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Julia Roberts' Golden Year

Just how giddy with success can Julia Roberts get?

Everything she touches these days turns to box-office gold. Her high-profile romantic breakups are long behind her. And after a decade-long drought since back-to-back Academy Awards nominations for Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman, Roberts seems a finally took home an Oscar for Erin Brockovich.

With all the ups and downs since Roberts first gained notice with Mystic Pizza" in 1988, you'd think she might be blase about the honors she's receiving now. She is not.

"To get used to that would be to lose a pulse, lose the breath of life," she said backstage at the recent Screen Actors Guild awards, where she won the best-actress honor for Erin Brockovich.

"One mustn't get used to things like this. ... I was pretty overcome."

Earning as much as $20 million a film, Roberts, 33, has become the one Hollywood actress who can regularly justify such paychecks.

Pretty Woman (1990) remains her biggest hit, with a domestic gross of $178.4 million. But the last four years have been her most consistent, with a string of $100 million hits that include My Best Friend's Wedding, Notting Hill, Runaway Bride and Erin Brockovich.

A couple of weeks after the Oscar nominations came out, she was back with The Mexican, No. 1 at the box office for two straight weekends. The mob caper originally was meant to be a small flick without stars, but with Roberts and co-star Brad Pitt aboard, it has topped $50 million in just 17 days.

As recently as 1996, though, Roberts' star had plummeted when she tried her hand at darker dramatic roles. She bombed as Dr. Jekyll's dour housekeeper in Mary Reilly, which grossed just $5.7 million. She returned in a supporting role in the Irish historical drama Michael Collins, which took in only $10.9 million.

"She was in a little rut there and she came out of it, and I dare say it's going to be a while before she gets into a rut again," said box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations.

The year before that box-office rut, Roberts' brief marriage to singer Lyle Lovett had broken up. Five years earlier, she and fiance Kiefer Sutherland called off their wedding at the last minute.

Today, Roberts gushes like a schoolgirl over steady Benjamin Bratt, and has a seemingly flawless ability to pick projects audiences will love.

She'll be seen this summer in the romantic comedy America's Sweethearts, something of a twist on Notting Hill, in which Roberts plays personal assistant to a Hollywood superstar (Catherine Zeta-Jones). And she is shooting the casino-heist flick Ocean's Eleven, which reteams her with Pitt and with Erin Brockovich director Steven Soderbergh.

Brockovich itself was a risk for Roberts - a real-life story based on a little-known legal battle. It wound up being a crowd-pleaser largely because of Robertssaucy performance.

"The great thing about Julia's performance is her range," said Michael Shamberg, a producer on the film. "She goes from being a mother to public advocate to effective speaker to being a pain in the butt."

At a recent forum for Directors Guild of America nominees, Soderbergh joked that Roberts would not have done Erin Brockovich if he had shown her the skimpy costumes when they first talked. He said he just promised her it would be done tastefully.

By the end of the shoot, "one day she walked onto the set and said, `This skirt is too long.' Then I knew we'd turned her," Soderbergh said.

On stage at the Screen Actors Guild awards, Roberts' voice wavered. She said the award validated her sense of her own talent, "because I'm not always sure."

By DAVID GERMAIN ©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed