December 31, 1999 12:00 PM

Knock knock. Who’s there? Madame. Madame who? M’damn foot’s caught in the door!

Not funny? Well, it cracked up 9-year-old Scotty Leavenworth when he heard the joke from Julia Roberts, who plays the young actor’s mother in her next film Erin Brockovich. “She’s the nicest movie mom I’ve ever met,” says Scotty. “She’s very, extremely nice.” He’s not the only one who’s just wild about Julia. Solidifying her status as America’s most likeable—and bankable—movie actress, Roberts, 32, racked up two more blockbuster romantic comedies in 1999: the Hugh Grant cuddlefest Notting Hill (in which she was typecast as a famous screen queen) and Runaway Bride, which reunited her with her Pretty Woman romeo Richard Gere. Those films took in nearly $270 million combined at the box office, helping Roberts rake in $20 million—unprecedented for an actress—for playing a feisty legal secretary battling environmental pollution in the drama Erin Brockovich, due in March. “It’s like watching Michael Jordan drive the lane,” says the film’s director Steven of Julia’s performance. “She’s at her absolute peak as an artist.” Things are humming along on the personal front as well, where former Law & Order hunk Benjamin Bratt, 36, has been widening her megawatt smile since they hooked up in 1997. While Roberts was at work on Erin and Bratt was filming The Next Best Thing in Los Angeles, she playfully called him on the day he shot his love scene with costar Madonna. “She would report back to us after she quizzed him,” says Erin costar Marg Helgenberger with a laugh. ” ‘So, was it a good kiss? And did you like it? And how long was the kiss?’ She talked about him all the time. TheySoderbergh ‘ve got a real good thing going on.” Roberts topped off her banner year by taking a decidedly nonstar trip: to Mongolia, to film a PBS documentary on wild horses. “She went for a week with no bath or shower, no proper toilet,” says her director Nigel Cole, “and yet she never complained.” This, then, is why we like her: Roberts is the goddess-next-door. Oh, yeah, and that corny sense of humor. “She makes up a lot of good jokes,” says young Scotty. “And she always gave me wedgies.”

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