OK, we're calling it.
For about 25 years, charming actresses who've made a splash in a breakout role with their beauty-brains-talent trifecta have been hard-pressed to avoid the inevitable. It's practically a rite of Hollywood passage for up-and-comers—especially the redheads—and a way of signaling that this 21-to-30-year-old woman certainly seems to have "it."
Because she just may be...The Next Julia Roberts.
It's meant as a compliment, of course. But dangling that crown in front of an actress' face is also pretty unfair, considering Roberts has starred in some of the most beloved romantic comedies of all time, was for awhile the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, won an Oscar, lights up every screen with her smile and has enjoyed the kind of career longevity that most actors don't even bother to dream of, let alone come close to achieving. In fact, the A-list only has, like, six people on it now, and Roberts has never budged from the top spot since Pretty Woman made her one of the most talked-about stars in the world.
So it's no wonder that people who make movies and who write about movie stars want to clone her, but the consistently unachievable nature of that mission for other actresses has only served to prove that there is no "next Julia Roberts." Which is why we officially closed that case on her 50th birthday—and are sending out a reminder Monday, for her 52nd.
First of all, purely semantically, it's impossible. Unless there's another person named Julia Roberts who is standing in line behind the one we all know, there's no next one. And thinking existentially, it's even more impossible: These women are all uniquely their own people, it isn't right to lump individuals into bite-size categories and there's no need to cut into Julia's Robertsness and pass out pieces of it to other actresses.
"I think it's a positive thing because she's a really great actress, but yeah, sometimes it can be a little annoying," Emma Roberts, who surely knew going in that she would end up compared to her famous aunt at some point (or lots), admitted in 2008.
To be sure, it probably doesn't always feel awesome to turn in a great, crowd-pleasing performance and then be rewarded with the question of whether you're, at best, just like somebody else. But generally no disrespect was meant to the many, many ladies—from Sandra Bullock, whose breakout role came just a few years after Roberts', to Jennifer Garner, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone and the star's own niece—who've been subject to the comparison over the years.
Rather, the frequency with which that phrase has been used says much more about the woman whose name apparently connotes the ultimate in cinematic appeal.
"She's like Julia Roberts," The Last Song director Julie Ann Robinson told E! News in 2010, referring to her film's star, Miley Cyrus. "I feel Miley can do anything—action, comedy, drama. She's got it all."
"When I was younger, someone once told me, 'You kind of look like Julia Roberts in profile,'" Meghan Markle, who counted Roberts among her biggest inspirations as an actor, told Glamour in 2017. "It was the best compliment of all time."
Lamenting the decrease in Roberts' screen time in the '00s after Ocean's Eleven, when she married Danny Moder and had her three children, various producers talked to the New York Times in 2009 about the Julia Roberts-shaped hole in the Hollywood landscape and whether any actress was capable of filling it.
"Nobody has stepped into the vacuum...Right now, people are desperate for the heir apparent to be Katherine Heigl," one producer said.
That didn't turn out quite as those people intended, but the point was that Hollywood was positively cheering Roberts' return to a big leading role that year in Duplicity.
"Julia has a unique ability to be steely, but winsome and lovable all at the same time," Universal production president Donna Langley told the Times.
Emphasis on "unique," but the qualities that insiders would espouse as being specific to Roberts never stopped anyone from seeking those qualities out in others—and then speculating on whether those women could match or even exceed Roberts' appeal.
"Why is there plenty of room for guys in this business and they don't pit them up against each other? It's so stupid," Bullock remarked in 1996. "There's room for everybody. I think Julia and I should do a film where we make fun of this whole thing, like we're not even the leads. They just have an outtake of like a movie premiere where we get into a huge fight or something. That would be hysterical."
In 2003, Roberts recalled to Oprah Winfrey being the subject of an article called "The Next Julia Roberts" that was actually funny—"because in his story, I am the next Julia Roberts."
Funny how that did not put an end to the conversation, though.
The minute Anne Hathaway flashed her own mega-watt smile...well, what do you think happened? Garry Marshall, who directed Roberts in several films, including Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride, called the Princess Diaries star "a combination of Julia Roberts, Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland."
Meanwhile, Roberts isn't the only person whose very name represents hope for a second coming, but the people who get that treatment are usually a rarefied bunch. The "next Michael Jordan." "The next Lucille Ball." "The next Barack Obama."
Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, etc.—all came of age on the court in that "next M.J." shadow. Lauren Holly, Debra Messing, Ellie Kemper and Sofia Vergara are among the many who've been mentioned in the hallowed "next Lucy" conversation that pops up every so often. And, well...the search continues for the "next Obama."
But as EW.com pointed out in 2000, comparisons to Ball never helped anybody, considering how utterly inimitable she was. And in 2010, Bleacher Report published "Kevin Durant Will Be the Next Michael Jordan" one week and, one week later, "Why Kevin Durant Is Not the Next Michael Jordan."
And then, in 2017, "Why There Isn't a Next Michael Jordan Anymore."
So, as you can see, sometimes it does take awhile to arrive at a theoretically obvious conclusion, so enticing is the idea that lightning will strike twice in the same arena.
The careers of Bullock, Stone, Hathaway, et al. certainly don't seem to have suffered from initial comparisons to Roberts, while having a bunch of starlets knocking at her door never seemed to hurt Roberts' career, either. But having learned when she was barely 21 just how dicey the fame-and-success game really is, the veteran star feels for those who have come up in her wake.
"I was lucky that I made a few movies in a row that people really responded to—not me particularly but the films as a whole were appreciated," Roberts told Vanity Fair in 2012. "Then you have a couple that aren't what you think they're going to be, and that's O.K. You can keep going. People can keep hiring you. But that doesn't happen now, and it's a pity because it is a way to develop yourself and figure out what kind of actor you are."
Meanwhile, even the Julia Roberts has known what it's like to be heralded as the "next" person-who-came-before, having fetched her own share of Audrey Hepburn comparisons. (Hepburn, a fan, asked Roberts to accept her SAG Life Achievement Award on her behalf in 1993 when the Breakfast at Tiffany's star, who died that January, was too ill to attend.)
Though there was only one Audrey, Roberts has proved to be similarly timeless. Her influence on Hollywood is secure, as is her status as one of the all-time great contemporary movie stars. She can't help but continue to be a really big deal, while at the same time she's aware of how subjective and arbitrary being a really big deal actually is.
So though she frequently champions the ambitions of her fellow actresses, she is doing her best to keep them from following in at least one pair of her footsteps, made by what has always sounded like her least favorite pair of shoes.
"How many are there of us?" Roberts asked with mock seriousness when MTV News' Josh Horowitz inquired in 2013 about a new addition to the "America's Sweetheart" club that the actress has unwittingly been president of for the better part of 30 years.
"I was going to ask you that, because the newest inductee is obviously Jennifer Lawrence, which is great, congratulations," Horowitz responded, fairly tongue-in-cheek as well.
"She shoots flaming arrows," Roberts pointed out with skepticism. "Like, this is a new cupid tactic?"
Asked if that meant she was hesitant to admit J.Law, the actress said, "But you know, my [membership] card has expired and I didn't get a new one, so perhaps..."
"That was a clerical error," Horowitz assured her.
"I mean, I think she's fabulous," Roberts said. "But she doesn't seem, um... She seems cooler than me."
But that's just wishful thinking.
(Originally published Oct. 27, 2017, at 7 a.m. PT)