Sandra Bullock may not have been the obvious first choice to play a scientist stuck in high-earth orbit in a 3D space thriller – especially not for producing studio Warner Bros, who had originally intended Gravity to be a vehicle for Angelina Jolie.
But there's no question now that she made the role her own. After a string of perky, cornbread roles over the past two decades, Bullock can also claim to have substantially reinvented herself with this grim-faced, physically demanding performance. Gravity's success – it will almost certainly overtake The Blind Side as her highest-grossing film in the not too distant future – caps a spectacular second coming for the actor, whose career seemed in danger of running into the ground only a few years ago. For a film that is – among other things – a parable of spiritual rebirth, it seems an appropriate outcome.
Bullock's centrality to Gravity is now belatedly being recognised, overshadowed in the runup to the film's release by audiences' awe at the pioneering special effects and visual kick, as well as the undue prominence of George Clooney in the publicity materials; placed there, perhaps, by a studio nervous that Bullock may not have been the most marketable name for a space film. But Clooney's is definitely a supporting role, with Gravity trading heavily on what Hollywood would call Bullock's relatability to impart the dramatic peril of her character.
Gravity is Bullock's second big hit this year: The Heat, the cop comedy in which she astutely paired herself with Bridesmaids star Melissa McCarthy, one of the most popular film comics in the US, piled up $229m (£142m)at the worldwide box office. Again, perhaps because of its low-tech, unsplashy premise, its success has not had due recognition.
Bullock's real comeback movie arguably arrived four years ago: The Blind Side, a drama about an impoverished African-American teenager, adopted by a wealthy white family, who goes on to become a college American football star.
Partly due to its adoption by a Christian audience base, it took more than $300m worldwide and bagged Bullock an Oscar for best actress.
In the decade prior to The Blind Side, Bullock had not exactly disgraced herself as an actor; more, she was perceived as almost running on empty.
Born to a US army contractor and a German opera singer, she had a peripatetic childhood split between Europe and Arlington, Virginia. After graduating from East Carolina University with a drama degree ,she had the traditionally erratic rise through the ranks of never-seen-since low-budget features (acting alongside Jake LaMotta in Hangmen, one of her first), securing a starring role in a swiftly cancelled TV version of the Melanie Griffith comedy Working Girl, and finally getting a Hollywood toehold in films such as the Peter Bogdanovich country music yarn The Thing Called Love and the Judge Dredd-ish dystopian satire Demolition Man – where, compared with lunkheaded Sylvester Stallone, she came off as foxy and nimble-witted.
She fought her way to leading actor status with Speed, the pedal-to-the-metal action thriller where she played smart-mouthed but ordinary-jane foil to Keanu Reeves's bomb squad cop. With her obvious gift for comedy, and abundant on-screen likability, she soon became a fixture in late 90s rom-coms, at a time when Hollywood was desperate for a successor to Julia Roberts.
"She's always been a gifted comic actor," says Charles Gant, film editor of Heat magazine and Guardian columnist, "and her status in Hollywood has been linked to that fact. Women actors only have a limited amount of genres in which they can be authentic stars – in drama and comedy, yes, but not so much action or sci-fi – and her big successes have tended to be in rom-coms. Gravity couldn't have come along at a better time."
That's a delicate way of saying that, at 49, Bullock is heading towards the brick wall that so many female actors face in Hollywood: she's at the upper limit of the traditional rom-com age range, but there are few meaty dramatic roles that women can graduate to.
Steven Gaydos, executive editor of film industry bible Variety, suggests that Gravity may have helped Bullock out of the trap. "From the industry's perspective," he says, "it's one of those hopeful signs. You start to think that Europe is the only place that has leading ladies over 25; the US is an unforgiving place for older actresses.
"She's beautiful, talented and versatile, of course, and it's encouraging that she's been revitalised after not really been part of the discussion for quite some time."
The success of The Blind Side had been encouraging because it was a mid-range budget, human story, not based on a comic book or action franchise, the kind of film that is not supposed to be profitable any more, he added. "It worked so well and won her an Oscar; then rather quietly she made The Heat, admittedly alongside a hot comedy star in Melissa McCarthy; that was another mid-range film, and it did spectacularly well too. In terms of a having a second act, she's in a special class."
"She definitely got stuck doing sappy rom-coms," says Gant. "But some of them, like Miss Congeniality, play to her strengths. She may not have Julia Roberts's classical beauty, but she has the feisty energy and no-nonsense personality that makes fish out of water comedy work."
A glance at her filmography shows that, if nothing else, Bullock has always been a trier. For every While You Were Sleeping there's been a Crash, for every Miss Congeniality there's been an Infamous; in other words, Bullock recognised early the dangers of being simply a rom-com specialist and aimed to broaden as soon as she could. Early on, she set up her own production company and put a passion project, Hope Floats, into production (paid for, as she admits, by taking on the ill-advised Speed 2). A romance in which a cheated-on Bullock strikes sparks with Harry Connick Jr, Hope Floats was only moderately successful, but it led to more, and Bullock has production credits on a string of films – culminating in The Proposal, another big-hitting rom-com.
It also helps that Bullock is the kind of Hollywood star that connects easily with a female audience – unlike, say, Gwyneth Paltrow – and her choppy personal life has fuelled the sense that, in Gant's description, she is "unpretentious". She divorced Jesse James, her husband of five years, in 2010, when it emerged he had cheated on her and went ahead with the adoption of a son she had planned with him.
She also won more friends by turning up in person to collect a Golden Raspberry award for worst actress, for the much abused rom-com All About Steve, the day before picking up her Blind Side Oscar.
Gravity, it would now appear, is another unexpected triumph, but above and beyond its spectacular visuals, it's a film that needed Bullock as much as she needed it. Says Gaydos: "With a film about what is essentially a spiritual rebirth, the audience has to like the actor, believe in them, want to go on the journey with them. If that doesn't work, if the audience don't feel compassion, there's no movie. That's her achievement – it's the achievement of a movie star."
Born 26 July 1964, daughter of a US army contractor and a German born classical singer
Education High school in Arlington, Virginia; then a drama degree at East Carolina University, in Greenville, North Carolina
Career 1990 Lead role in TV sitcom based on Working Girl. Cancelled after eight episodes.
1993 Gains attention after playing future-world cop Lenina Huxley in Demolition Man
1994 Supporting role in action thriller Speed alongside Keanu Reeves; film is a big commercial hit
1995 First lead role, in rom-com While You Were Sleeping. Golden Globe nomination
1998 Produces first feature, the romance Hope Floats
2000 Stars in Miss Congeniality, a big hit and another Golden Globe nomination
2005 Paid $17.5m for Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous
2009 Wins best actress Oscar for The Blind Side (and Razzie for worst actress for All About Steve).
2010 Separates from husband, car customiser Jesse James
2013 Appears in two blockbuster movies in the same year: The Heat and Gravity
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