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When Julia Roberts strode through London's Heathrow Airport one day late last year, it was business as usual—the business of being a superstar. Bystanders gawked at the tawny 5'9" beauty and offered assessments of her hair, her clothes and the look of consternation darkening her famous features. Paparazzi entreated her to slow down, turn their way, smile. At a moment when the 25-year-old actress wanted only to get back to the tiny West Hollywood duplex that she then shared with actor Jason Patric, 26, Roberts found herself assuming the star position—skittishly facing a battery of flashbulbs.

A week later, Roberts made news again—for the way she eats breakfast. A supermarket tabloid reported that while dining one morning with Patric at Farmer's Market in L.A., Roberts was spotted "spiking her OJ with a squirt from a flask." What the tabloid didn't reveal, according to a waitress, was that the mystery liquid was a health-food supplement.

But perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of Roberts's Garbo-like status than the extravagant reception she got from the usually cooler-than-thou David Letterman when she unexpectedly dropped by his show last Oct. 28. It was her first media foray since November 1991, when she had given a magazine interview to refute rumors of drug use. "I don't—nor have I ever done drugs..." she had told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. "I've got clear skin and clean arms, and I'm just thin. Period. The end. Quit picking on me." Letterman, though, needed no such admonition. "We have a mystery guest," he gushed. "Someone who is like a blockbuster...kind of really big-time movie-star actress...the big-guest star of the day in Hollywood!"

In so many ways she is. This is the incandescent actress who won Oscar nominations for Steel Magnolias (1989) and Pretty Woman (1990) and whose star turn as an improbably naive prostitute made the latter one of the most profitable romantic comedies of all time. By 1991, Roberts was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, commanding a reported $7 million per picture. Her superstar status is beyond question. Just a few weeks ago, Audrey Hepburn, then gravely ill at her home in Switzerland, picked Roberts—whom she once said would be a perfect Holly Golightly in a remake of Breakfast al Tiffany's—to accept a lifetime achievement award on her behalf from the Screen Actors Guild in L.A. Reading Hepburn's words, Roberts thanked those who had "guided an unknown, insecure, inexperienced, skinny broad into a marketable commodity."

She could easily have been speaking about herself. Once a nervous young girl from Smyrna, Ga., she is now, according to the Los Angeles Times, one of only two actresses who can "open a film"—drawing crowds to the theater on name power alone. (The oilier is Barbra Streisand.)

But for a long time now, Roberts hasn't employed that power. Save for a cameo in last year's The Player, she has disappeared from the screen since Hook wrapped in August 1991. That same 18-month span, meanwhile, has been anything but a quiet time in her personal life. She broke her engagement with Kiefer Sutherland, took up with his pal Jason Patric and then, according to a source close to Patric, left him in December for a long-distance—and possibly nonexclusive—romance with actor Daniel Day-Lewis. At least four times in recent weeks, she was seen hitting L.A. nightspots with Madonna's ex, Sean Perm.

Roberts's absence from the screen has hardly gone unnoticed in Hollywood, where as Variety editor Peter Bart observes, "The trend is for big stars to make movies more frequently," so that each new part poses less of a career risk. The Jan. 18 issue of Variety ran a story about Roberts in its "Lost and Found column, a department usually reserved for dropouts, comeback-kids and Living Trivia. The actress' publicist was not amused. "We are sick and tired of people saying there is something wrong with her career," she said.

And yet the fact is that fans should not look for Roberts's name on a marquee anytime soon. On Dec. 2 producer Joe Roth announced that she had signed a two-year deal to star in and produce movies for his Caravan Pictures. Roth trumpeted her first project—the screen version of a yet-to-be-published thriller called In a Country of Mothers—as "a Fatal Attraction between two women" and said that Susan Sarandon would costar.

"I think America and the whole world would love to see Julia back working," says Roth, who as head of Twentieth Century Fox. worked with Roberts on Dying Young and Sleeping with the Enemy. Still, his announcement hardly means that Roberts's return to the screen is a done deal. The film rights to In a Country of Mothers reportedly are not yet secured, and the screenplay hasn't been written. Even if everything goes without a hitch. it would be virtually impossible for the film to open before early '94, leaving a 2½-year gap in Roberts's résumé.

Moreover, as things turned out, a hitch developed almost immediately, with Roberts—according to Daily Variety—flipping over another film Roth was developing, I Love Trouble, a '50s-style romantic comedy. Roberts's choice for her male lead was Harrison Ford, but he has since passed on the project. Variety editor Bart, for one, sees the Roth-Roberts arrangement as something less than a canny career move. "My skeptical opinion," he says, "is that stars who decide to develop material for themselves usually waste an awful lot of time."

What makes this latest deal seem even more tentative is that Roberts hasn't just stopped making movies, she has even managed to unmake one. Her hike through Heathrow came after she had abruptly left what was supposed to be her next film, Universal's Shakespeare in Love. Sets were being built, costumes fitted. But Roberts had not yet signed a contract, and once Day-Lewis, whom she had hoped would play the title role, opted for another film, she walked off, bringing production to a permanent halt.

"This definitely has gone beyond the range of normal movie-star behavior," says a former studio head. "We've reached the point where a lot of people are wondering just what in the world is going on with her."

What is happening with Julia Roberts, who once turned out 10 movies in just four years? Roberts, speaking through her publicist, Nancy Seltzer, declined several requests to discuss her career with PEOPLE. Seltzer's official statement is that "Julia is considering scripts, and when one seems appropriate, she will proceed." Julia did, in fact, announce during the filming of Hook, in June '91, that she was taking a year off to "refuel and recharge."

It says something about Hollywood, and the press, that almost no one takes that explanation at face value. Other, ruder questions surface: Does Roberts have personal problems that are preventing her from going to work? Has she received poor career advice? Has she stayed so long out of the professional loop that, despite her youth and previous film success, she must now stage a mid-career "comeback" with make-or-break expectations?

One thing that does seem certain is that Roberts was drifting away from the movie business even before Hook's release—dreaming, as she has said, "of this nice life where I can run around and laugh and not sit hunched over with a hat over my face." According to the Los Angeles Times, Roberts wavered in her commitment to that film, accepting the small role of Tinkerbell, backing out a few days later, then changing her mind again. Her moodiness continued on the set, where she would sequester herself for hours in her trailer. In a 60 Minutes interview shortly after Hook's release, director Steven Spielberg said, "It was an unfortunate time for us to work together." Asked by Ed Bradley if he would work with Roberts again. Spielberg squirmed a bit, then replied, "This is a 60 Minutes question, isn't it?"

Roberts is by most accounts an intense and highly sensitive actress who admits to being "on the edge" throughout a movie shoot. After the Hook experience, though, she seemed just as emotional roiled off the set. She looked gaunt and pale, her body almost lost in shapeless, oversize clothes. "What we were witnessing," believes Larry Thompson, a personal manager whose clients include Cindy Crawford and Justine Bateman, "was a classic celebrity crisis."

The problem might have gone more or less unnoticed, he adds, if Roberts hadn't carried off even her downslide with flair. "The thing that got everyone's attention," notes Thompson, "was that she didn't just drop out of her career, she dropped out of her life."

Those who know Roberts best say that she sometimes seems to make little distinction between the personal and professional realms. Movie sets are where she seeks the familial bonds that seem so important to her. "That's why you make movies, for the support, to be like a family," she once said.

But Roberts has put such support on the back burner ever since June 11, 1991, the day she canceled her wedding to Sutherland. The $500,000 celebration had been scheduled to take place three days later on the Fox back lot, where carpenters had re-created the set of Steel Magnolias. "Julia thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown when she called everything off," says a friend of the Roberts family. "And she's still not normal. Every time she thinks she is, someone asks for an autograph, and she'll feel herself about to burst into tears."

Roberts, who met Sutherland when they starred together in Flatliners in 1990, has a history of falling hard and fast for her last leading man. When she was 21, she lived with Liam Neeson, then 36, her costar in Satisfaction. Then she became engaged to her Steel Magnolias screen spouse. Dylan McDermott, calling of that engagement around the time that she met the married, though separated, Sutherland. But by May 1991, a Hollywood go-go dancer, Amanda Rice, was publicly claiming to have had a fling with Sutherland and was passing along to tabloids his description of Julia as "an ice princess."

A few days after that story appeared in the National Enquirer, Roberts entered L.A.'s Cedars Sinai Medical Center, battling what her handlers termed "a bad bout of the flu." Five days later, Roberts left the hospital and announced plans to marry Sutherland in four weeks. She then flew off with several female friends for a weekend in Tucson at Canyon Ranch, a posh spa offering treatments from psychotherapy to aroma wraps.

On the plane, though. Roberts chanced to run into Jason Patric, the darkly handsome grandson of comedian Jackie Gleason and son of Pulitzer-prizewinning playwright (That Championship Season) Jason Miller. Patric was also Canyon Ranch—bound—a coincidence that, according to the actress' traveling companions, led to a dissolution of the girls-only plan, with the pair proceeding to a private bungalow. The day after she returned to L.A., she and Sutherland announced that the wedding was off. On what would have been her wedding night, Roberts flew to Ireland with Patric.

He turned out to be very much unlike the hard-partying Sutherland. For the most part, the couple shunned the Hollywood scene, surfacing only occasionally—at the premiere of Rush in L.A. or at the Hollywood taping of a Bruce Springsteen MTV special. Several times, Julia went home on her own to Smyrna, where her mother, acting teacher Betty Motes, and half sister Nancy, 16, still live. (Her father, Walter Roberts, who ran an acting workshop, died of cancer when Roberts was 10; her sister, Lisa, 27, works in theater production in Manhattan; her brother, actor Eric Roberts, 36, lives in upstate New York.)

It is unclear whether choosing not to deliver on the world's expectations for her has made Roberts any happier. Until now she has seemed neither content to remain on hiatus nor emotionally prepared to return to work. "Every few months," says the former studio chief cited above, "I'd get a call from Julia's agent, Elaine Goldsmith, saying, 'Julia's ready. What have you got for her? A comedy? A drama?' I'd send the scripts, they'd get rejected, then Elaine would call back, and the cycle would start over again."

Even before she signed her deal with Roth, industry trade papers always seemed to contain reports of movies she was about to make: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues; The House of the Spirits; John Grisham's best-sellers The Firm and The Pelican Brief. That none of these projects has yet panned out for her only focused attention on her handlers and the fear that seemed to be paralyzing them. Vs one Hollywood insider puts it, "The only way you get a hit is by working. Someone should shake Julia's people until their bonded teeth rattle and tell them that."

A thought that goes unheeded, though, is that in Hollywood a million-dollar dropout may be making a sane response to a system gone mad. Fame has never given Roberts much to smile about. "There are photographers who sit in their cars outside my house all day long who frighten me," she told one reporter. And to another she complained, "It's bizarre to deal with reports in the press about my romantic life.... I've read flat-out lies so hideous they made me cry."

Lately she has proved an elusive target for gossip columnists. A source close to Patric says she abruptly ended their relationship seven weeks ago, leaving the actor so distraught that he slept on the couch for two nights, unable to be alone in the bed they had once shared. Her romance with Daniel Day-Lewis has been kept under wraps. His manager denies reports that the two are involved, and Seltzer would only say that she would neither confirm nor deny the stories.

Roberts's decision to put her career on hold may yet prove to have been a sensible one. "Julia has made a very smart move," said Joel Schumacher, who directed her in Dying Young and Flatliners. "Taking a year off will help her avoid becoming a Hollywood casualty." And yet as the months pass and the projects fall through, Roberts comes closer to losing control of her own destiny. "It's not that the bloom is off Julia Roberts," says a producer involved in one of her first films. "It's just that she's going to have to gain momentum again. This really is a town of who's the flavor of the month."

Does Roberts really want to get back into a business where the prizes and prices are both more than she ever imagined? The decision is still hers. "She has weakened her franchise," Say's one major agent, "but I would still take her in a New York minute. If she gets back and has another hit, she'll have the acceptability in this town of a 2,000-lb. gorilla."

SHELLEY LEVITT
KAREN G. JACKOVICH and JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Karen G. Jackovich,
  • Joyce Wagner.