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Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan in ''The Women''

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Remember 1993, when Oscar failed dismally in its salute to women in film? Well, Hollywood’s trying again. Only this time, with movies like The Scarlet Letter and Little Women in the works, 1994 is shaping up to be the year that movie women really come into their own. Witness box office sirens Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan, who are working on the mother lode: a remake of the 1939 George Cukor classic, The Women—a movie without a single man.

As anyone who has seen Cukor’s Women knows, there are plenty of great gossip-mongering, man-stealing, catty roles to spread around. (No, the film didn’t depict women in the most politically correct fashion, and the new version will sling plenty of spite as well.) Early word is that Whitney Houston and Holly Hunter would like to sink their teeth into some of those roles-like Joan Crawford‘s Crystal, the perfume-counter vamp who lures away the hubby of Norma Shearer‘s sweet hausfrau, Mary. Or maybe Rosalind Russell‘s deliciously snippy divorcee, Sylvia Fowler. The only thing to expect is the unexpected: ”Meg would probably love to play the bitch-goddess character,” says Ryan’s partner in Fandango Films, Kathryn Galan, who, as producer, is largely responsible for spearheading the film, which will be released by New Line.

This star-powered sister act first got under way when Disney tried to pursue the classic for Roberts and producer Joe Roth. But the Mouse couldn’t muscle away the rights, particularly video and cable, from information emperor Ted Turner, who owns both the MGM library and New Line and had already been in talks with Ryan and Galan. What really got things moving, appropriately, was a handshake between Roberts and Ryan. Explains Galan: ”Meg has always loved this film. Then we heard that Julia wanted to do the picture as well. Julia and Meg know each other. They have a very nice professional friendship. They’ve even traded roles in the past.” (Roberts got the part originally pegged for Ryan in Steel Magnolias; Ryan got the lead first considered by Roberts in Sleepless in Seattle.)

Some in Hollywood are skeptical that such a high-profile project, with so many egos involved, will ever get off the ground. But the stars sound committed. In early March, Roberts, Ryan, and their agents brainstormed over brunch at Vix, a Greenwich Village cafe. ”It was hysterical. The heads really turned when people saw those two sitting there,” says Galan. ”Lunch was a blast-with everybody throwing in ideas of how to update and tweak the plot.”

Back in 1939, Anita Loos and Jane Murfin adapted Clare Booth Luce’s prickly Broadway smash for the screen. The result was a script that included such spirited zingers as Crystal’s parting shot: ”There’s a name for you ladies, but it’s not used in high society outside of kennels.” This time, insiders say, Nora Ephron, who teamed with Ryan on Sleepless in Seattle, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) are on the shortlist to direct and write, respectively. New Line hopes to have the film in production by January.

While the stars could not be reached for comment, their reps issued a joint statement: ”We love that these women could slay with a word. Our goal is to make this new version as sharp for today’s audience as the original was in the ’30s. The theme of this film for us is not how women become emancipated, like so many movies today, but how we live with our emancipation.”

But the postfeminist remake will follow the original in one aspect, says Galan: ”No men.” The 1939 film, saucily billed as ”135 women with men on their minds,” had Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer boasting 135 speaking parts for women only. (Males-Leslie Nielsen, Jeff Richards, Jim Backus, and Harry James, to name a few-only tiptoed into the action later, in the 1956 musical version, The Opposite Sex.) Better still, the remake could be a bonanza for women, with Roberts reportedly getting $12 million and Ryan $8 million. So who says it’s still a man’s world?

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