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Women on top

Julia Roberts may be in the middle of a hot streak, but is she the most bankable woman in Hollywood?

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With apologies to the Spice Girls, this has truly been a summer of girl power. The space shuttle launched last week with its first female commander, the First Lady has grabbed more headlines than the lame duck she’s married to, and a women’s soccer squad became America’s Team. Meanwhile, in a movie season that began with Jedi Knights duking it out with a swinging spy for primacy at the box office, it looks like a certain pretty woman will wind up as the real queen of the hill.

Julia RobertsNotting Hill recently eased past $100 million at the box office, making her the first actress ever to have six films top the century mark (see below). And with Runaway Bride, her long-awaited recoupling with Pretty Woman costar Richard Gere, opening July 30, Roberts looks to notch her second smash this summer and her fifth straight $75 million-plus film.

All of which got our actuarial engines churning: Is Roberts the biggest moneymaking actress in history? Is she the undisputed queen of the box office? The simple answer: no…and yes. When we sat down to crunch the numbers and actually rank actresses by their total box office takes, we discovered that the real queen was crowned a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. That’s right $ the highest-grossing actress in movie history is Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. Fisher’s 14 films have made a grand total of $1.4 billion. Surprised? Fisher certainly is. ”This is an April Fools’ joke, isn’t it? Will you tell my daughter? Maybe this will get her to mind me.”

Of course, the bulk of that comes from just three films. And to credit Fisher for the box office of the Star Wars trilogy is like saying Jurassic Park was a Sam Neill vehicle. On a similar note, Whoopi Goldberg places second on the strength of the raw numbers, because our list includes all of an actress’ roles for which grosses are available, whether starring, supporting, voice work, or merely a cameo. Thus, Goldberg’s contribution to the $313 million-grossing Lion King — as the voice of the hyena Shenzi — makes up for a dozen Jumpin’ Jack Flashes. The same applies to Drew Barrymore, whose impish but light turns in E.T. and Batman Forever accrue heavily (almost $600 million) to her bottom line.

By contrast, show horse Roberts — who, with Runaway Bride, could jump into the No. 1 spot — has top-lined each of her $100 million-plus efforts, with the exception of 1991’s Hook. Despite a mid-’90s spate of uncommonly bad choices (1996’s Mary Reilly and Michael Collins made a combined $16.6 million), Roberts has shown the most consistent drawing power of any modern actress (see chart 3). ”When she wants to do a picture that appeals to everybody,” says Columbia’s president of worldwide distribution, Jeff Blake, who worked with Roberts on My Best Friend’s Wedding, ”there’s no one — male or female — who can touch her.”

Indeed, though Roberts falls short of male champ Harrison Ford‘s $3 billion, she’d still rank in the top 10 on the men’s list. In fact, only Ford, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, and Robin Williams have more $100 million grossers. ”People like name brands, and Julia’s a name brand,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. ”Audiences like to be in that comfort zone.”

But check it out — further down the list lurk some potential incursions into the Roberts comfort zone. Cameron Diaz already has three $100 million-plus credits and ranks 17th ($451 million). And Sandra Bullock, who has generated steady, if moderate, box office returns, is No. 13 ($653 million). Then there’s Kate Winslet (No. 11, $666 million), whose passage on Titanic by itself actually outgrosses Jodie Foster‘s total career take, making Winslet a modern-day Vivien Leigh (Gone With the Wind).

Speaking of Leigh, what about all the great screen legends of the past — Betty Grable, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe? Where do they stand? Unfortunately, we don’t know. Except for some notable occasions, grosses are unavailable for films made before the late 1970s. Media coverage of box office tallies didn’t exist; people weren’t as interested in such information in the pre-blockbuster era. Some major figures have been widely reported: Gone With the Wind has made —198.7 million (when adjusted for inflation, that comes to $940 million). On the other hand, we don’t know the total gross of the 93 films Bette Davis made in her long, award-winning career. ”Box office figures weren’t for public consumption back then,” says Dergarabedian. ”Of course, we’d love to have those numbers now. What box office statistician wouldn’t love to compare Julia Roberts and Kate Hepburn?”

Ultimately, then, we get to a chicken-and-egg question: Is it the box office queen who makes the movie or the movie that makes the box office queen? ”One feeds the other,” says Joe Roth, chairman of Walt Disney Pictures. ”Producers feel people like Julia and Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise have the best chance of giving them a hit, so they send those actors the best material. The true test is that real superstars understand their range and know what the audience wants to see them in.”

And in the end, as reigning monarch Fisher admits, ”working for George Lucas sure as hell helps.” Are you listening, Natalie Portman?

Actress Carrie Fisher
# of Films 14
Total Gross (in Billions) 1.40

Actress Whoopi Goldberg
# of Films 31
Total Gross (in Billions) 1.29

Actress Julia Roberts
# of Films 21
Total Gross (in Billions) 1.28

Actress Drew Barrymore
# of Films 21
Total Gross (in Billions) 1.08

Actress Meg Ryan
# of Films 19
Total Gross (in Billions) 1.01

Actress Demi Moore
# of Films 21
Total Gross (in Billions) 0.97

Actress Glenn Close
# of Films 19
Total Gross (in Billions) 0.81

Actress Sigourney Weaver
# of Films 18
Total Gross (in Billions) 0.81

Actress Michelle Pfeiffer
# of Films 22
Total Gross (in Billions) 0.76

Actress Sharon Stone
# of Films 26
Total Gross (in Billions) 0.74

Source: Exhibitor Relations

Julia Roberts: 6 (Pretty Woman, Sleeping With the Enemy, Hook, The Pelican Brief, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill)

Demi Moore: 4 (Ghost, A Few Good Men, Indecent Proposal, The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

Drew Barrymore: 3 (E.T., Batman Forever, Scream)

Glenn Close: 3 (Fatal Attraction, 101 Dalmatians, Air Force One)

Cameron Diaz: 3 (The Mask, My Best Friend’s Wedding, There’s Something About Mary)

Carrie Fisher: 3 (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi)

Jodie Foster: 3 (Silence of the Lambs, Maverick, Contact)

Whoopi Goldberg: 3 (Ghost, Sister Act, The Lion King)

Meg Ryan: 3 (Top Gun, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail)

Actress Julai Roberts
# of Films 12
Total Gross (in Millions) 960.9

Actress Meg Ryan
# of Films 12
Total Gross (in Billions) 690.0

Actress Meryl Streep
# of Films 19
Total Gross (in Billions) 654.7

Actress Michelle Pfeiffer
# of Films 13
Total Gross (in Billions) 630.9

Actress Demi Moore
# of Films 13
Total Gross (in Billions) 591.0

Actress Sandra Bullock
# of Films 9
Total Gross (in Billions) 579.5

Actress Whoopi Goldberg
# of Films 14
Total Gross (in Billions) 519.5

Actress Jodie Foster
# of Films 8
Total Gross (in Billions) 486.3

Actress Sigourney Weaver
# of Films 10
Total Gross (in Billions) 443.5

Actress Susan Sarandon
# of Films 10
Total Gross (in Billions) 409.6

Counting only films in which actress was a primary star