Julia Roberts has been many things throughout her storied 35-year career: Tinkerbell, a Flatliner, a Wicked Stepmother, a regular stepmother, even a Julia Roberts impersonator. But for this my money, she’s all of those things, and so much more.
Julia Roberts is my all time favorite actress. During the pandemic, like so many of us, I was looking at my phone roughly 253,279,093,122 times a day. As my descent into COVID-related madness could not be quelled by endless seasons of Survivor, 1,000-piece puzzles and baking bread (every cliché in the book), I decided to make my phone a joy delivery system. I made my Lock Screen wallpaper a photo of Julia winning her Oscar for Erin Brockovich, a moment I’ve rewatched on YouTube ::redacted:: times. It never ceased to make me smile, even as I was picking up my phone to check a news alert for (insert atrocity from 2020-2021 here). I’ve seen all of her movies a dozen times. Yup, even (whispers) Mary Reilly. I saw her live and in-person during her one and only stint on Broadway in the maligned production of Three Days of Rain. Reader, I wept due to proximity.
But among all of those she is to me and many others, she’s also the greatest Rom-Com star ever. Now don’t get me wrong, the other Rom-Com Queens are all, well, queens. Give me a Meg Ryan comeback vehicle any day. JLo is doing the lord’s work wooing Owen Wilson and Josh Duhamel across Peacock and Prime. Sandra Bullock had a hit earlier this year with The Lost City where she was romancing the stone that we know of as Channing Tatum. But to repurpose a line from Cameron Diaz’s non-rom-com rom-com there’s just something about Julia.
Across three-plus decades she’s starred in 12 rom-coms, 3 to 5 of which are stone cold classics. As we ready for Julia and her Ocean’s costar George Clooney to continue the potential revitalization of the big screen romantic comedy in Ticket to Paradise, we take a look back at Roberts’s rom-com filmography.
12. Valentine’s Day (2010)
In 2010, Julia reunited with Garry Marshall, the director who helped shoot her to fame in Pretty Woman by joining the star-studded ensemble of Valentine’s Day. The film tells various interconnecting love stories on the titular holiday. It’s like a Robert Altman film. Like if Altman is a Michelin-star restaurant, this is the dumpster behind a Burger King. Julia plays an army captain (OK) who spends much of the movie chatting with Bradley Cooper on her flight home to her true love.The twist? It’s her son, not her boyfriend she’s going home to! She is mostly inoculated from the rom-com hijinks leaving that to Jessica Alba, Jamie Foxx, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher and, if you want to travel back to a very specific time in pop culture, The Taylors, Swift and Lautner.
11. I Love Trouble (1994)
In then-couple Nancy and Charles Meyers’s ode to screwball capers of the ‘30s & ‘40s, Julia plays Sabrina Peterson, a cub reporter in Chicago breaking a story against – and falling in love with – rival veteran reporter, Nick Nolte. Roberts and Nolte had a notoriously contentious relationship on set, which did not translate to Moonlighting-style chemistry; I’ve seen more sparks wearing socks on a carpet. It’s hard to know if Roberts is severely miscast or if the script simply does her no service; Rat tat tat, Gilmore Girls-ian dialogue, doesn’t seem to suit her. That said, I’d give anything to see Julia and Nancy reteam at this stage in their careers. Julia Roberts in a pristine multi-million dollar kitchen while wearing a chunky knit sweater, making Coq au vin and having to choose between the advances of her gardener, her daughter’s pediatrician AND her long-lost college love? My kingdom for this film.
10. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Julia takes a small role in this sprawling cast to work with Woody Allen back when working with Woody Allen was seen as a positive thing (although it shouldn’t have been). This misbegotten romantic comedy musical finds Roberts having a tryst with (barf) Allen and the less said about all of this the better.
9. America’s Sweethearts (2001)
Billy Crystal conceived and co-wrote this romantic comedy about a movie star couple, Gwen and Eddie (Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack) whose picture perfect on-screen and off-screen reputation has imploded. To save their latest film, Crystal’s publicist Lee enlists Gwen’s put-upon assistant and sister, Kiki (Julia Roberts), to keep things on track. It’s nice to see Julia playing off these other big stars on her rom-com home turf, and for her to play the mousy sister, however unbelievable that may be; no one needs to see Julia Roberts in a Monica Gellar-esque fat suit in flashbacks. My personal mileage varies on John Cusack, in general, or as Julia’s love interest, specifically. The film is incredibly broad (did I mention Billy Crystal co-wrote it?), but Julia mostly shines throughout.
8. Larry Crowne (2011)
Larry Crowne is more a disappointment than anything else. By 2011, the existence and importance of true movie stars, as a concept, were already being called into question. In a world ruled by IP, do we need them? Is Chris Evans a movie star? Or is Captain America the true movie star? (My answers for the record are: Yes, maybe, no.) And here we were with a summer release of a romantic comedy from two of the biggest movie stars on Earth? Tom Hanks, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Nia Vardalos, and Julia Roberts have fun chemistry as a laid-off company man who goes back to school and his community college speech teacher. It’s a nice movie, just not a particularly good or memorable one.
7. The Mexican (2001)
You may have forgotten about this Gore Verbinski-directed caper which purported to be the long-awaited pairing of Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. That’s likely because Pitt and Roberts spend only about ⅓ of the film actually together. When this was discovered by the moviegoing public, people took to the streets. Monuments were toppled, doves cried and I learned to never fully trust or love again. While the onscreen coupling was not as advertised, when Julia and Brad do meet up on film, it is a lot of fun (in an otherwise not-so-fun movie).
6. Something to Talk About (1995)
This forgotten movie about Julia Roberts’s Grace discovering her husband, Eddie (Dennis Quaid), is having an affair and the rumors that swirl around their small Georgia town, is from Julia’s post-Pelican Brief, pre-My Best Friend’s Wedding dry spell. Callie Khouri’s follow-up script to Thelma & Louise, is a bit more complicated and darker than anyone remembers, lest we forget that, at one point, Grace “accidentally” poisons Eddie. Julia is having a great time as a woman on the edge, roaming around town in her nightgown and spilling everyone’s secrets at town meetings. Worth a revisit.
5. Runaway Bride (1999)
As highly enjoyable as I find the Pretty Woman reteaming of Julia Roberts, Richard Gere and director Garry Marshall (and Hector Elizondo!), there’s no denying this movie about Julia’s titular bride and Gere as the reporter trying to write an exposé on her, is a real nothing burger of a film. But who cares!? Everyone, including new to the ensemble Chris Meloni, Rita Wilson and Joan Cusack (!!!), are having a great time. Julia is in full Rom-Com Queen mode; One wonders if she’s walking or simply floating on a cloud of charisma.
4. Mystic Pizza (1988)
Julia Roberts exploded on the scene in this surprise hit, about three Portuguese-American friends working in a Connecticut pizza place over one crazy summer. Julia plays the fun-loving and beautiful Daisy, who has a summer fling with a rich kid from the “right” side of the tracks. Drama and cultural clashes ensue. The movie, as a whole, is a goddamn delight, thanks to the three central performances from Roberts, Annabeth Gish and the forever great Lili Taylor. But the movie is wholly stolen by Julia. Her walk down the stairs with a dress featuring a bow so large it rivals only her hair and her eyebrows, foretold the arrival of a true star.
3. Notting Hill (1999)
Possibly the loveliest film on the list. Hugh Grant and Julia have some of the best chemistry of either of their careers as the London Travel Bookstore owner and the movie star who comes to town on shoot. The movie is probably best remembered for “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy” scene. There are few people alive who can make that moment work and Roberts is absolutely one of them. For my money, it’s one of the great Julia performances – rom-com or otherwise – ever.
2. Pretty Woman (1990)
I’ve gone on record as saying no person has ever looked as good on screen as Julia Roberts in that red dress. And no moment has ever made me feel as joyful as when Julia Roberts lets out that signature laugh as Richard Gere closes the necklace box on her hand. A movie I’ve seen so many times that the hard plastic shell of my VHS cracked in half, Julia is a sex worker who falls in love with icy cold businessman Richard Gere who hires her for the week. Endlessly charming, with easy, electric chemistry, Roberts and Gere became one of the most essential pairings in cinema. Perhaps the sexual politics of this movie haven’t aged super well, but it basically reinvented rom-coms for a generation. The movie was a massive hit with nearly $180 million at the box office domestically, the biggest romantic comedy of all-time until it was unseated by My Big Fat Greek Wedding, over a decade later. It also launched Julia Roberts into the stratosphere. A year after her Oscar-nominated turn as Shelby in Steel Magnolias, she received an Oscar nod for Pretty Woman, rare for a comedy turn.
1. My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
I struggled mightily with this placement. I paced, I prayed, I pondered. “Are you there, Julia? It’s me, Eddie.” With no response from my chosen deity, I had to look inward. If Pretty Woman is my favorite movie on this list, and it is seared deep in my 9 year old brain, it’s somewhat undeniable that My Best Friend’s Wedding is the best. And likely my 11th or 12th favorite movie of all-time. Julia Roberts makes her triumphant return to the rom-com genre – and the top of the box office – in this delightfully unhinged rom-com. Julia plays Jules, a 29-year-old food critic who realizes she’s in love with/doesn’t want to lose her back-up plan in her male BFF, Michael (Dermot Mulroney, boring but smoldering) who is marrying perky and perfect, borderline child bride Kimmy (luminous Cameron Diaz). Julia subverts her long-standing America’s Sweetheart image by playing an unlikable, possibly sociopathic character, who exclaims about herself “I’m the bad guy!” The film invites the audience to grapple with our own feelings about Julia, the movie star, vs. our feelings about Jules, the character. Of course, we want Jules to end up with the dashing lead of the film! But she’s also a monster? But she’s also Julia Roberts! Brain broken.
An ending where Jules learns her lesson, Kimmy and Michael end up married (please deliver me a sequel about their unhappy marriage and the resentments that popped up from Kimmy giving up her dreams to marry a hit snoozefest at the age of 20), and Jules dances the night away with her gay bestie, played by should’ve-been-Oscar-nominated Rupert Everett was ultimately perfect. The debate about this raged for months after the release of the film, and all I can contribute to that discourse is that thank God there was no Twitter back in the summer of 1997.