Insiders are betting Madonna and Courtney Love can parlay "Evita" and "The People v. Larry Flynt" into career gold

Okay, so now what? After months of hype, bile-spewing rivals Madonna and Courtney Love have finally faced off at the multiplex with the wide releases of Evita and The People vs. Larry Flynt. And the verdict is…a draw. While the critics were smitten with Love, Madonna was the big mama at the box office, and both have whipped up Oscar frenzy with their Golden Globe nods. But more important than their triumphs is how the duo will now be regarded by their Hollywood peers.

For Madonna, playing Eva Peron in the $55 million musical was her last chance to snap out of a decade-long silver-screen nightmare (Shanghai Surprise, Who’s That Girl?, Body of Evidence). Evita‘s numbers ($11.2 million to date) mean the new mom can shed her label as box office poison — the film may have landed at No. 2 behind The Relic, but the sci-fi flick opened on almost three times as many screens. ”There was a tremendous negativity about what Madonna represents,” says Evita‘s producer Andrew Vajna. ”But now studios will not be afraid to work with her.”

Love’s transformation from out-of-control kinderwhore-clad rock provocateur into the next Meryl Streep is even more of a shocker. Before playing Larry Flynt’s strung-out stripper wife Althea Leasure, Love was best known as the unpredictable, combative widow of Kurt Cobain, popping up in two little-seen movie cameos last year (in Basquiat and Feeling Minnesota). But now the newly made over Vogue glamour girl is getting the last laugh. ”I definitely used to think Courtney Love was gross,” says casting director Billy Hopkins (The Rock), ”but now I have respect for her — not that I’d cast her as Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady.” Adds Ransom producer Brian Grazer, ”After I saw the movie, I told my partner, Ron Howard, ‘We should chase after her and work with her.”’

Grazer and Howard may have to take a number. ”Madonna and Courtney are both rags-to-riches stories,” says Oliver Stone, who had a hand in both Evita (as cowriter) and Larry Flynt (as a producer). ”Hollywood craves A Star Is Born-type stories and right now both of them provide that. They have more choices and more power now.” Whatever they choose to do, many in the biz agree they should mix things up a little. ”I’d love to see Courtney play something really different now,” says casting director Janet Hirshenson (Ghosts of Mississippi), ”like a lawyer.” Hopkins agrees. ”The last thing she should do is play the same role again.”

Which brings us to the big question: What will these two do for an encore? A spokeswoman for Madonna says that while she’s ”taking a few months off to be a mother,” she has been fielding offers. In addition to possibly producing a film of Jennifer Belle’s 1996 novel Going Down (about a drama student who moonlights as a call girl), to which she owns the rights, Madonna is being courted by Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein to star in a movie version of the Broadway musical Chicago. ”I wanted her to do it before I saw Evita,” says Weinstein, who envisions a Madonna-Goldie Hawn pairing (Rosie O’Donnell is also reportedly in line for a role in the production). ”Goldie likes Madonna. Madonna likes Goldie. Hopefully, both of them will like me and do this movie.”

Love, meanwhile, insists that she’s not going to sell out by giving up her day job. According to her label, Geffen, the Hole frontwoman has already started writing songs for the band’s next album (reportedly titled Celebrity Skin) and is in search of a producer (U2’s Brian Eno is the latest name being floated).

Of course, nothing’s in stone for either of the unlikely new matinee queens yet, but you can be sure of what they’ll be doing on Feb. 11—waking up at the crack of dawn to watch the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees.