Is Julia Roberts's Box-Office Reign Over?

Julia Roberts's fans have always had a theory about Julia Roberts's movies. When her hair is red and long and curly, as it was in "Pretty Woman" and "My Best Friend's Wedding," she's at her most delicious. When her hair is short ("Conspiracy Theory," "Stepmom") she's playing someone serious, and the movie is seriously mediocre. When her hair is short and blonde and looks as though it were inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt ("Charlie Wilson's War"), get ready to hit the DVD eject button. In "Duplicity," a new romantic spy thriller costarring Clive Owen, Roberts is poised to make her triumphant return after essentially taking five years off to raise her three children. No, the studio hasn't let us see "Duplicity" yet, but everything you need to know is on display in the trailer, starting with the red hair. So, too, is the wicked tongue from "Erin Brockovich" and, almost as important, that infectious, giddy laugh that booms so loudly, it comes with its own echo. (Article continued below...)

But this may be the last time we see that Mona Lisa smile. Julia is still the biggest female star of all time; her films have grossed $2.3 billion in the United States, with 10 hits topping $100 million—remarkable for an actress who doesn't make blockbuster action films. But the multiplex is a different beast now, dominated by 3,000 screens of dude movies like "Friday the 13th" and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." The romantic-comedy genre where Julia thrives ("Notting Hill," "Runaway Bride," etc.) is practically on life support (as Isla Fisher, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Garner can tell you). Movie stars themselves—the kind of person who can open a film big on his or her name alone—have become a dying breed (as Will Smith, Tom Cruise, George Clooney and both halves of Brangelina can also tell you). Even Julia hasn't successfully opened a movie of her own since "America's Sweethearts" in 2001. What's worse—deep gulp—is that no one seems to have noticed her dry spell. All of which raises a question almost too sad to say out loud: is Julia Roberts over?

Or, perhaps more accurately, has time passed her by? It's not just that she's Hollywood ancient (she's 41). Julia was also very much of her era. She foreshadowed the sunny, optimistic, good times of the '90s with her infectious performance in "Pretty Woman," and it was love at first sight. She was beautiful, sexy, funny and sophisticated, but she was also down-to-earth. Audiences loved Julia Roberts so much, a studio executive once said he'd pay money to watch her brush her teeth. As the cliché goes: women wanted to be her, men wanted to be with her. None other than Howard Stern had her on his show 10 years ago to goad his boys' club into seeing "Notting Hill." Nowadays, it's almost impossible for a woman to drag her date to a chick flick. The opening-weekend audiences for "Sex and the City," "Mamma Mia" and "He's Just Not That Into You" were all 75 percent or more female. You could argue that the new equal-opportunity romantic comedy comes from the Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up") school. Women appear in these films, but the truth is, they're really about straight guys learning to love each other.

Julia will always be a movie star. She's the Hillary of Hollywood, the actress who crashed through the $20 million-a-film glass ceiling. Yet she's an old-fashioned movie star. She might be sitting under one of the biggest spotlights in the world, but she's still something of a mystery. When Roberts is photographed in public, which isn't often, her face never seems to betray any emotion. In this age of TMZ, celebrity blogs and phone cameras in every restaurant, it's amazing how much we don't know about her. Does anyone remember what her husband, Danny Moder, looks like? Even her children are virtually anonymous, which is quite a feat in our Shiloh- and Suri-crazed world. This is all great for Julia, but it may not be great for her career now that saturation media exposure has become the one-a-day vitamins of any healthy Hollywood career.

We've all known for years that she couldn't be Julia Roberts forever. Julia told us so herself. It came in that great dinner scene in "Notting Hill," where all the guests around the table confess the saddest truths about their lives. When it's Julia's—oops, make that Anna Scott's—turn, she takes a deep pause. "One day," she says, wistfully, "not long from now, my looks will go, they will discover I can't act and I will become some sad middle-aged woman who looks a bit like someone who was famous for a while." Julia seems to have spent the last few years preparing for that day, by experimenting with un-Julia-like characters. She dabbled in the experimental drama "Full Frontal" and she joined the grim ensemble of "Closer." She even attempted Broadway, with her 2006 stage debut in "Three Days of Rain." For the record, none of these performances really worked—she's not a character actress and she never will be, even if she tried to ugly up for a part with a fake nose or something. Then again, the critics were never as impressed by her as the rest of us. Roger Ebert once compared Roberts to Mary Pickford, the popular silent-screen star of the 1910s who was eventually forgotten when the talkies arrived. Yeah, but Pickford didn't have the Julia Roberts laugh. If we're lucky, she won't go silent any time soon.