Bullock Gravity

As Sandra Bullock embarks on her spellbinding one-woman space odyssey in Alfonso Cuaron's stunning 3-D thriller Gravity at theaters this weekend, let us consider her extraordinary trajectory right here on Earth.

How did this romcom queen become an Oscar-worthy actress while on the cusp of 50 -- a time when opportunities in Hollywood tend to shrivel up for females who aren't Meryl Streep -- while starring in one of the most physically demanding roles in her career? 

"Sandra is willing to take risks," say Jeanine Basinger, a noted movie historian and head of film studies at Wesleyan University. "She is willing to take an unusual part and play smaller roles or do something offbeat. Nobody expected her to be an Oscar nominee much less a winner. She has very good judgment about what she can and cannot do. "

Bullock herself still seems surprised that she won an Academy Award as the fierce football mom in 2009's The Blind Side nearly 20 years after her breakout role as the bus-driving heroine in in the action blockbuster SpeedSpeaking from the stage after Gravity premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, the actress said of earning a trophy, "I think most people have an out-of-body experience when they win an Oscar. I haven't gotten my moment with it yet. Maybe one day it will come."

Bullock better start getting used to such golden opportunities. Oscar nomination No. 2 is likely to be right around the corner, considering the glowing early reactions to her Gravity performance as a brilliant medical engineer and novice space traveler who is left stranded when hurtling debris destroys her shuttle.

George Clooney makes an invaluable though brief appearance as a veteran astronautical buckaroo who looks for all the world like Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear as he jet-propels himself across the great beyond. But much like plane-crash survivor Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Bullock's struggle to keep her wits about her, salvage her draining oxygen supply and survive is practically the whole show in Gravity. An edge-of-your-seat, emotionally draining yet ultimately uplifting show.

Talent, of course, is key to collecting such honors. But the film industry likes to reward its box-office champs as well. It doesn't hurt Bullock's trophy chances that The Heat, which paired her with super hot funny lady Melissa McCarthy as competing cops, is the top-grossing comedy of the year so far with nearly $160 million.

The situation mirrors what happened four years ago, when Bullock scored two of her biggest moneymakers while showing off her versatility in different genres. Besides her mighty matriarch in a family drama with The Blind Side ($255 million), the actress showed off her still-considerable romantic-comedy chops as an uptight boss who forces underling Ryan Reynolds to pretend to be her fiance in The Proposal ($164 million).

A newly adopted son and a divorce caused this A-lister -- who admirably manages to keep most of her off-screen life private -- from doing more than a smallish but satisfying role as a 9/11 widow in 2011's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close after she took home her statuette.

"She laid back and got herself together," Basinger says. "She doesn't let her desire for work and fame drive her to do things that are bad for her."

That Bullock now is back with such a bang is a testament to her endurance as a star at any age. Luck alone couldn't have launched her to a new level of success at middle age. True, her combo of box-office clout, skill and sheer likability is hard to beat.

But even as the younger Bullock picked as many misses (Two if by Sea, Gun Shy) as hits (A Time to Kill, Miss Congeniality), she possessed a keen sense of what the audience wanted from her - and how to fulfill their expectations without repeating herself.

"She has always had an independent edge to her," says Basinger." She made romantic comedies but her characters didn't define themselves through romance. She also did thrillers like The Net and Speed. A woman on the run trying to figure things out. At times, she was more like an action figure. That, in addition to taking control of her own career by producing and finding her own projects, gave her an option to keep going."

Compare Bullock's current status to that of her former rival for the title of America's Sweetheart - Meg Ryan, 51. They initially followed a comparable path to stardom, beginning with being a standout gal in a guy-heavy action flick (Ryan in 1986's Top Gun and Bullock in 1994's Demolition Man). They each honed their lovable personas in popular comedies (Ryan found her defining role in 1989's When Harry Met Sally … and Bullock honed her big-sis image in 1995's While You Were Sleeping) and eventually took on new challenges.

It was the transition from sweetheart to serious performer that proved the trickiest, at least for Ryan.  She went dramatic as an alcoholic whose recovery upends her marriage in 1994's When a Man Loves a Woman (Bullock went a similar route in 2000's 28 Days) and as an Army captain whose heroism is questioned in 1996's Courage Under Fire.

Both films did OK, although not as well as her return to romantic comedies in You've Got Mail in 1998 and Kate and Leopold in 2001. However, it was Ryan's choice to totally upend her image in 2003 with the sexually graphic crime thriller In the Cut -- as well as apparently altering her girlish looks – that left many of her fans in the lurch. After several small-budget flops, she hasn't done a film since 2009's Serious Moonlight, which made all of $25,339 at the box office. 

"Some people are bought by audiences in a way that allows for a longer shelf life," says Basinger. "It's not that Meg Ryan couldn't do something else or try. Actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis kept going by adjusting their established personas all the time. It's just that people just didn't want Ryan THAT way. You have to remodel yourself to keep going, but according to how you are already defined." 

When it was Bullock's turn to stretch, she did so in 2005's Crash, an ensemble piece in a distinctly disagreeable role as a woman of privilege who shows her ugly racist side after she is carjacked. The actress dared to test the sympathies of her following - but then used those feelings to enrich their reaction to her character. That the film would go on to win a best-picture Oscar did not hurt her standing, either.

She also earned praise for her supporting part as To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee in 2006's Infamous, the Truman Capote biopic starring Toby Jones. Unfortunately, the biopic was overshadowed by the previous year's Capote starring Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. But, again, her choice landed in the plus column for her.

And Bullock knows when to laugh at herself, as demonstrated by her showing up to personally accept a Razzie award as worst actress for her utterly misguided 2009 comedy All About Steve

That she continues to pull off slapstick stunts with aplomb in The Heat offers assurance that she isn't straying too far afield just yet. Although Gravity's venue is definitely new, the actress is still relying on the same strengths that have always caused moviegoers root for her in any genre.

"Sandra has two invaluable characteristics," Basinger notes. "A real strain of American female toughness and a real strain of American female vulnerability. The audience sees her as one of us. She does feel like a real person. It is tough enough to be believable as an astronaut, but equally difficult to make people care."

One can't imagine some of the original casting choices for Gravity  – Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman topped the list -- coming close to bringing the necessary humanity needed to keep us engaged as a solo act for most of the film's 90-minute running time. 

Besides a wicked sense of humor and a lack of pretense, what Bullock possesses that those 30-somethings lack is a feeling of being grounded.

In other words, gravity.