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"Eat, Pray, Love" may be a perfect film choice for Julia Roberts, but some wonder if a backlash against the book will also hit the star.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 7/26/2010 3:17:45 PM ET 2010-07-26T19:17:45

For Julia Roberts, the path to stardom began in 1988 in a pizza parlor in Mystic, Conn. It continued on into a beauty salon in Chinquapin, La. Eventually it extended onto the streets of Los Angeles in 1990, where Garry Marshall was waiting.

“When I first met Julia,” said the famed director, “what I noticed first is that she had good hair, very long legs and she was kind of a free spirit. She had honest eyes and didn’t smile much. And even though she had long legs, she was a bit of a schlumpy and walked with bad posture. However, she was interesting and we wanted to see more.

“So we went on to a screen test and there she stood up straight, smiled and held her own comedically against the wonderful and funny Charles Grodin. While we were shooting ‘Pretty Woman,’ she made some difficult lines very honest. She did great physical comedy. She kind of has her own rhythm.”

The world got its first extended look at Julia Roberts in “Mystic Pizza,” kept watching in “Steel Magnolias,” and then became officially smitten thanks to “Pretty Woman,” the Marshall-directed hit that established Roberts as an immediate box office heavyweight. “Pretty Woman” was budgeted at $14 million, took in almost that much in its opening weekend (remember, everything cost less in 1990) and to date has grossed more than $463 million worldwide.

Yet that Julia Roberts was in her early 20s. The Julia Roberts who will appear in theaters next as the star of “Eat, Pray, Love” is 42. A great deal of personal and professional triumphs and travails have taken place, yet she has endured as a force in Hollywood.

“I think she’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world for a reason,” said Colin Covert, film critic for the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune. “She creates very relatable characters that women like. She’s the idealized best-friend figure. In terms of her acting, I think she does what all movie stars need to do: She understands her range and operates in it. She’s not a Meryl Streep chameleon. She looks funny outside a contemporary role. But as the modern woman, she’s an iconic figure.”

Farewell, 'America's Sweetheart' image
Over the years, Roberts certainly has been received more warmly by audiences in pictures like “Erin Brockovich” and “Ocean’s Eleven” than she has been in period pieces “Mary Reilly” and “Michael Collins.” But that can be said of any star.

And as actors mature, they often seek new ground. Robert De Niro, for instance, eschewed the intensity of “Mean Streets” and “Raging Bull” for the frivolity of “Analyze This” and “Meet the Fockers.”

In recent years, Roberts has left her “America’s Sweetheart” persona behind and has embraced more cerebral fare such as “Closer,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Duplicity.”

That move comes at a box-office price. “She’s been playing more interesting, more complicated roles,” noted Amy L. Lawrence, a film professor at Dartmouth who has taught courses on women in film. “Her characters lately are morally complex, where she’s not necessarily that nice. That’s interesting, but audiences haven’t warmed to that. They liked her as Erin Brockovich. They liked her in ‘Ocean’s Eleven.’ But they don’t want to see her as complicated.

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“Some people’s careers thrive because they go in a more serious direction. With her, it doesn’t work that way. It seems people have very strongly not responded to the more complicated adult roles, sort of like Mary Pickford as ‘America’s Sweetheart.’ People didn’t accept her as an adult.”

“Eat, Pray, Love” appears to have elements of both worlds. The film is based on Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir about a woman’s journey of self-discovery to Italy, India and Indonesia to find adventure and food. It’s a story that provides a BFF-like emotional connection to a broad female audience, yet it’s smart enough to elevate it beyond populist studio product.

Yet Lawrence said even this project has pitfalls for Roberts. “I think it sounds like a great part for her,” she said. “But I think it’ll have some of the same problems that the book had. Some people have reacted negatively to the author, because the main character comes across sometimes as selfish and self-involved.

“So there was a bit of a backlash against the book, and that’s exactly the trouble Julia Roberts has had in her later movies — when she goes from sweetheart to too calculating and too in control and not relatable or likeable.”

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Is the movie star era over?
Roberts also faces an issue that isn’t her fault: Perhaps the days of the star luring people to the theaters in droves is over, or at least the phenomenon isn’t what it used to be.

“I think the past few months have been sort of a referendum on the appeal of the movie star,” Covert said. “Look at Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz — they crashed and burned in ‘Knight & Day.’ It could be that they no longer have the freshness and that sort of want-to-see quality, and maybe it’s time for the younger generation to step up. Or maybe movie stars just aren’t as important as they used to be. Something like ‘The Hangover’ made a zillion dollars with nothing resembling stars.

“Maybe it’s a time when people are buying into a concept or a vibe more than the appeal of a particular star.”

Then again, who knows? A film like Garry Marshall’s “Valentine’s Day” had both. It had the concept — opening on Valentine’s Day this year — and a slew of stars — including Roberts — and has grossed over $110 million.

“I worked with Julia at age 21, age 31 (‘Runaway Bride’ in 1999) and close to age 41,” Marshall said. “She is now a mature woman, centered, and likes being a mom. The difference from then to now is she’s finished with dating, which is usually a problem for young people in any field. She married a great guy (cinematographer Danny Moder), she’s a terrific mother and a wonderful cook. I know this first-hand, as she made me a meal in her home.

“I think she is very comfortable with who she is, and that always makes for a better person. We try to work together every decade.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com. He lives in Los Angeles.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: 'Eat, Pray, Love': Aug. 13

Photos: Julia Roberts

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  1. The 'in' crowd

    Actress Julia Roberts is known for iconic films like "Pretty Woman" and "Steel Magnolias" as well as for her unforgettable smile -- and the Oscar-winning actress was named People magazine's Most Beautiful Person in 2010. Here, she's shown joining fellow A-listers at the 86th Annual Academy Awards on March 2, 2014 in a selfie posed by host Ellen DeGeneres (lower center) that set a record for re-tweets once it was posted on Twitter. (Also pictured, clockwise from left to right: Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Channing Tatum, Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong'o, Angelina Jolie, Peter Nyong'o Jr. and Bradley Cooper.) (Handout / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Back in black

    Nominated for a supporting role in "August: Osage County," Roberts stuns at the March 2014 Oscars in Los Angeles while wearing a black lacy peplum gown by Givenchy and jewelry by Bulgari. The actress has one Oscar and three nominations. (Jordan Strauss / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. She's got legs

    Roberts makes a surprise appearance at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards on Jan. 26, 2014 in Los Angeles as she welcomes honorees Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to the stage for a tribute to the Beatles. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mommy issues

    Roberts received her latest Oscar nomination for her role as a bitter, brittle daughter of Meryl Streep's domineering, ailing mother in "August: Osage County." (Claire Folger / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Screen titans

    Meryl Streep and Roberts, who co-starred in "August: Osage County" in 2013 were often seen on the red carpet awards circuit the following year; here, they're at the 19th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards in Santa Monica, Calif. on Jan. 16, 2014. (Christopher Polk / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Power duo

    Actors Dermot Mulroney and Roberts appeared side-by-side in both "August: Osage County" and "My Best Friend's Wedding," and she lent her voice to the Mulroney-directed "Love, Wedding, Marriage." Here, they attend the "August" premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York on Dec. 12, 2013. (Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. All rise

    "August: Osage County" received a standing ovation at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere in Sept. 2013; perhaps Roberts' attendance had something to do with it. (Jason Merritt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Being bad

    Though she usually plays wholesome heroines, Roberts dove happily into portraying Clementianna, the wicked Queen in 2012's "Mirror, Mirror," opposite Lily Collins as Snow White. (Relativity Media) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Face in the crowd

    Roberts dazzles fans waiting on the street near the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York as she leaves a taping of "Late Show With David Letterman" on June 28, 2011. (Donna Ward / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Crowne-ing achievement

    Roberts starred alongside Tom Hanks in 2011's romantic comedy "Larry Crowne" as a speech teacher who tries to help Hanks' Crowne, who is trying to better himself. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Chairwoman of the board

    Roberts receives a Board of Governors award, presented by Tom Hanks, at the 25th Annual American Society of Cinematographers Awards in Hollywood, Calif. on Feb. 13, 2011. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. All smiles

    Roberts grins while being honored by Glamour Magazine at its 2010 Women of the Year gala in New York on Nov. 8, 2010. (Larry Busacca / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Delicious pairing

    Javier Bardem and Roberts pose during a photo shoot while promoting "Eat Pray Love," in front of Zurriola Beach at the 58th San Sebastian Film Festival on Sept. 20, 2010. Roberts received the Donostia Award for lifetime achievement in acting at the festival, which is held in Spain. (Vincent West / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mad about Julia

    In 2010's "Eat Pray Love," Roberts played a woman touring the world in hopes of discovering herself, and who shared a romance with a man played by Javier Bardem. The movie was based on the best-selling book by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Sony via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. 'Duplicity'

    Julia Roberts received her seventh Gold Globe nomination for her role in the 2009 romantic thriller "Duplicity," co-starring Clive Owen, right. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Valentine's Day'

    The actress is pictured with her niece, actress Emma Roberts, right, and Shirley MacLaine, left, at the "Valentine's Day" Los Angeles premiere. The 2010 romantic comedy reunited Roberts with her "Pretty Woman" director, Garry Marshall. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Mile-high meeting

    Roberts plays an Army captain who befirends Bradley Cooper's character on a flight in the 2010 ensemble comedy "Valentine's Day."

    New York magazine reported that the actress made roughly $500,000 per minute on screen for her brief appearance in the star-studded film. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Helping Haiti

    The actress joined fundraising efforts to help Haiti after the devastating January 2010 earthquake hit the island nation. Here she appears at the "Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief" telethon on Jan. 22, 2010 in Los Angeles. (Mark Davis / Hope for Haiti Now via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. For the children

    Julia Roberts participated in the reading of "The World Of Nick Adams" to honor Paul Newman held at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, Calif., in 2008. The performance was a benefit for Paul Newman's recreational camp and family health care center for children suffering from life-threatening diseases. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. 'Charlie Wilson's War'

    Aaron Sorkin's Golden Globe-nominated film "Charlie Wilson's War" was based on a real congressman who worked to bring down the Soviet empire in the Cold War era.

    Roberts called the film "witty" and "intelligent," adding that her costars Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman were "just amazing." (Francois Duhamel / Universal Pictures via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. All in the family

    Lasting love finally found Roberts when she married Daniel Moder on July 4, 2002 at her ranch in Taos, New Mexico. The couples' 2-year-old fraternal twins, Phinnaeus Walter and Hazel Patricia Moder, were born on November 28, 2004. Their third child, Henry Daniel Moder, arrived on June 18, 2007.

    As the family prepares for the holidays, Roberts says of her kids, "They're just starting to figure out Christmas. It's a good food holiday in our house." And, she adds, "I haven't gotten anything yet for my husband!" (INFGoff.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Red carpet beauty

    Roberts looks radiant in Giorgio Armani at the 2004 Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California.

    The actress has yet another awards ceremony to look forward to: Her new film, "Charlie Wilson's War," was recently nominated for five Golden Globes, including a nod to Roberts for Best Supporting Actress. "Usually the triumph of my day is everybody making it to the potty," Roberts told Lauer. "So, yes I think it's thrilling." (Frank Micelotta / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. 'Closer'

    Roberts starred with Jude Law in 2004's "Closer," a drama about love and deception. Costars included Clive Owen and Natalie Portman. 2004 was a big year for the actress: She released two blockbuster films ("Closer" and "Ocean's 12"), and she also became a mother. (Columbia via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Roberts gives back

    Roberts comforts 15-year-old Lindsey Ross who has RETT syndrome, as her father Nick looks on during a news conference on Capitol Hill, in 2002 in Washington, DC. Roberts testified before Congress to request $15.5 million in funding research on RETT Syndrome, a debilitating neurological disorder that affects the motor skills of young girls. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. 'The Mexican'

    Roberts appeared with Brad Pitt in the 2001 film "The Mexican." Though it was not one of her best-received movies, it was on this set where she met her current husband, cameraman Daniel Moder.

    Like Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Roberts and Moder have also found the time to give back. In her Dec. 14 TODAY appearance, Roberts showed Lauer the bracelet she was wearing: "This is the red campaign bracelet that Giorgio Armani has produced that my husband and I designed," the actress explained. "It's sold at Emporio Armani and it's to raise money for AIDS in Africa." (Merrick Morton / Dreamworks via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. 'Ocean's 11'

    In 2001, Roberts held her own amongst the high-profile, male-dominated cast of "Oceans 11." She later starred with George Clooney again in sequels "Oceans's 12" and "Ocean's 13." (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. 'Erin Brockovich'

    Roberts starred in 2000's "Erin Brockovich," a film based on a true story. Her portrayal of the title character -- a single mom and legal assistant who brings down an unscrupulous energy company -- finally won her a Best Actress Oscar. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. 'Runaway Bride'

    Roberts and Gere reunite in the 1999 romantic comedy "Runaway Bride." Many people wanted this film to be something like a sequel to "Pretty Woman," but it ultimately did not live up to expectations. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. 'Notting Hill'

    Art imitates life in the 1999 film "Notting Hill," in which Roberts plays the world's most beautiful woman and a beloved actress. In the film. Roberts' character falls for a bookstore owner (played by Hugh Grant). (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. 'My Best Friend's Wedding'

    Always the sweet and approachable "best friend," Roberts starred in 1997's "My Best Friend's Wedding," with Dermot Mulroney. The comedy was a huge box office success. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Lyle lucks out

    Roberts married country singer Lyle Lovett in June 1993, three weeks after they met. They announced their separation less than two years later, and subsequently divorced. (Time Life Pictures / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. 'The Pelican Brief'

    In 1993, Roberts starred alongside Denzel Washington in "The Pelican Brief," which was based on a John Grisham novel of the same name. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. One hot couple

    Roberts dated actor Benjamin Bratt for four years, but the couple split in 2001, much to the surprise of their fans and friends. Here, the couple walks the red carpet at the 2001 Academy Awards. Dressed to impress, Roberts wears a vintage Valentino dress from 1982 with Van Cleef and Arpels jewelry, and Bratt is in Armani. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. 'Pretty Woman'

    A favorite among women, 1990's "Pretty Woman" benefited from the great chemistry between Roberts and Richard Gere. She received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the film. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. 'Flatliners'

    Roberts acted alongside Kiefer Sutherland in the 1990 drama "Flatliners." The pair met on the set and became romantically involved, but later broke off their engagement. Roberts has had widely reported romantic relationships with other famous men, including Liam Neeson, Dylan McDermott, Kiefer Sutherland, Lyle Lovett, Daniel Day-Lewis, Matthew Perry and Benjamin Bratt. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. 'Steel Magnolias'

    Roberts' moving performance in 1989's "Steel Magnolias" as a young bride with diabetes earned the actress her first Oscar nomination (as Best Supporting Actress). Roberts' castmates on the film included Sally Field, Dolly Parton and Dylan McDermott, who Roberts was dating off-screen. (TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. 'Mystic Pizza'

    One of the most famous and highest-paid actresses in the world, Julia Roberts captured hearts in the early '90s after starring in "Pretty Woman." Among other achievements, the 40-year old has a Best Actress Oscar to her name, plus three Golden Globes. In a Dec. 13 interview with TODAY's Matt Lauer, the actress was humble about her achievements: "I didn't realize I had done that much. That's great!" Here's a walk through her life and career.

    1988's "Mystic Pizza," in which a young Roberts starred alongside Annabeth Gish and Lili Taylor, was Roberts' first film. (Samuel Goldwyn via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (37) Julia Roberts
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    Slideshow (8) Julia Roberts' transformation

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