With Erin Brockovich, released on this day in 2000, Julia Roberts becomes the first actress ever to command $20 million per movie.
Born in Smyrna, Georgia, on October 28, 1967, Roberts followed her brother Eric into acting, making her film debut in 1988’s girl-band drama Satisfaction. Her bona-fide breakout onto Hollywood’s A-list came in 1990, with the release of the box-office smash Pretty Woman. As Vivian Ward, a Hollywood Boulevard prostitute who charms a wealthy businessman (Richard Gere) into a happily-ever-after ending, Roberts grinned her way to her first Best Actress Oscar nomination. She had previously snagged an Academy Award nomination, in the Best Supporting Actress category, for her performance in the 1989 tear-jerker Steel Magnolias.
After another blockbuster (1993’s The Pelican Brief) and a string of relative disappointments (including 1996’s Mary Reilly), Roberts returned with a box-office bang in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), in which she deftly upended her “America’s sweetheart” reputation by playing a character who desperately schemes to steal another woman’s fiancee., In 1999, Roberts made two more high-profile romantic comedies, Notting Hill and The Runaway Bride, which reteamed her with Gere; though critics panned the latter film, both were huge hits.
Roberts then signed on for the title role in the director Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, based on the true story of a single mother who talks her way into an administrative job at a law firm. She soon discovers that a California energy company, Pacific Gas & Electric, had poisoned the groundwater around one of its plants, causing hundreds of people to contract cancer. Pursued by Brockovich and her boss, Ed Masry (played in Soderbergh’s film by Albert Finney), the case ends in a record $333 million settlement.
By that time, $20 million had become the standard paycheck for Hollywood’s A-list male movie stars, including Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone, among others. Roberts was the first female performer to command this amount. As was reported in Newsweek at the time of Erin Brockovich’s release, Universal Pictures was initially reluctant to hand Roberts her record-breaking paycheck. Her agent, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, reportedly convinced the studio by pointing out the injustice of Hollywood’s double standard. With five movies that grossed more than $100 million, Goldsmith-Thomas argued, Roberts was well worth the same paycheck as male stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio or Adam Sandler, each of whom had commanded $20 million after scoring only one hit of that magnitude.
Roberts’ Erin Brockovich haul put her far out in front of her closest peers at the time, Meg Ryan and Jodie Foster, who had reportedly each made $15 million for a single movie. In Erin Brockovich’s short skirts and push-up bras, Roberts proved worthy of her enormous paycheck, leading the film to more than $125 million at the U.S. box office and five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Dressed in black-and-white vintage Valentino, a tearful and triumphant Roberts took home the statuette for Best Actress at the 73rd annual Academy Awards. Though other actresses, including Cameron Diaz, Renee Zellweger and Reese Witherspoon, have since passed the $20 million mark, Roberts smashed the glass ceiling again in 2003, earning $25 million for Mona Lisa Smile. The film was a relative disappointment at the box office, and her paycheck alone equaled almost 40 percent of its domestic earnings.