroney) gets engaged to a blonde 20-year-old heiress (Cameron Diaz), thus sparking a romantic awakening — and subsequent fit of insane jealousy — from his best friend (Julia Roberts). It’s the kind of pillow-soft rom-com premise that screenwriters’ dreams are made of, particularly with a cast like this attached, and for the most part, critics felt this was one Wedding worth attending. Although it definitely didn’t hurt that director P.J. Hogan assembled a supporting cast that included M. Emmet Walsh and a scene-stealing Rupert Everett, it was Roberts who toplined the film — and Roberts that the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ruthe Stein described as “at her vibrant best.”

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Notting Hill (1999) 83%

Even in a filmography dotted with better-than-average rom-coms, 1999’s Notting Hill stands out as a particular critics’ favorite. Here, Roberts plays a movie star abroad who wanders into a quaint bookstore while she’s in London on a shoot — and ends up falling for the proprietor (Hugh Grant) even though they’re from two different worlds. It’s the type of story we’ve all watched more times than we can count, but even if Notting Hill doesn’t reinvent the wheel where class and/or culture-clash romantic comedies are concerned, it has something special in the chemistry between its charming leads. Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum singled out Roberts for particular praise, writing, “The legendarily luminous Julia Roberts represents the pinnacle of movie stardom, in a confident performance that’s the sum and payoff of everything she has ever learned, the hard way, about being Julia Roberts.”

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Erin Brockovich (2000) 84%

This fact-based courtroom drama earned a slew of awards for its portrayal of a legal file clerk (Roberts) who discovered that a town’s public utility company was poisoning its water supply and continued to pursue the case until justice was served. Roberts’ Brockovich performance cleaned up at the awards circuit, winning her Best Actress honors from SAG, BAFTA, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars — and the film was a hit with audiences as well as critics, earning more than $250 million at the box office while bringing praise from critics like Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune, who called it “One of the gutsiest, most exciting, and most satisfying courtroom docudramas ever, one that genuinely lifts the spirits as you watch it.”

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Ocean's Eleven (2001) 83%

Glamour is a big part of what used to make going to the movies so much fun, and thanks to a variety of factors — not least the rising tide of paparazzi journalism — the wonderful spectacle of Hollywood’s brightest stars has lost a great deal of its wattage over the last decade and change. Director Steven Soderbergh managed to turn back the clock a little with his 2001 remake of the minor 1960 Rat Pack classic, lining up a cast of heavyweights so impressive that even the most jaded filmgoers couldn’t help but give in to the spectacle. Critics were suitably dazzled, too, noting that the fun being had onscreen by George Clooney (as the titular Danny Ocean) and his luminous co-stars (including Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts) was too infectious to resist. Writing for the Philadelphia Weekly, Sean Burns applauded, “It’s a giant ice-cream cake of a movie that tickles the pleasure centers of your brain — restoring the good name of large-scale, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment.”

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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2003) 79%

Did noted game show producer Chuck Barris actually spy and kill for the CIA? The world may never know for sure, but if the stories he tells in his memoir are accurate, his secret life might have looked something like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Directed by George Clooney and adapted from Barris’ memoir of the same name, Confessions dots its allegedly fact-based landscape with a handful of Clooney’s famous friends, including Roberts as Barris’ Mata Hari-like CIA contact (as well as Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in a pair of funny cameos). Arriving long after Barris’ delightfully cheesy TV hits had faded from memory, it never really had a prayer of taking off at the box office, but it was worth watching for critics like USA Today’s Claudia Puig, who wrote, “Confessions may not be a straightforward bio, nor does it offer much in the way of Barris’ motivations, but the film is an oddly fascinating depiction of an architect of pop culture.”

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Charlie Wilson's War (2007) 82%

Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts as a pair of Texans — and Roberts blonde to boot? By all rights, Charlie Wilson’s War should have been too distracting to truly resonate, even without the added responsibility of living up to its reality-inspired story about a larger-than-life Congressman who went from partying with strippers to appropriating funds for the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War. Roberts, as beauty queen-turned-socialite/activist Joanne Herring, adds one more nutty layer to a movie that already would have been stranger than fiction — and one that was grounded by the efforts of a fantastic cast that also included Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, and the Oscar-nominated Philip Seymour Hoffman. “Charlie Wilson’s War takes a kernel of truth and roasts it into a popcorn movie,” wrote Rick Groen for the Globe and Mail. “There’s terrific fun to be had, and much wry comedy too.”

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The Normal Heart (2014) 94%

Roberts earned SAG and Emmy nominations for her portrayal of a pioneering and compassionate doctor in director Ryan Murphy’s HBO adaptation of the Larry Kramer play, which takes a hard street-level look at the dawn of the public’s awareness of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. Surrounded by a sterling cast that included Mark Ruffalo and Alfred Molina, Roberts helped dramatize agonizing events that impacted real people — some of whom directly inspired the characters in the film. “You should watch,” wrote David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle, “because Larry Kramer’s play is so much more than an agitprop relic from the early years of AIDS — it is a great play that has become an even greater television film.”

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  • Hank

    just kinda shows how she hasn’t really made good movies for a while — and she was barely in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; and she was hardly the reason to see Oceans 11. The truth is, a lot of her hits (and not so hits) are bad movies. The Pelican Brief? Runaway Bride? Something to Talk About? Sleeping with the Enemy? Dying Young? Mirror Mirror? I Love Trouble? Mary Reilly? Conspiracy Theory? Stepmom? The Mexican? America’s Sweethearts? Mona Lisa’s Smile? Duplicity? Larry Crowne? For a “major movie star,” she sure has made a bunch of crap!!!

  • Blake Siveto

    A lot of her movies early on were good in my opinion, and some might be some misses but what actor doesn’t have misses from time to time. Regardless if which i find her performance in each of her movies actually better than the film more often than not.But that’s just me.

  • Sean Thornton

    The last hit that she carried by herself was Erin Brokovich – sixteen years ago.

  • TomNewYorker

    My 10 Favorite Julia Roberts Movies are

    1-Pretty Woman
    2-Erin Brockovich
    3-Steel Magnolias
    4-Ocean’s 11
    5-My Best Friend’s Wedding
    7-Larry Crowne
    8-August: Osage County
    9-Charlotte’s Web
    10-Valentine’s Day

  • thepixinator

    I really like The Pelican Brief, Flatliners and Pret A Porter (Ready-to-Wear). You probably have to be a jaded fashion industry person like myself to love Pret A Porter, but I do, and Julia Roberts is very funny in it.

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