Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts try to remake the 1939 classic

Sisterhood, as they say, is powerful. Just a few months ago The Women — the all-female dream project pairing Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan in a remake of George Cukor’s snippy 1939 classic — was looking like more of a dream than a project. Hollywood cognoscenti had heard nary a peep about the new script. And the stars’ schedules, it seemed, would never untangle long enough for the film to happen: While Roberts was completing Michael Collins, Ryan was jetting off to the set of Courage Under Fire.

Then, in March, a bevy of the most formidable females in the movie business, including Ryan, Roberts, Candice Bergen, Jami Gertz, Blythe Danner, and Marisa Tomei, banded together on the Sony Studios lot and regaled 15 guests with a reading of…that very script. As penned by Murphy Brown creator Diane English, the draft’s wicked symphony of zingers, whispers, and catfights tickled the crowd, and suddenly The Women became high priority. ”It was hilarious. They could have sold tickets to it,” gushes one producer who was among the select few to hear it.

Until now, observers have wondered how Clare Boothe Luce’s story — a similarly acid-tinged hurricane of one-liners — would translate to the post-feminist era. While Luce’s estrogen brigade wooed and battled an unseen army of philandering men, English says her update will focus on ”the rivalries and friendships” between the women.

But who will play those rivals and friends? At the reading in March, Ryan slipped into the Norma Shearer role of Mary Haines, the happy hausfrau whose suburban bliss comes apart at the seams. Meanwhile Roberts, having already done the suffering-wife bit in Something to Talk About, snatched the punchline-rich part that made a star of Rosalind Russell in 1939 — Sylvia Fowler, now a Machiavellian magazine editor — and reportedly brought the house down. ”It was a fearless reading,” says English. ”She really scored.”

Based on that recitation, English is tweaking the script with an eye toward enriching the roles, especially Ryan’s. ”Meg’s got great comedy chops. Now that I’ve got Meg’s voice in my head, it’s opened up all sorts of possibilities.”

As for the rest of the roles, news of The Women has arrived like water in the Sahara for actresses weary of playing the love interest. Judging from the deluge of agent submissions, says New Line’s executive VP of production, Richard Saperstein, ”we could have cast this thing 20 times over.” At the reading, Tomei landed the plum role of gold digger Crystal Allen, a tour de force for Joan Crawford in the original. Uma Thurman, Nicole Kidman, and Tea Leoni look like contenders too, while sources say the role of Mary Haines’ mother could entice anyone from Mary Tyler Moore to Jane Fonda, who hasn’t made a film since 1990’s Stanley & Iris.

All of which doesn’t mean The Women is a done deal. The knotty schedules of Roberts and Ryan have yet to unravel. Ryan is locked into Griffin Dunne’s Addicted to Love, while Roberts may shoot Stepmom with Susan Sarandon after wrapping My Best Friend’s Wedding. As for the director, a man — Terms of Endearment‘s James L. Brooks — seems like the front-runner, but he shoots another film in September. Perhaps optimistically, Saperstein expects the $40 million project to go before the cameras by the end of the year.

Until then, English won’t be the only one cooking up juicy scenes of gossip mongering. So will the agents.

The Women
  • Movie
  • 114 minutes