Overnight sensations are not exactly unheard of in the movie business, but Julia Roberts arrived like Cinderella on a rocket sled. As a looker of a hooker guilelessly snaring Richard Gere’s heart of gold bullion, she made Pretty Woman a smash, the second-highest-grossing film of 1990 ($178 million), and the hottest video of the fall. Pretty Woman incited massive repeat business among female filmgoers, who seemed entranced equally by Cinderella and shopping. But men uncomplainingly queued up too, envying Gere his power and Roberts’ passion. Bowled over by the movie, pundits from The Village Voice to The New York Times published weighty essays on the Roberts phenomenon.

But how much can anyone analyze a flat-out natural? Her artless laugh is even more appealing than her impeccable figure in thigh-high patent-leather boots. The sheer pedal-to-the-metal pace of her success adds a certain infectious giddiness to her work, but her appeal goes beyond the big box office of a single picture. She was abruptly ubiquitous in 1990, grinning hugely from every other magazine cover and, as the Steel Magnolias video release reminded us, out-acting a vast, dauntingly accomplished female ensemble cast in the 1989 movie, for which she had earned an Oscar nomination. Thanks largely to her star power, her second 1990 film, Flatliners, was a hit, despite its downbeat plot about mystical medical students who mess with near-death experiences. But Pretty Woman was her soaring, uplifting, effortless triumph; it didn’t hurt that director Garry Marshall had turned the original grim story about prostitution into a snappy, upbeat wish-fulfillment fantasy about sin redeemed by love. Just as Fatal Attraction perfectly exploited the sexual paranoia of the mid-1980s, Pretty Woman scored a direct hit in 1990, when romantic yearning replaced frenetic earning as the nation’s reigning preoccupation.

Roberts is just the actress to capture that new spirit. She’s the antidote to Madonna, the other major female entertainer of our day. Madonna makes post-feminist girls feel free to act like coolly calculating boy toys, but her persona contains not one atom of vulnerable love. Roberts is all romance, belief, openness, love.

Her colleagues have voiced concern over her real emotional suffering during the filming of rough scenes — the insulin-shock collapse in Magnolias, the near-rape scene in Pretty Woman. Reports indicate that it takes her a while to calm the emotions evoked by such scenes. She remains the innocent who left Smyrna, Ga., for New York only six years ago to stay with her big sister (by two years), Lisa, also an actress, and her big brother, Eric, 34, the actor (Star 80), who got her into films like Blood Red and Satisfaction before she’d had many acting classes. With almost no formal training, Roberts, 23, draws on deep wells of feeling to get her character where she wants. Her intense scenes with Flatliners costar Kiefer Sutherland no doubt drew strength from their offscreen relationship, and the poignance she imparts to her role, as a medical student who mourns the loss of her father years before, reportedly owes something to the death of Roberts’ own father when she was 9. An intense, immediate presence, she seems likely to exert an enduring allure; a role as Tinker Bell in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Peter Pan movie is her next chance to enchant us.

At an age when Meryl Streep was still in grad school, Julia Roberts has joined her in the minuscule elite of actresses who can command more than $1 million a picture and the audiences such pay implies. That’s enough to give anybody a winning smile.

Pretty Woman
  • Movie
  • 119 minutes