January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

Julia Roberts can’t always get what she wants. The little things, sure: In a village near her 51-acre retreat outside Taos, N.Mex., a bag boy willing to load $200 worth of groceries into her car (with appreciation for a $10 tip) during the holiday crush. From a nearby cafe, a double soy mocha to go. But love? Happiness? Forget a Christmas list. In her decade as one of Hollywood’s most canonized, criticized and scrutinized actresses, Roberts, 31, seems to have sought—often impulsively, just as often unsuccessfully—a single gift: peace of mind.

Little wonder that this Christmas, like most recent ones, she left behind the high-profile bustle of her Manhattan home and headed for New Mexico, where she met up with those closest to her: her mother, her sisters, her favorite mutt Diego, and let us not forget that tall, dark and handsome fellow she calls simply “my man.” To TV viewers, Benjamin Bratt, 35, is well-known as the dashing costar of the hit NBC drama Law & Order. But to Roberts, he is so much more. “Julia is incredibly happy right now,” says one of her closest friends, adding of Bratt: “The relationship is so special that none of us wants to comment.”

Or perhaps no one wants to deal with future retractions. As the ghosts of lonely Christmases past (read: ex-fiancé Kiefer Sutherland through ex-husband Lyle Lovett) can attest, Roberts and long-term relationships are not the safest bets. Still, both personally and professionally things have been looking up for her. If there was a period when the actress failed to transfix—the silly days of Tinker-bell and grim nights of box office stinker Mary Reilly come to mind—that time is past. The 1997 romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding—a $127 million hit that sent her salary to a record-breaking (for a female actor) $17 million per picture—reintroduced the nation to the long-legged, loud-laughing siren who first enchanted audiences in 1988’s Mystic Pizza. Her current role as Ed Harris’s fiancée in the Christmas release Stepmom—with her friend Susan Sarandon as Harris’s ex-wife and the mother of his two children—earned mixed reviews but is still pulling them into theaters.

Call it craftsmanship—or call it love. Since November 1997 the woman radiating that old screen magic has been spotted all over the world arm-in-arm with Bratt, a Northern California native who is two parts Peruvian (from his mother), one part German, one part English (from his father) and all parts romantic. In October he and Roberts were cuddling on a yacht that Paramount had chartered for her 31st birthday, off Kent Island, Md. (An avid sportsman, Bratt gave her a purple mountain bike.) A couple of weeks before Christmas the couple turned up at a resort opening in the Bahamas—where they left Leonardo DiCaprio and other celebs at the card tables and retreated to a secluded hotel. And every few weeks recently at Le Madri restaurant in Manhattan, the story has been pretty much the same: The two arrive late and are seated at a table as far from the bar as can be. She orders pasta (with her favorite, truffles) and salad (no onions, please). And he orders—well, no one quite remembers what Bratt orders.

“Julia is his favorite dish,” says a regular patron who has seen the couple together on several occasions. “He barely even looks at a menu, he’s so smitten with her. They’re very lovey-dovey, sitting back there and kissing all night long. They’re definitely very much in love.”

Yes, we’ve heard this story before. The Smyrna, Ga., native has been linked, in addition to Sutherland and Lovett, to Dylan McDermott, Liam Neeson, Jason Patric, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ethan Hawke and Friends’ Matthew Perry. She married Lovett in 1993, only to split from him 21 months later. Roberts remains friends with her ex, who recently released the double album Step Inside This House, but it is Bratt who now makes her heart sing. “He’s very good-looking, and his handsomeness pales in comparison to his kindness,” Roberts told INSTYLE. “That is all a girl could ask for, really.”

Especially after long days on the set. Bratt, who studied drama at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, is well-versed in the industry frustrations. For every part, however small, in a hit such as 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, there were forgotten films with names like Bound by Honor and Chains of Gold. He landed the lead in ABC’s 1995 miniseries James A. Michener’s Texas, but not before struggling through such go-nowhere TV shows as 1990’s Nasty Boys. Dick Wolf, Nasty Boys’ producer, was so impressed by Bratt that he came back to him as producer of Law & Order. “He’s a terrific actor,” Wolf says—not to mention a terrific eyeful: “I can’t think of anyone out there who looks remotely like him.”

Roberts, of course, has all but forgotten her own starving-actor days. But on Stepmom, trying her hand as a novice executive producer (along with Sarandon, 52), she found some of the responsibilities taxing. “Every time a new version [of the script] came in,” she told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, “it was like, ‘Oh, this again.’ ” Still, she never let her colleagues—or friends—down. “Certainly it’s risky to work with people you love,” says the Oscar-winning Sarandon. “Julia has always been really smart and fun, but producing a movie together I came to appreciate her focus and ability to see things through.”

According to Stepmom producer and director Chris Columbus, it was Roberts who saved a “just not working” proposal scene. Says Columbus: “During rehearsals Ed [Harris] was always talking about the thread that holds a relationship together. Julia came up with the idea of putting a spool of thread into the ring box.” The result—Harris slides an engagement ring down a line of thread onto Roberts’s finger—was “so sweet,” says Jena Malone, 13, who plays Harris’s daughter. “It’s one of the few moments [in the film] when you cry tears of happiness.”

While making the movie in October 1997, Malone and the rest of the cast evoked tears of another kind during Roberts’s 30th-birthday bash. At a Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey, some 200 guests nibbled on chicken fingers and pizza and showered her with gifts. Malone gave her “a little rubber ducky so she would remember her childhood” and a book with advice on how to survive turning 30. Roberts probably should have checked out the chapter “When to Run Like Hell.” Instead, she let herself get talked onto a ride where “you free-fall and swing back and forth,” says Malone. “Everyone wanted her to do it because she was the birthday girl. [But] as she came down she was crying, she was so scared.”

Which doesn’t happen often anymore. In fact, Roberts seems to have conquered many of her fears—including her dread of the Hollywood glare. “She used to have a kind of deer-in-the-headlight quality,” says Garry Marshall, who directed her star-making turn in Pretty Woman eight years ago. “Now she stops the car.” To wit: Once Roberts might have bridled at rumors that she and friend Sarandon were feuding on the Stepmom set; this time she merely laughed it off. Sarandon says the fights were all part of the script: “I didn’t take it personally, and neither did she. The fun of being an actor is you don’t play yourself.”

The un-fun part is that you do have to play yourself—even when running out for a quart of milk. As colleagues tell it, Roberts is gracious with fans. This fall, for instance, while shooting a scene at the Atlantic Hotel in Berlin, Md., for Runaway Bride, she noticed a particularly starstruck girl gazing at her from a crowd of onlookers. According to Gary Weber, the hotel manager, Roberts motioned for her to come on the set, then called out for a Polaroid camera, saying, “We need instant gratification.” And yet, off the set, while standing in line at a supermarket in Baltimore, she declined to sign autographs and got angry when a store employee tried to take her picture. Says a checkout woman who witnessed the scene: “[Roberts] was really mean.”

Or perhaps she was just setting boundaries. Roberts has put a high priority on spending private time with Bratt—with whom she shares more than good bone structure and a love of snuggling. For starters, both have struggled to adulthood with fractured family relationships. Roberts was hit hard when her parents, Betty, 64, a real-estate agent living near Atlanta, and Walter, a drama teacher who died when Roberts was 10, split when she was 4. Today, she is close to her mother and sisters Lisa, 33, an actress in New York City, and Nancy, 23, a college student. But she has been estranged from her brother, actor Eric Roberts, 42, since he and his former girlfriend Kelly Cunningham feuded over custody of their daughter, Emma, now 7, in 1993.

Family squabbles are all too familiar to Bratt. His mother, Eldy, an activist for Native American causes, and his sheet-metal-worker father split when he was 4. Eldy then took young Benjamin and his four siblings to live for nine months on the site of the abandoned federal prison at Alcatraz, along with Native American activists from many nations. Like Roberts, Bratt remains close to his mother. (Mom and son are affiliated with the American Indian Friendship House in Oakland, Calif.) But also like Roberts, he must cope with a deep family rift. Bratt told The New York Times in 1995 that, for reasons he won’t explain, he lost contact with his father when he was 25. “I’ve made attempts to get in touch with him, and he won’t respond,” Bratt said. “It’s a deep pain for me.”

Happily, there is more to chat about over intimate dinners than family turmoil. Both Roberts and Bratt are devoted athletes. She likes to put in 6-mile runs; he zips around Manhattan’s Central Park on his Rollerblades—when he’s not biking or exercising at the gym near his home. No doubt the workouts provide stamina for one of Roberts’s favorite competitive sports: a word game called (no kidding) Celebrity, in which one person on a two-member team thinks of a famous person, place or thing and gives the other hints to help guess. At a recent party hosted by Roberts’s good friend, longtime agent Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Roberts and Bratt joined a group that included doctors and lawyers. “We all rolled up our sleeves and played until 2:30 a.m.,” says Goldsmith-Thomas. “Julia is an excellent player—and usually wins.”

These days, of course, Roberts is also winning the real-life Celebrity game—whether it’s making turkey-and-corn-bread stuffing for a Christmas feast or landing herself in an old-fashioned romance. No one knows if a happy ending is in the latest version of the script. A close friend offers only that for now at least the couple are not engaged. Bratt is equally mum. “All that I have to say about Julia couldn’t possibly fit into one or two sentences,” he told PEOPLE in September. “She is an incredible woman.” But after a long journey to today’s contentment, perhaps a weary one. Goldsmith-Thomas, for one, thinks the Celebrity champ should give the game a bit of a rest. “I hope she’ll take a long-needed break after she wraps [Runaway Bride],” says Goldsmith-Thomas with a laugh, “and just bake some bread and knit a few quilts for a while.”

Karen S. Schneider

Sue Miller and Cynthia Wang in New York City, Danelle Morton and Paula Yoo in Los Angeles, Charles Cohen and Kate McKenna in Baltimore, Michael Haederle and Zélie Pollon in Taos and Liz Corcoran and Joanna Blonska in London

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