Inside the career of the most powerful actress in Hollywood

Sandra Bullock wasn’t buying the hype. Speaking to EW last fall, weeks before the opening of a little heart-warmer of a movie called The Blind Side, the actress — who had reemerged earlier that year from a two-year hiatus with her biggest hit ever, the romantic comedy The Proposal — predicted that her newly reinvigorated career would soon cool down again. She brushed off The Proposal‘s success as a cosmic fluke: ”I don’t pump my fist in the air. I don’t want anything karmically crashing down on me.” She dismissed the idea that she might score an Oscar nomination for The Blind Side: ”The stuff that I migrate to isn’t the stuff that wins awards.” And she vowed that she’d be off the public’s radar again in no time, holed up at home, with Hollywood at a comfortable distance. ”Trust me, people are going to be like, ‘Get her away,”’ she said. ”And I will go away. It’ll be quiet again after this.”

Yeah, well, so much for all that. The Blind Side became a $256 million smash. Bullock snagged a Best Actress nomination. She kissed Meryl Streep. She won the Oscar. Her marriage imploded. The tabloids went bananas. The public rallied around her. She shocked everyone by revealing she had adopted a baby and somehow kept it secret. She won the Tour de France. She negotiated peace in the Middle East… Whew! What else? Oh, right, and somewhere along the way Sandra Bullock became — against all odds, more than 15 years after she rode that bus in Speed to stardom — the hottest actress in Hollywood. Presumably she was as blindsided by all of this as the rest of us were. Or maybe she just has a different definition of quiet.

At age 46, at a point in her career when many actresses struggle to find decent roles that don’t require them to wear mom jeans, Bullock has everyone in Hollywood dying to know what she’ll do next. More to the point, they’re hoping they’ll own a piece of it. Last week, word came that she may star opposite Tom Hanks in a film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. The fact that no one seemed surprised to see Bullock attached to a serious-minded piece of awards-season catnip shows how dramatically her Oscar win has altered people’s perceptions. After all, aside from a well-received dramatic turn in 2005’s Crash, Bullock had always been known for light, slapsticky romantic comedies, and many of her earlier forays into drama had flopped. ”I remember right after Crash, I was pitching Sandra Bullock to a studio for another dramatic role and they went, ‘I don’t know, America doesn’t think of her this way,”’ says Crash co-writer/director Paul Haggis. ”Now those same people want her for everything. It’s hysterical.”

Movie stars in general may be becoming an endangered species; as no less an authority than Sylvester Stallone said recently, ”an actor is the most disposable component in film today.” But for the moment, there’s a bull market in all things Bullock. ”Every movie you hear of and every script I see, they say, ‘We’re going to go after Sandra Bullock for the woman,”’ says Ben Affleck, who costarred with Bullock in 1999’s Forces of Nature. Talk-show bookers are desperately wooing her for postdivorce interviews. Studio executives and film producers are courting her for every remotely suitable starring role available, in projects from a Disney family fable called The Odd Life of Timothy Green to Our Wild Life, a drama about an elephant orphanage. ”Sandra Bullock is the golden girl,” a top film agent says flatly. ”She’s getting offered all the scripts that matter. Everyone is rooting for her. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

There’s just one small question: Why? Is this about Sandra Bullock — or is this really about us?

Around 2007, Bullock disappeared from the public eye for a while in the wake of a string of box office misfires: Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, The Lake House, and Premonition. She focused on her personal passions, such as restoring old buildings, and on her home life with her then husband, reality TV star Jesse James. She had done this kind of thing before, happily putting her acting career on the back burner when the work didn’t feel satisfying. ”I’ve had several breaks when I’ve just stopped,” Bullock told EW last winter. But the fact is, this time no one was clamoring to cast her in leading roles in big movies anyway. ”Her agent used to call up and pitch her to the studios and had a hard time getting her booked — certainly for a big payday,” says one studio executive. ”It was ‘She’s over, no one cares, whatever.”’

So what changed when she stepped back into the fray? For one thing, Bullock was more selective. For all her success, her film career had always had a rather slapdash quality, with hit movies like While You Were Sleeping and Miss Congeniality intermingled with forgettable ones like Two if by Sea and Speed 2: Cruise Control that often offered her little more than a chance to moon over a hunky guy and trip over her own feet. And she’d grown restless. In an interview with Charlie Rose earlier this year, Bullock credited Crash, which earned her critical acclaim for her turn as an angry socialite, with first inspiring a new approach to her career: ”I wanted to do different work,” she said. ”I didn’t need money, I was willing to audition.”

Bullock smartly zeroed in on two big projects with very different appeals: The Proposal, a sharp romantic comedy in which she got to show off a harder comedic edge than we’d seen before, and The Blind Side, an irresistible heartstring-tugger with a meaty, challenging role and broad red- and blue-state appeal. Both were projects that Julia Roberts had turned down — and they helped Bullock earn $56 million between June of 2009 and June of 2010, according to Forbes. (Bullock’s a shrewd businesswoman: She reportedly cut her asking price for The Blind Side in return for a very lucrative back-end deal.) Sure, you could call her third film of 2009, the critically lambasted flop All About Steve, a poor choice. But at least Bullock (who also produced the film) scored some points for trying something different — can you imagine Angelina Jolie playing a nerdy crossword-puzzle writer with bad hair whose only friend is her hamster?

Whether by design or by accident, Bullock’s choices signaled a new clarity of purpose, and Hollywood was ready to take her back. ”Everyone loves a story of someone who redeems themselves from crap,” says one veteran industry exec. ”In Hollywood, everyone’s worked on crap, so it’s like, ‘Oh, look! This woman who made all these crappy movies can come back! So even though I swim in a sea of crap, I too can come back!”’

But picking good projects can’t be the whole story. Plenty of actors plot their careers carefully, make all the ”right” moves, and still fall short of expectations. The fact is, thanks to the intangible chemical reaction that creates stardom, Sandra Bullock has always had a knack for making audiences fall in love with her. ”From the minute we saw her in Speed, she just had this quality that people want to be around,” says Bradley Cooper, who costarred with Bullock in All About Steve. ”It’s like being around a source of light.”

It helps that Bullock has a healthy sense of humor about herself — as evidenced when, just one night before the Oscars, she gamely showed up to collect her Razzie award for Worst Actress for All About Steve. She passes the who-you’d-want-to-have-a-beer-with test with flying colors. ”She’s a genuinely good person, and that comes across,” says Affleck. ”I’ve known her for more than 10 years, and she really is that person. She didn’t cultivate any mystery, and that may have led some people to underestimate her. But I don’t think people are underestimating her now.” One marketing exec describes it this way: ”Sandra Bullock is human — she’s not on a pedestal. You feel like you know her.”

It’s not surprising, then, that when the bombshell dropped that Bullock’s husband had cheated on her, the public rallied around her instantly and passionately. Coming at a time of tremendous economic and political instability, with many Americans feeling like the rug had been pulled out from under them, Bullock’s personal crisis — and the fact that it struck on the heels of her greatest moment of triumph — made her that much more relatable. Months later, with Bullock reemerging happy and unbowed, with a new baby, her resilience has made her a heroine to many who desperately need something to feel good about.

The whole episode has offered clear proof that not all Hollywood tabloid dramas are created equal. As one studio executive puts it, ”Sandra was wronged, she kept her chin up and conducted herself with grace and dignity, and the adversity ended up not hurting her at all but actually helping her in terms of goodwill. On top of the hit movies and the Oscar, it’s been kind of a perfect storm of things in the positive column for her.”

On Oscar night, before all of the tabloid ugliness began, Bullock opened her acceptance speech with a disarmingly self-deprecating crack that captured the question that was in the back of everyone’s mind: ”Did I really earn this or did I just wear y’all down?” Either way, there she was, standing on the podium with an Oscar in her hand, and while some may have grumbled (”It really does show that Hollywood is high school — she was the ‘popular’ choice,” says one top executive), no one could take it back.

Now, with the Oscar, two big hits, and a massive outpouring of public support buoying her, the question remains where Bullock will go from here. She has stated on many occasions that she doesn’t want to do romantic comedies. As she told EW last fall, she just doesn’t have the stomach for them anymore: ”We all know relationships don’t work that way,” she said, laughing. ”It’s a lie! It’s a lie!” Then again, she made an exception for The Proposal, so there’s clearly some wiggle room there.

This being Hollywood, there is no shortage of armchair quarterbacks ready to offer advice. Some advocate sticking to the types of comedic roles that have brought her the most success. ”She knows where her bread is buttered,” says one veteran exec. ”I don’t see her announcing, ‘Now I want to play Joan of Arc.’ And that’s good.” Others would like to see her take bold risks: ”I think she should do whatever scares her,” says Haggis, ”whatever makes her really uncomfortable.”

Of course, just because she’s vaulted to the top of the food chain — with a top asking price in the range of $20 million a film — doesn’t mean that her next movies will be guaranteed blockbusters. ”It’s not a perfect science,” says one studio executive. ”Look at All About Steve.” And you could argue that Bullock may soon age out of the kinds of roles that audiences most love to see her in — and face diminishing options. Says one producer, ”A friend of mine asked, ‘Why does Jennifer Aniston do so many bad movies?’ The problem is, if you’re a woman of a certain age, you have to say yes to every project, because there aren’t that many choices.”

For now, though, that doesn’t seem like much of a concern. ”However old Sandra is, she looks like she’s in her frickin’ 20s,” says Todd Lieberman, producer of The Proposal. ”She has such a youthful quality that I think age is almost irrelevant.” A studio head says her age actually works in her favor: ”She can still play young enough to be the romantic lead but also has a little more gravitas to her that only maturity can bring.”

Maturity also brings wisdom and a shuffling of priorities. Earlier this summer, EW broke the news that Bullock would reteam with Ryan Reynolds in an action comedy called Most Wanted, in which she’d play a criminal suspect and he’d be the U.S. marshal tasked with escorting her to the courthouse. But it now appears that the project with Hanks, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, will be her next movie to hit theaters. Extremely Loud concerns a young boy who finds a mysterious key belonging to his dad, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Playing the boy’s mother, assuming Bullock officially signs on, would be a canny next move — and one befitting her new status as an Oscar winner. ”The script is amazing,” says one agent. ”If this doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination in 2012, it will be a crime.”

Bullock clearly has more on her mind than just her career. There’s her baby, Louis, of course. And there’s her work on behalf of the recovery in New Orleans. She’s been pouring considerable time and money into rebuilding a local high school, and recently cut the ribbon at a campus health center there. ”I was always drawn to this city,” she told Matt Lauer in a Today show interview on Aug. 31. ”There’s so much integrity here.”

Speaking to EW last October as, unbeknownst to her, the roller coaster of her life was tick-tick-ticking up the crest of a hill, Bullock sounded philosophical. ”You have really high peaks and you have some valleys,” she said. ”The nice thing that something like The Proposal gives you is you get to say, ‘Okay, I’ve done it. Something wonderful happened.’ But you can’t always have wonderful things, one after the other. So just be happy with what you’ve got and that’s it.” Peaks, valleys, or in between, this much is for sure: We’ll be watching. (Additional reporting by Adam Markovitz, Chris Nashawaty, Missy Schwartz, Sean Smith, Nicole Sperling, Keith Staskiewicz, and Karen Valby)

Banner Years
2009 marked a high point in Sandra Bullock’s career. Here’s when other A-list actresses had extremely lucrative years.

Sandra Bullock 2009
The Proposal
$164 million*
All About Steve
$33.9 million
The Blind Side
$256 million
Box Office Total $453.9
Plus an Oscar for The Blind Side

Angelina Jolie 2008
Kung Fu Panda
$215.4 million
$134.5 million
$35.7 million
Box Office Total $385.6
Plus an Oscar nomination for Changeling

Reese Witherspoon 2005
Just Like Heaven
$48.3 million
Walk the Line
$119.5 million
Box Office Total $167.8
Plus an Oscar for Walk the Line

Julia Roberts 1999
Notting Hill
$116.1 million
Runaway Bride
$152.3 million Box Office Total $268.4 — Keith Staskiewicz
*Domestic Box Office; Source: Box Office Mojo