"You might as well be a waffle iron sitting up a tree" when in a scene with Roberts, he lamented. "No one is even looking at you."
The rain held to a drizzle Friday night outside the Beverly Hilton, but in the ballroom where the Cinematheque was saluting one of Hollywood's biggest stars, the belle of the ball basked in a flood of praise.
Other luminaries who lined up to honor Roberts, an Oscar and Golden Globe winner for "Erin Brockovich," included onetime co-stars Bruce Willis, Dermot Mulroney, Sally Field, Natalie Portman and Blair Underwood. They spoke of her talent, humor, intelligence and warmth in introducing movie clips familiar to any crowd of filmgoers: "Mystic Pizza," "Notting Hill," "The Pelican Brief," "Ocean's Eleven" and dozens more.
The crowd laughed and applauded in recognition of many classic moments, the highlight being that snapping jewelry box in "Pretty Woman" and the delighted, infectious cackle that followed it.
David Letterman and Richard Gere sent recorded tributes, but it was George Clooney's taped message that brought down the house.
Speaking from a public bathroom, where Clooney said he was hiding from fans, he stopped to look down as another foot tapped his from the adjacent stall. He went to investigate and opened the door on a guilty Brad Pitt, whose words were almost drowned out by the laughter in the hall: "I have a wide stance!"
Get breaking news alerts delivered to your mobile phone. Text BREAKING to 52669. You will receive up to 30 msgs/mo. Msg&data rates may apply. Text HELP for help. Text STOP to cancel.
In a thoughtful tribute, Shirley MacLaine also extolled Roberts' talent and growth, saying, "I love your search for yourself." In a hilariously dry riff, Marcia Gay Harden offered the crowd supposed excerpts from her diary during the making of "Mona Lisa Smile." One early entry read, "JR so skinny and beautiful; hope she's dumb."
The auburn-haired Roberts, seated at a center table between husband Danny Moder and director Mike Nichols, laughed and beamed throughout the presentations. She is the 22nd winner of the Cinematheque's award. Previous winners include her buddies Willis, Clooney and Denzel Washington. The annual ceremony is a benefit for the organization's film and video programs at its Egyptian and Aero theaters. An edited version of the show will be broadcast Dec. 5 on AMC.
Although the mother of three had taken a little respite from acting in the last couple of years, providing voices for "Charlotte's Web" and "The Ant Bully," clips from upcoming films showed Roberts at the top of her game.
Guests were treated to extended scenes from "Fireflies in the Garden" and "Charlie Wilson's War."
The latter was introduced by its director, Nichols, who also directed Roberts in "Closer." He said that "directing Julia is somewhere between falling in love, driving a Ferrari, reading a Yates poem and having a triple-decker ice cream cone." He added that he couldn't look at her while he talked because it would make him cry.
Washington presented her with the award, and in his remarks he noted that "she's someone who says yes to life."
As members of the audience rose to their feet, Roberts took the stage in a sexy black gown. The nursing mother then grabbed her bosom and asked the crowd, "Is there a hungry baby in the house? Just come on up!" She said she was up past her bedtime, adding, "It's hard to think when my dress is this snug."
Roberts then thanked the people who had guided her in the business and those who came out to celebrate the evening, saying that "more than anything I'm just the most proud wife and mother to three beautiful children."
She then thanked the American Cinematheque "for raising tons of money to do -- something," and flashed her famous smile.