America's Sweetheart set to become Hollywood's darling

America's Sweetheart set to become Hollywood's darling

For years she has been America's sweetheart. Now Julia Roberts looks set to be officially crowned Hollywood's darling.

That winning smile which has wowed audiences for more than 10 years at the box office has so far failed to translate into the most prestigious acting trophy of them all.

But as the movie award season reaches its climax, it is as hard to find anyone willing to bet against the screen's "Pretty Woman" winning the best actress Oscar on Sunday as it is to buy a magazine without Roberts on its cover.

"Julia Roberts is the reigning female star of this particular moment, and there is a great desire to reward her," said Richard Schickel, Time magazine's movie critic.

Roberts, 33, has already swept aside the competition at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and British BAFTA awards for her role as the feisty legal assistant who takes on a polluting utility company in "Erin Brockovich".

"If there is one clear-cut favorite for an Oscar, she's it. I don't see any reason why Julia Roberts won't win," said Las Vegas oddsmaker John Avello, director for the race and sports books for Bally's hotel and casino.

Roberts gives a gutsy performance as the real-life single mom with a penchant for mini-skirts and low-cut tops in a striking departure from the winsome romantic comedy roles that have made her the industry's most bankable female star.

"In general, a rule to apply to the Academy's acting awards is that the members like to see the acting. Subtle doesn't win. Hers is a big brassy performance, a hugely attractive performance," said Schickel.

In all the hoop-la only Roberts, or so it it appears, is still hedging her bets.

"I don't have to win (the Oscar). I have my own little golden man at home," she told talk show host David Letterman last month, singing the praises of Benjamin Bratt, her boyfriend of more than three years.

The acclaim of her peers has been a long time coming for Roberts, who commanded a $20 million salary for "Erin Brockovich."

TALENT OBSCURED BY LOVE LIFE, COMIC FLAIRShe became an overnight star in "Pretty Woman" in 1990, earning an Oscar nomination for the 20th century Cinderella tale, and went on to make hits like "Flatliners", "Sleeping with the Enemy", "Stepmom", "Notting Hill" and "Runaway Bride."

Maybe it was her girl-next-door persona, her flair for romantic comedy rather than drama or her headline-grabbing off-screen love life that have hitherto obscured what industry insiders describe as a prodigious talent.

"What most impressed me was her range because I've seen most of the movies she's been in and I had no idea how talented she was," Gore Verbinski, director of Roberts' latest movie, "The Mexican," told Redbook Magazine.

When "Sopranos" actor James Gandolfini asked Verbinski on the set of "The Mexican," "Was she always this good?", the director answered, "Yes, we were just blinded by her smile."

The clutch of awards over the past three months has overwhelmed Roberts who, despite her fame, is said to be plagued by insecurities about herself and particularly her looks.

"Golly, I won," she gushed at the Golden Globes in January.

"Now I feel so much better about my level of talent than I did this afternoon...I am a fraud to stand here alone because so many people make me look like I know what I am doing," she said on accepting the Screen Actors Guild trophy this month.

"I'm just a girl from Smyrna, Ga., who wanted to get in movies and get attention. This is too much attention," she told movie friends as she was honored by the American Museum of the Moving Image last week.

Too much attention, particularly on her love life, has made Roberts fiercely protective of her privacy in a checkered past that has seen a canceled 1991 wedding to Kiefer Sutherland, and a 21-month marriage to country music star Lyle Lovett.

But she has no qualms about talking about Bratt, who she met in 1997. "We're drunk with joy 24 hours out of the day. We're sickening...ecstatically happy," Roberts told Britain's Mirror newspaper in February.

"These are happy, happy times for me. I'm happier than I've ever been in my life."

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