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Switchitters

Madonna, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Carrey, and others are changing their role choices to revive their careers

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Talk about a good career move. When Madonna became a mother in October, she pulled off the most miraculous public image makeover since the original Madonna gave birth to her first child. Never mind that her musical clout has been waning for years and that her movies have almost all been flops. Trading her Gaultier bullet bra for a Prada suit and repackaging herself as the model of modern maternity — ”the Material Mom,” the tabloids dubbed her — was a stroke of marketing genius. Suddenly, her future is brimming with brilliant possibilities. Pass the Cohibas.

Now, as it happens, Madonna isn’t the only star in the middle of a public image transformation. They may not be having babies, but big names like Sylvester Stallone, Julia Roberts, Sharon Stone, Jim Carrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Alec Baldwin are undergoing renovations as well. As they’ve watched their box office grip start to slip, they can see themselves dangling perilously from the edge of the A list, like that doomed hiker in Cliffhanger (you remember Stallone’s last big hit — way back in 1993). Each is suffering from a unique career crisis. And each, it seems, has devised a unique plan to avert a career meltdown. They do have one thing in common, though: They’re savvy enough to know the first rule of show business survival — if it’s broke, fix it.

Not that they’ve asked, but we’ve decided to help. We’ve analyzed our stars’ strategies for staying on top and predicted their chances for success. But don’t just take our word for it: We have also assembled a rota of entertainment gurus — an agent, a manager, a producer, a director, a studio executive, and an actress — and asked them for their expert opinions. Every one of our panelists is a respected, world-class professional. You’d recognize their names, but because we wanted them to speak freely, we’ve agreed to keep their identities secret. Here’s their take — and ours — on this latest celebrity identity crisis.

JULIA ROBERTS
THE PROBLEM She’s trapped. Audiences seem to want to see her only in boilerplate thrillers (like The Pelican Brief) or light, sunshiny romantic comedies (like Pretty Woman). Plus, she may be rich (asking price: $12 million), but her choices have been poor. While Something to Talk About was a winner, both I Love Trouble and Mary Reilly were box office losers.
HER SOLUTION She’s been showing up in classier projects with classier costars, even if it means taking smaller roles with smaller salaries. She barely has a speaking part in Michael Collins, but at least she’s received kind reviews. A smallish part in Woody Allen’s new musical, Everyone Says I Love You (yes, she sings), opening nationally in January, should help her rack up coolness points as well. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, due next year, she’ll return to glossy romantic comedy. And teaming up with Mel Gibson for a thriller called The Conspiracy Theory, which started filming last month, certainly won’t hurt.
THE EXPERTS SPEAK The director thinks her plan is right on target. ”She’s very smart to get out of the biggest-box-office-female thing,” he says. ”I think that’s a horrible, horrible, horrible road… and working with Woody gives you a certain cachet.” The others, though, think she’d be better off concentrating on light romantic comedies. ”At least she should do the Meg Ryan thing, doing one for the audience and one where you try to act,” suggests the manager. The agent agrees: ”She’s trying to make herself a more important actress than she is. She’s talented, but it’s based on a personality, as opposed to an actor who’s a chameleon. I don’t think she has that ability.”