July 16, 2001 12:00 PM

Julia Roberts was avoiding the question. Dressed casually in jeans, a pastel green T-shirt and vintage jacket, America’s star of stars faced a room of about 45 reporters at Manhattan’s Regency Hotel June 23 to promote her forthcoming movie America’s Sweethearts. The reporters, naturally, were more interested in her and her sweetheart, the former star of TV’s Law & Order Benjamin Bratt. But when one asked, fatuously, what made the couple’s life together “so happy and wonderful,” Roberts rambled on about how Bratt had taught her to “take comfort in my privacy.” The reporter persisted: “But is there one quality you admire about each other that makes it special?” Responded Roberts: “I would say mutual respect and integrity.”

“See, that wasn’t so hard,” teased her interrogator.

“Well, yeah,” Roberts shot back, “your stomach doesn’t hurt.” The bellyful of butterflies was a symptom of Roberts’s big secret: A month earlier the 33-year-old Oscar winner had quietly parted ways with Bratt, 37, ending a nearly four-year relationship. Theirs had been a public romance, played out in kisses and cuddles and gushing speeches at awards ceremonies, including March’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Roberts—collecting the sixth of eight statuettes for her role in Erin Brockovich—invited reporters to “come to our house. We’re happy all the time!” The pair had decided to make no public statement about their split, but eventually the news was leaked to the New York City tabloids on June 28, surprising both fans—who had been on a wedding watch for months—and friends. “They were extremely loving,” says movie producer Howard Rosenman, a longtime friend of Roberts’s. “They were into each other’s heads and souls. They were supportive of each other. They looked like they were in love.”

And they didn’t hide it. As recently as May, Bratt and Roberts were seen smooching over sandwiches at a Manhattan cafe, window-shopping hand in hand in Greenwich Village and strolling down St. Mark’s Place, making a giddy game of eating watermelon. “They were spitting out the pits to see who could spit the farthest,” says a witness. But by then the seeds of discontent had well and truly taken root. Soon afterward Bratt returned to Montreal, where he had been filming s the psychological thriller Abandon since April. In late May and in June, Roberts visited the set more than once to try and save the relationship by spending time with him. But in the end “it wasn’t enough,” a source says of the couple. “They couldn’t be the person the other one wanted them to be.”

So what went wrong? In the postmortems that followed news of the split, friends of the stars—who are not in touch with each other at the moment—agreed that their problems boiled down to career vs. commitment: He wanted to settle down, she didn’t—at least not in the same way. Sources say Bratt wanted Roberts to cut back on making the movies that kept them apart and move from New York City to his home base of San Francisco, where his mother and siblings live. (In fact, a source say Roberts turned down several projects in recent months to appease Bratt.) “He was putting her in conflict, having to choose between what she was doing and being on his set,” says one source, who describes Bratt as a “traditional” guy eager to start a family. “With each movie [she made], he got more angry. He didn’t want her to give up her career, but the reason they fought was that he wanted her to be there with him. He wasn’t saying, ‘Can’t you be home and cook for me?’ He was saying, ‘I like it when you are home.’ He wanted her to stay. Every weekend was not enough.” In the end Bratt was the one who broke it off. “There is a deep love there,” says the source. “But it was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. He realized she was a bit of a gypsy.”

Tabloid tattle about Roberts dancing the night away in Las Vegas with her Ocean’s 11 costar George Clooney couldn’t have helped. (Clooney, 40, shot down reports that he was a third party in Roberts’s split, announcing with a wisecrack, “I didn’t have time [to break them up]. I’ve been too busy breaking up Tom and Nicole.”) “We had a dormitory life going there,” Ocean’s producer Jerry Weintraub explains of the high jinks that went on during the late winter shoot when Roberts, Clooney and their costars Matt Damon and Brad Pitt all stayed in adjoining villas at the Bellagio hotel. “We were in each other’s rooms constantly, drinking, eating, partying and having a good time.” Little wonder Bratt felt, as one source put it, that Roberts “was choosing other things besides him.”

It was when Roberts left town to film Brockovich in California in mid-1999 that cracks apparently formed in the relationship. Over the next two years Roberts and Bratt worked on some nine more movies between them, with shoots taking them separately to L.A., Las Vegas, Texas, Montreal, Belize and Australia. One source says Bratt, whose movie career was just taking off, became frustrated when Roberts continued to accept work that would keep them apart.

The two made efforts to visit each other on their respective sets. When Bratt was filming the USA Network movie After the Storm in Belize in the spring of 2000, Roberts air-freighted her homemade chocolate chip cookies to him and flew down herself for a five-day stay. Earlier this year Bratt was an occasional visitor to the L.A. set of America’s Sweethearts, a romantic comedy about a fictional—and estranged—movie-star couple. “He would just hang out and watch her on the monitor, and then she’d come back out to see him,” says’ producer Donna Roth. “They were very sweet to each other.” Even on the prank-filled Ocean’s 11 shoot, Bratt was never far from her thoughts. “She was very, very serious with the guy,” says producer Weintraub. “She would talk about him a lot.”

Her clean sweep of the statuette season gave Roberts abundant opportunity to gush. “It really doesn’t mean as much if there’s not somebody there to say, ‘Have a good day, honey’ and ‘How was your day, honey?’ ” Roberts said after accepting a best actress Golden Globe on Jan. 21. “Benjamin Bratt does that for me.” Sources deny they stayed together through the Oscars for appearances’ sake, but for Bratt the awards bonanza was bittersweet. Though visibly pleased for the woman he called “my lady,” he was also increasingly aware, with each new accolade, that the tide of her career was too strong to turn back. When she accepted the Best Actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich—with only a passing reference to him—on March 25, “he was really proud,” says a source, “but in a way it solidified his fear.”

Which some might consider well-founded. Roberts has made no pretense of wanting to marry—or have children. “I live for today,” she told reporters at a press conference earlier this year. “Things happen when they happen. I’m not a plotter or planner. And I like my little flat belly.” Even so, friends say she was supportive of Bratt’s career and sensitive to the impact of her own overwhelming success. “She went out of her way not to make him feel like he was Mr. Julia Roberts,” says producer Rosenman. “She reveled in playing the anonymous housewife who wants to go on the set but says, ‘We’ll go shopping and let Ben do his work’ instead.”

In fact, “wife” is hardly a role Roberts has coveted. She bailed out on Kiefer Sutherland just three days before their planned 1991 wedding, then took up with his friend Jason Patric. Her marriage to singer Lyle Lovett lasted just 21 months before ending amicably in 1995. Later that year Roberts briefly dated Matthew Perry after appearing as a guest star on Friends. And in 1996 she had a relationship with Pat Manocchia, a Manhattan personal trainer and pal of the late John F. Kennedy Jr. Whether that résumé amounts to a fear of commitment is a matter of opinion. “She has had about six or seven serious relationships in her whole life,” says one source. “On Sex and the City they have six or seven a day.”

Either way Roberts had been unattached for about a year when she first met Bratt. He had ended a six-year relationship with documentary filmmaker Monika McClure in 1996, then dated actress Jennifer Esposito for eight months. Roberts spotted him at the Manhattan restaurant Raoul’s in 1997 and orchestrated an introduction. From the start they seemed to have much in common. Growing up in Smyrna, Ga., Roberts was forced to cope at age 4 with the divorce of her parents, Betty, now 66, a real estate agent, and Walter, a drama teacher who died six years later. Though she remained close to her mother and sisters Lisa, 35, now an actress, and Nancy, 25, she has been estranged for years from her actor brother Eric, 45. Bratt, a Northern California native of English, German and Peruvian ancestry, was familiar with such family dramas. His mother, Eldy, 64, an activist for Native American causes, split from his father, a sheet-metal worker, when he was 4. He is close to his mother and his brother and three sisters but lost contact with his father when he was 25.

Like Roberts, who endured a Mary Reilly for every Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride on the road to the $20 million paychecks she now commands, Bratt stumbled through flops like 1991’s Chains of Gold and 1993’s Bound by Honor before landing the role of Det. Reynaldo “Rey” Curtis on Law & Order in 1995. But his career credentials weren’t what attracted Roberts. “I realized immediately that he is someone who will always challenge me in that great way that keeps you moving forward,” she told McCall’s last August. “Imagine you have a similar sense of humor and a similar enough concept of the world…then add that you like the way he dresses and the way he kisses and then, oh my God, you make love to this person and it’s fabulous. This is all a girl could ever ask for.”

Their first months together in New York City—where Bratt worked from 9 to 9 on the Law & Order set and Roberts was shooting Stepmom—were a whirl of romantic late-night dinners at favorite restaurants such as Le Madri or L’Express. Or they might order in takeout (vegetable ravioli for her; polio alla birra for him) from Trattoria I Pagliacci (where the couple occasionally turned up in workout gear and where Roberts practiced her rudimentary Italian on the staff) before they retreated for a cozy evening at her duplex penthouse in leafy Gramercy Park. (Bratt has a Manhattan apartment also, but the pair essentially lived in Roberts’s place, a source says.) Says I Pagliacci manager Fabrizio Di Mitri: “They looked like the perfect couple.”

Now that it’s over, Roberts plans to take the summer off after promoting Sweethearts and attending the usual round of premieres. Bratt wrapped filming for Abandon on July 1. “I don’t think they will get back together,” says her pal Rosenman, “but I think they’ll be friends.”

In retrospect, Roberts’s attempt to conceal her heartache at that America’s Sweethearts press conference on June 23 was hardly a performance worthy of another Oscar. But maybe that’s what happens when you’re not acting. “You can’t say, ‘I will spend the rest of my life making sacrifices,’ ” she told reporters. “You have to say, ‘I’m open to all the compromises and challenges that life presents to me.’ That’s life: choices, compromises and sacrifices.”

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Elizabeth McNeil, Fannie Weinstein, K.C. Baker, Joseph V. Tirella and Rebecca Paley in New York City, Elizabeth Leonard and Michelle Caruso in Los Angeles and Caris Davis and Pete Norman in London

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