From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
SHE IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST BOX OFFICE stars in the world, yet her absence was easy to miss somehow. There, stealing the spotlight on Oscar night last week, was a stream of giddy and glamorous superstars: Sharon, Jodie, Sigourney, Jamie Lee, even Oprah, all gussied up and having a good time. Grabbing attention too were nuzzling couples: John Travolta and Kelly Preston, Winona Ryder and grunge rocker David Pirner. Onstage, accepting the Best Actor award for his role as Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks choked back tears as he thanked his wife of seven years, Rita Wilson. In the audience, Wilson gazed at her husband and mouthed the words, "I love you."

Who could blame a viewer—amid such razzle-dazzle and heartwarming romance—for failing to miss one skinny, doe-eyed waif? Across the ocean, as her colleagues celebrated life, love and success, Julia Roberts was quietly preparing to step into her own spotlight, of a very different sort. In a joint statement released on March 28 by her publicist in L.A., Roberts, 27, holed up in a studio outside London, where she is reshooting final scenes for the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde drama Mary Reilly, and her husband, Lyle Lovett, 37, in Houston recovering from a broken collarbone he suffered in a recent motorcycle accident, announced their separation. There was no explanation, just a one-line claim of mutual goodwill. Said the couple: "We remain close and in great support of each other."

It was a noble attempt to break the news gracefully—and, no doubt, to have it buried beneath the predictable avalanche of Oscar publicity. Nonetheless, the announcement put a sudden end to the fragile belief, painstakingly nurtured by fans, friends and both families during the couple's 21 months of marriage, that this improbable coupling would last. "I was shocked when I heard the news," says Lovett's friend Peter Nash, who has taken the photographs for four of the singer's five album covers and who, on a summer afternoon in Marion, Ind., almost two years ago, snapped the headline-making nuptials. "I'm not one of those people who said, 'This won't work,' " says Nash. "I thought they were wonderful together, really in love."

He wasn't alone. From the very beginning of the Julia-Lyle fairy tale—beautiful-but-vulnerable movie star falls big for intriguingly offbeat country crooner—wishful thinking seems to have had an edge over dour common sense. For starters, when they met in June 1993, both Julia and Lyle were on the rebound from failed romances—hers with Jason Patric; his with ex-steady Allison Inman. Married in a quickie wedding on June 27, 1993, just three weeks after they met—the barefoot bride wore a plain white sheath, the groom a dark suit and a crooked grin—the two professed deep mutual love. "I feel liberated in a way," Roberts told Premiere magazine. "I feel like this really pleasant calm has descended upon my life. It has to do with your own ability to make a perfectly correct decision. I think that's quite a feat, to look at something you've done and say 'This is completely right.' Every time I talk to him...or look at his picture...or think about him, I think, 'Wow, I'm so...I'm so smart. I'm so lucky.' "

For his part, the singer abandoned his trademark irony and opted for straight-up, sticky sweet sincerity. Pulling his bride onstage in Noblesville, Ind., hours after their wedding, he said, "Welcome to the happiest day of my life."

But one happy day does not a lifetime make. And the fact is, for all their love-struck proclamations, Lovett and Roberts pledged till-death-do-them-part to virtual strangers. But taking time to get to know each other proved to be something the couple either could not—or would not—do. The day after the wedding, Roberts flew back to Washington to finish filming The Pelican Brief, and Lovett resumed his concert tour—a pattern that would define the sporadic crossing of paths that was their marriage. During the next 21 months, Roberts went on location to film four more movies: I Love Trouble, Ready to Wear, Mary Reilly and Game of Love. Lovett, meanwhile, was almost always on the road—five out of six months in the latter half of 1994. They rarely spent more than a week at a time together and, in fact, kept separate residences: hers a coop in New York City, his a clapboard farmhouse in Klein, Texas (pop. 12,000), that once belonged to his grandfather. Still, as they saw it, their love was strong enough to withstand the lack of togetherness. "We are pretending to be a normal couple," Roberts told The New York Times of their moments together. As she later elaborated, "We get up in the morning, we have breakfast, he goes off to work, I go off to work, we come home at night, 'How was your day, dear?' That whole gig." Said her husband: "We're just so happy to be together when we can be."

The happiness showed. Last March, while filming Robert Altman's Ready to Wear in Paris, they strolled hand-in-hand on the Champs Élysées, dined á deux and, as one crew member notes, delighted in referring to each other as "my husband" and "my wife." When Lovett visited Roberts on the Savannah, Ga., set of Game of Love in December, says one of her colleagues, "they would kiss each other hello and goodbye, morning and night. Julia always spoke so highly of him. They seemed very much in love." So they had certainly seemed to the band and crew members whom Lovett shooed out of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen during a rehearsal in February 1994. Roberts had just flown in from filming I Love Trouble, and Lyle wanted to give her a private serenade. Later that night, over a midnight dinner at the Caribou Club, says a fellow diner, "they looked very close, very affectionate."

Still, for every Hallmark moment came a Scene from an Unhappy Marriage. A year ago this month, when their schedules brought them briefly and simultaneously to New York City, Roberts and Lovett stayed at separate hotels and socialized with their own friends. Several days later, with Lyle back in Paris shooting his Ready to Wear scenes, Julia was snapped in a tight squeeze on the dance floor of a Manhattan restaurant with actor Ethan Hawke. She and Lovett spent their first anniversary apart. She was in Manhattan doing press for I Love Trouble; he was in L.A. working on a video for his I Love Everybody album. In October, Lyle was photographed leaving an Austin hotel room in the company of country singer Kelly Willis two nights in a row. Later that month, a Hard Copy video camera captured Julia crying on the shoulder of ex-beau Jason Patric in Central Park. Last month she was spotted on a Malibu beach with her newly separated Pretty Woman costar Richard Gere, sparking, inevitably, another wave of speculation. "They were just talking about a Pretty Woman sequel," says Roberts's publicist Nancy Seltzer.

Husband, wife and many of their friends dismissed talk of trouble, insisting that the only thing gone sour for Lyle and Julia was their press coverage. "It's a true romance," said Altman, who directed them both in The Player and Ready to Wear. "It'll survive long after the trashy media wagon has moved on."

"The marriage is fine," said Seltzer after the Ethan Hawke interlude last April.

But behind the spin control, complicated emotions were starting to show. The day after her evening with Hawke, apparently trying to refute tabloid declarations that her marriage to Lovett was over, Roberts had Seltzer call a reporter for Vogue to convey a curiously noncommittal denial. "I have a deep, tremendous love for Lyle," she said. "I think he is one of the poetic geniuses of our time." Asked if she believed marriage should be monogamous and forever, Roberts responded, then asked that her response be deleted—and it was. Later, during a press junket on her first anniversary, she admitted that the Hawke fiasco had been the low point of her year. Asked then about the state of her marriage, the giddy girl of the year before was gone, replaced by a wiser, more ambivalent young woman. "Basically, what it comes down to," said Roberts, "is what time you spend together, you try to make it the best you can."

Lovett too began to show signs of weariness. At a concert at Shea's Performing Arts Center in Buffalo in December, a voice from the back of the half-filled room shouted, "Where's Julia?" Lovett offered a typically cryptic response: "She's...she's everywhere." Later in the evening, the singer made what a reporter for the Buffalo News called a small speech. "No matter how well you may have planned," he told the audience, "things don't always come out as you intended."

It is typical of Lovett—a man in love with the idea of being in love—that despite the distress signals, he was talking happily ever after once more. "We have been discussing having a child after Julia finishes Mary Reilly," he said in September. Just a few weeks ago, after he and Roberts spent a happy Valentine's Day together, Lovett was wearing his rose-colored glasses. "Life is a lot more normal than what people might think from keeping up with the tabloid media," he said. "I'm just really happy to be in a great relationship."

How he is seeing life in the harsher—and lonelier—light of separation is hard to say. On the day the separation was announced, his farmhouse was shuttered, his black 1992 Chevrolet Suburban parked out back all day. Though close to the extended family that lives near him in Klein, he had apparently kept his marital troubles to himself. "I am shocked," says his aunt Bernice. "I had no hint this was coming." Nor did Lyle's adored uncle Calvin. "We heard nothing about it," says his wife, Sheila.

In London, Roberts greeted her first day of official separation like any other day. She ducked out of the Regent hotel early in the morning, casually dressed in a coat and turtleneck, her hair tucked up in a messy ponytail, dark glasses firmly in place. Quickly she slipped into a Range Rover that whisked her to the Pinewood Studios in nearby Buckinghamshire to finish shooting Mary Reilly. "She has a heavy day's schedule ahead of her," said co-producer Iain Smith. "She's working very hard."

Whether hard work might also save her marriage seems doubtful. In the office of Lovett's manager in Nashville, "No comment" is the official line. But behind closed doors, says a source, "Lyle's people see no solution but divorce." Ironically the sad news for Lyle may be good news for some fans. "It's harder to write songs when you're happy than it is when you're miserable," Lovett said last May. "Who wants to hear how happy you are?" For the foreseeable future, that won't be his problem.

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
ANNE MAIER in Klein, BARBARA SANDLER in Chicago, LYDIA DENWORTH in London, JOYCE WAGNER and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles, PETER MIKELBANK in Paris and bureau reports

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Maier,
  • Barbara Sandler,
  • Lydia Denworth,
  • Joyce Wagner,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Peter Mikelbank.