Profile: Sandra Bullock, Miss Congeniality forever

What price a broken heart? It's the kind of whimsical romantic question posed in Sandra Bullock's movies. Last week it was revealed that Bullock was 2009's highest earning Hollywood actress, netting a cool $56 million. It could be considered her karmic reward for the disastrous turn her personal life took as her career soared.

In the past year, the actress dubbed "America's sweetheart" scooped the Best Actress Oscar for The Blind Side, released the two biggest grossing movies of her career and endured public humiliation with revelations her husband Jesse James cheated on her with a string of women. Just when it seemed like it couldn't get more lurid, reports broke that James starred with one of his tattooed mistresses in a homemade Nazi-themed porn video.

The revelations marked the end of one of Hollywood's most unlikely marriages.

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Forty-one year-old Jesse James, who claims to be related to the American outlaw of the same name, owns a motorbike shop and became a D-list celebrity thanks to an American reality TV show. Love blossomed when Bullock took her godson in to the shop to meet him. James already had three children to two different women including porn star and former convict Janine Lindemulder. From the start Bullock's friends reportedly loathed and distrusted the man whom she went on to marry in a 2005 ceremony. The bride wore antique lace. The groom arrived on the back of a monster truck. There were life-sized ice sculptures of a swan and a Chopper motorbike at the reception.

Bullock, whose big break came in 1994's Speed has borne the personal tsunami of her marriage break-up with dignity and unexpected steeliness. As the media went into overdrive Bullock lawyered up, refused to take James' calls and holed up in her Texas home. When she resurfaced in April it was as the proud and glowing mother of a baby boy, Louis, who she adopted from New Orleans. When, in one of her first post break-up public appearances, she collected the Generation Award at the MTV Movie Awards she received a standing ovation and assured fans that she was "not going anywhere."

The daughter of German opera singer Helga and American voice coach John, Bullock was born on 26 July 1964 in Arlington, Virginia, and has a younger sister, Gesine. Bullock's maternal grandfather was a rocket scientist and the family lived for a time in Germany when the girls were young. Back in the US, the Bullock family spent much of their time on the road and young Sandra would often sing in the chorus of whatever show her mother was appearing in. The death of her beloved mother in 2000 hit Bullock hard. When she received her Oscar the actress paid tearful tribute to her mother's influence and unstinting support. Bullock attended Washington Lee High School in Arlington, where classmates voted her "Most Likely To Brighten Up Your Day". Appropriately the wholesome all-American girl was a cheerleader who dated a footballer.After high school, Bullock studied acting at East Carolina University. She then moved to New York where she pursued a career on the stage. She began picking up film and TV roles, starring in Demolition Man, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway and The Thing Called Love. She went on to star in Miss Congeniality,While You Were Sleeping and Crash.

Enormously popular with her co-stars, Bullock has a reputation for being good humoured and relaxed on set. "She's humble. She's real. It's easy to lose yourself in this business, but Sandy hasn't gotten swept up in any of it," said Anne Fletcher, director of The Proposal. Before meeting James, her famous former boyfriends included Ryan Gosling, 17 years her junior, and Matthew McConaughey.

Shunning the limelight of life in LA, the actress splits her time between her homes in Austin, Texas and New Orleans. She has said in interviews that she finds celebrity "meaningless and empty". "It holds nothing for me, although it will hold a great table in a restaurant when you're at your peak. If you don't have other real things in your life that you love just as much then you will drown in it."

Luckily Bullock has plenty of real things to distract her. She owns a burger bar, a bistro, a bakery-cum-florists and her own production company. In recent years, she has produced her own films. She makes generous donations to charity and takes in disabled stray dogs from local animal shelters. So important are her pet dogs to her that the star designed special seat-belts for her dogs to wear when travelling with her in the car. When she took a break from acting a few years back because she felt disappointed at the roles she was being offered she immersed herself in restoring dilapidated buildings of architectural significance. Her current project is a school destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

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Despite her box office appeal, Bullock has failed to convince the critics that she is a real Hollywood heavyweight. Reviewers have given lukewarm receptions to many of her films. Speaking last year, critic Mark Kermode said she's made only three good films in her career - Speed, While You Were Sleeping, and Crash. He said, "She's funny, she's gorgeous, it's impossible not to love her and yet she makes rotten film after rotten film after rotten film." In 2009 she became the first ever star to pick up a Best Actress Award (for The Blind Side) and the Razzie for Worst Actress (for All About Steve) in the same year.

She gamely went along to both ceremonies. At the Razzies, she displayed her impeccable comic timing with a good humoured speech and handed out copies of All About Steve to every member of the audience, demanding that they watched it.

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So how does Bullock move on from a year which has combined personal disaster and professional glory? "Bullock finds herself more popular than ever, 15 years after she shot to stardom in Speed, " said Terence Doyle, editor of Film Magazine."It's a remarkable achievement."

Ironically, the break-up of her marriage could provide the impetus for a dramatic shake-up of her career. "I'm one of those people who are very good at being alone," she has said. "Whether I was in a wonderful relationship or not, my priority was my work, my art, what I wanted to carve out for myself. When I wasn't responsible for anyone else but me I had a wonderful, wonderful time."