The 10 Best Julia Roberts Movie And TV Roles

Erin Brockovich

by Ian Freer |
Updated on

On the promotional trail for 2017’s Wonder, Julia Roberts joined James Corden on The Late Late Show to re-enact the highlights of her storied career. Apart from confirming she is a good sport (she can’t help laughing recreating Steel Magnolias), this potted history is also testament not only to the breadth of her work but also to her desire to be daring, to try new things or play with her image. You might think of her as ‘The Girl Next Door’ or ‘The Romcom Queen’ or ‘The Goofy Grin’ but there is so much more going on here.

For, in a 35-year career that started with Firehouse (nope we’ve never heard of it either), Roberts’ work has traversed practically every genre — 2004 featured grim-AF drama Closer and insect-based cartoon The Ant Bully — and worked with the biggest directors (Spielberg, Soderbergh, Altman, Nichols, Pakula). But, amongst such a varied output, what are the gems that stand out? What separates the wheat from the Mary Reilly? As Ticket To Paradise — her fifth flick with George Clooney — continues to play in multiplexes, get ready to rank and rate. This is going to be Big! HUGE! Yep, we went there this early….

10) Barbara Weston — August Osage County

August Osage County

If you ever end up on Pointless (or Pointless Celebrities, if you’re famous) and the category ‘Julia Roberts’ comes up, you could do worse than plump for August Osage County, John Wells’ adaptation of Tracy Letts play that missed the awards season love and has subsequently faded into obscurity. Still, Roberts was nominated for her turn as Barbara, the embittered older sister in a family suffering from bereavement. The scenario puts her in conflict with matriarch Meryl Streep, giving Roberts a chance to be acidic (“Eat the fish, bitch”), playing older and tougher in ways we hadn’t really seen before. As such, August Osage County also suggests a possible future for Roberts’ career as the vicious Queen Bee – a Maggie Smith in waiting.

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9. Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie — Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias is the film that brought Julia Roberts to Hollywood’s attention, the platform from which everything else sprung. She gives a moving performance as the brilliantly-named Southern gal Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie, a bride-to-be whose desire to have children leads to tragic consequences. Roberts’ screen time is minimal but it is she who grounds the story and gets the tear ducts flowing. She went on to nab an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress and a place on Hollywood’s most wanted list. Next stop; Pretty Woman. For the record, reviews at the time routinely referred to her as Eric Roberts’ sister. Eric Roberts is currently starring in Michael Flatley’s Blackbird. How times change.

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8. Heidi Bergman — Homecoming

Homecoming: Season 1

As is de rigueur for any star these days, in 2018 Roberts migrated from the big screen to quality TV (the then-untried Amazon). Her vehicle of choice was Homecoming, Sam Esmail’s psychological drama that started life as a scripted audio drama. The character of Heidi Bergman, a caseworker from a mysterious facility helping soldiers integrate back into society, presented a unique challenge straddling two timelines delivering very different mindsets — present tense Heidi is organised, motivated and together, future 2022 Heidi is a hollowed-out shell, unable to remember anything form her old life. Roberts handles both iterations deftly, never leaning into her trademark tics — the laugh, the smile — to deliver something complex and unnerving.

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7. Daisy Araújo — Mystic Pizza

Mystic Pizza

Before Pretty Woman, there was Mystic Pizza, the film that if there was any justice would have made Julia Roberts a star. In just her third cinematic work — after Firehouse (you still didn’t remember it, did you?) and Satisfaction — Roberts’ persona is fully formed, at once tough and vulnerable, clearly smart but stuck by circumstances. She is Daisy, a waitress in the titular pizza joint, who starts dating rich kid Charles (Adam Storke). Her rinsing of her preppy boyfriend at a fancy family dinner is one for any Roberts’ career retrospective montage, the perfect display of the actor’s big, sometimes ferocious energy. It’s also another shining example of Roberts’ ability to work beautifully within an ensemble.

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6. Julianne ‘Jules’ Potter — My Best Friend’s Wedding

My Best Friend's Wedding

At the heart of My Best Friend’s Wedding is a knotty screen-writing problem: it’s a romcom that asks you to root for a character who is trying to sabotage her bestie’s union to the sweetest girl on the planet. It’s testament to Roberts’ skill and charm that she carries you on Jules’ journey into wrecking the nuptials of old pal Michael (cello player extraordinaire Dermot Mulroney) through any means possible, be it embarrassing her rival Kimmie (Cameron Diaz) at karaoke or using new-fangled email in devious ways. A proficient physical actor, Roberts excels at the comedic pratfalls but also makes Jules’ lovelorn heart believable and authentic, making her realisation at the end all the more moving.

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5. Anna Scott — Notting Hill

Notting Hill

It’s tempting to read Notting Hill’s Anna Scott as a thinly-veiled version of Roberts herself. The biggest star in the world — keep them peeled for her Empire cover in the opening montage — Anna earns $14 million a picture, plumps for a stunt bottom (something Roberts did on Pretty Woman) and regularly has her private life crucified by the tabloids. But, if Roberts brings the veracity of someone who lives in the limelight, she also niftily judges the lightness and wit inherent in Richard Curtis’ universe. Of course, it also contains one of Roberts most famous, quotable, most parodied moments — “I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” — which is perhaps the loveliest, heart-melting line ever uttered by anyone sporting a cardie.

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4. Anna — Closer


Closer is a dispatch from the romantic-drama frontlines and Roberts, deep in the trenches, doesn’t flinch. She is another Anna (very different from Scott), a photographer caught in two equally toxic relationships with different men. The film’s centre-piece is an emotionally pulverising showdown in which her boorish doctor husband Larry (Clive Owen) comes home from a business trip ready to admit he has been unfaithful – only for Anna to reveal she is leaving him for writer Dan (Jude Law). It brings on one of the rawest rows in 21st Century Cinema, one where Julia Roberts, America’s Golden Girl, reveals her lover’s semen tastes “sweeter” than her husband’s. As an actor playing with her persona, that takes balls.

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3. Tess — Ocean’s Eleven

Ocean's Eleven

In many respects, Roberts is the most modern of movie stars but her role amongst the boys (Clooney, Pitt, Damon, who made his debut in Mystic Pizza) in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven proves she could have shone brightly in the golden age of Hollywood. As Tess, the wife of criminal mastermind Danny Ocean (George, obvs), Roberts sparkles so brightly trading barbs with her husband that you feel cheated that she isn’t on screen more. Ocean’s Twelve took an even bigger swing, with Tess posing as the actual Julia Roberts to help pinch a fancy-dan egg. At one point Don Cheadle’s Basher Tarr coaches Tess on the right amount of Southern accent, basically teaching Julia Roberts how to become Julia Roberts. There’s a lovely irony in renowned cock-er-nee Basher Tarr giving anyone accent lessons.

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2. Vivian Ward — Pretty Woman

Pretty Woman

“I chased that role down like a dog,” Roberts once said about Pretty Woman’s Vivian Ward. “I just loved the character. My reaction to her was a balance of intrigue and fear.”  The pursuit paid off. Vivian Ward, a sex worker hired to spend a week with rich businessman Edward Lewis (Richard Gere), became Roberts’ signature role, a stunning showcase for her ability to make you laugh, cry and everything else in between. Just run a quick supercut in your head; her peal of laughter as Edward snaps shut a necklace; her struggling with opera glasses and of course her return in expensive finery to an upscale Rodeo Dr. boutique, after being snubbed on the first visit, to tell the sales assistant: “You work on commission, right?” “Big mistake! Big! HUGE!” At the time, you were experiencing the thrill of watching a little-known actor become a star before your very eyes – but these days, whatever you think of the film’s politics, Roberts treats us to a masterclass in comedy drama performance.

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1) Erin Brockovich — Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich

“And the Oscar goes to….” It took the larger-than-life figure of Erin Brockovich— a foul-mouthed, poor, dyslexic single mother of three who discovers documents that suggests multi-national corporation PG&E polluted the local water supply in Hinkley California — for Roberts to win her first (and, to date) only Oscar. Roberts makes Brockovich a force of nature, a hurricane in high heels who – in true JR fashion – comes from a lower-class background and beats the big boys on her terms. It’s a big performance, one that would have been at home in a comedy, but it always remains touching and true. When Erin says, "For the first time in my life, I got people respecting me. Please, don't ask me to give it up”, it’s hard not to punch the air with joy. It’s the film that famously earned Roberts her $20 million payday and did a clean sweep at awards season; Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe, SAG and of course an MTV golden popcorn bucket for Best Line In A Movie. The line? “Bite my ass, Krispy-Kreme,” of course.

Read the Empire review

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