May 07, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Julia Roberts Has Become One of Hollywood’s Greats

Yesterday in this space my colleague Bruce Fretts took the measure of Benjamin Bratt, known to ”Law & Order” fans as Det. Rey Curtis, who has announced his departure from the series. I have no opinion — shocking but true! — on this latest cast change; Bratt was fine, the next guy will be fine, and the guy after him will be fine too. (Just don’t dare mess with Steven Hill as D.A. Adam Schiff, TV’s finest Talmudically inclined mournful philosopher, the man with whom I’d most like to sip a Scotch.)

I do, however, have an opinion on Bratt’s girlfriend, known to consumers of popular entertainment as Julia Roberts, movie royalty: She has never been lovelier, more charismatic, or a better actress. On Wednesday’s 200th episode of ”L&O,” guest-starring as a high-powered fund-raiser who makes her way in the corporate world with a sexual wiliness far fiercer than meets the eye, Roberts dug in with a confidence and control she’s not often encouraged to enjoy. Playing a highly competent and put-together operator who turns out to be not a little demented, the actress easily grasped the character, and little by little let a neat and refined facade give way to a kind of dangerous madness.

She also sizzled with her beau — aided by a knowing script and good direction that made the most of the actors’ off-camera relationship undoubtedly known to every Sweeps Month viewer who tuned in.

Julia Roberts securely in love — as opposed to skittishly in love, or weirdly in love, or whatever it was that drew the star to her string of former honeys from Kiefer Sutherland (huh???) to Lyle Lovett (huh???) — is a magnificent sight, a pheromonal state that enhances the woman’s own camera-ready radiance. The warmest, most incandescent, and classiest of Hollywood’s younger actresses, she can project intelligence and vulnerability, friendliness and nerviness, glamour and good manners.

She does all of the above, by the way, in the deliciously satisfying upcoming romantic comedy ”Notting Hill” — which, mark my words, will charm you long after you’re bored with your ”Phantom Menace” toys, so stick around; we’ll talk more in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I figure Ben Bratt has had something to do with his girl’s new personal happiness and professional maturity. So I figure he deserves applause regardless of Det. Curtis’ ranking in the NYPD of ”L&O.”

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