Change of guard | Films with ideals | Honoree: Julie Roberts

Julia Roberts has long had a lot of clout in Hollywood. The superstar is part of a formidable triumvirate of Academy Award-winning female players over 40 — Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock round out the group — that the public loves and moguls bank on.

“It’s great that all these women are so popular, so desirable, so watchable,” says “Notting Hill” director Roger Michell. “Today, it’s empirically clear that film actresses have a longer shelf life than they used to. Hopefully, the age ceiling will continue to rise and people can grow old without being discarded into the dustbin of history. Nowadays, we all stay younger for longer. That applies to Mick Jagger, and that applies to Julia Roberts. Long may she reign!”

Full life experience is a critical element for acting, according to “Eat Pray Love” producer Dede Gardner: “Julia is an experienced woman — a mother, a sister, a daughter and a friend. To try and ignore that would be denying all of her accomplishments. I think that’s also true of Sandy, Meryl and Helen Mirren.”

On Sept. 20, Roberts will receive the prestigious Donosita Award in recognition of her winning film career at Spain’s 58th annual San Sebastian Film Festival. The thesp will join the ranks of such past recipients as Julie Andrews, Lauren Bacall, Susan Sarandon and Vanessa Redgrave.

“People like to see familiar faces in cinema,” points out Women in Film president Jane Fleming. “We’ve all grown up with Julia. The baby boomers are the largest chunk of the population and they are now hitting maturity. We’re moving toward the place where there is room for older women on the big screen.”

In the past few years, Fleming has seen undeniable proof that older women can open movies.

“?’The Kids Are All Right’ is the indie pack leader closing in on $20 million,” she argues. “And there you’ve got Annette Bening, who’s 52, and Julianne Moore, 49.”

When it comes to acting styles, there is an imaginary line between versatile actresses like Streep and Emma Thompson and those actresses with very distinctive personal styles like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. Roberts belongs in the latter category.

“What sets Julia apart from many other screen stars is that she has this extraordinary ability to appear to fake spontaneity in the most wonderful way,” explains Michell. “She comes alive in front of the camera in ways in which other actors can only wonder at.”

Working Title co-chairman Eric Fellner concurs. “The fantastic thing about Julia is that she’s not just a movie star, she’s a really good actress. And anyone who’s good is going to go on and on because there’s not a plethora of great actors or actresses out there.”

Gardner finds Roberts to be a very generous actor — totally giving of the full range of human experience and emotions.

“I don’t see everyone do that,” she says. “And that was really critical for the part of Liz Gilbert (in “Eat Pray Love”). You needed to experience Liz’s despair and her sadness as much as you needed to experience her joy. Julia was uniquely capable of running that gamut.”

Garry Marshall, who directed Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” “Runaway Bride” and “Valentine’s Day” fondly recalls, “I’ve worked with her three times, and each time she surprised me with her acting choices.”

Shifting gears, Fleming, for her own part, reflects on her past four years since she took on WIF’s presidency.

“We’re in the movie business,” she says. “When there’s more evidence that these movies work, we will see more of them. Society is evolving, and there’s a commercial reason to keep employing these women.”

Most people would say that Hollywood is not a machine for social change. Rather, it’s a machine for making money. Hopefully, great actresses of any age will continue to put fans in theater seats and dollars in studios tills.