April 24, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Every fraternity should have a sister sorority — and the Frat Pack’s no exception. Just as a new generation of leading men has emerged, so has a new breed of leading women, and when it comes to smarts, self-possession, and business savvy, the sweethearts of Sigma Chi can’t compete with the Chick Clique. From role models (Claire Danes, 19) to sexpots (Gia‘s Angelina Jolie, 22), from Oscar winners (Mira Sorvino, 30) to the neo-Jamie Lee Curtises (Neve Campbell, 24, Sarah Michelle Gellar, 20, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, 19), there are almost as many talented actresses in Hollywood as there are guys wishing they could get Lost in Space with Heather Graham, 28.

Mind you, this group doesn’t replace box office amazons like Julia Roberts, 30, and mom-to-be Jodie Foster, 35. But when those grandes dames turn down a role today, it’s likely to be offered to golden girl Gwyneth Paltrow, 24 — now one of the most photographed women in the world, thanks to famous ex-paramour Brad Pitt and current squeeze Ben Affleck. Or, if you don’t want Paltrow, there’s Charlize Theron, 22 (who supposedly was first offered Paltrow’s part in the remake of Dial M for Murder). The shortlist might also include Jada Pinkett Smith, 26, Drew Barrymore, 23, Cameron Diaz, 25, Jennifer Lopez, 27, or Salma Hayek, 31.

True, things haven’t changed overnight — women still must contend with Hollywood’s action jones. ”Young women characters are usually a piece of the movie, but they don’t carry a movie,” says producer Denise DiNovi (Little Women, Edward Scissorhands). But if Hollywood ever switches its preference from sonic-shattering action pics to heart-tugging dramas, guess who stands to gain the most?

Tea Leoni, who’s up to her trademark pearls in scripts now that The Naked Truth has been canceled, already notices a change. ”It’s not so much that we’re not seeing girlfriends and wives and mothers,” says Leoni, 32, who costars with Robert Duvall in next month’s Deep Impact. ”And we don’t want to eradicate that, because that’s who we are. It just seems that those roles are being handled with much more attention to character development. To play a woman’s role, it was like being a hired gun. Now there’s much more of a willingness to develop the character and give them depth and color.”

Ironically, two pioneering members of the Chick Clique may end up getting squeezed out by the burgeoning sisterhood. Both Winona Ryder, 26, and Sandra Bullock, 33, have made serious box office missteps (Alien Resurrection and Speed 2, respectively) at the same time the new wave has rolled in — although being cast opposite Affleck in Forces of Nature could improve Bullock’s fortunes. As for Ryder, who’s been gravitating toward heavier fare like The Crucible, one exec advises, she ”needs to do a commercial picture really fast.”

Of course, both actresses have already proven their big-screen potential and should be able to survive any temporary hazing the industry can throw at them. And every actress mentioned in this story could heed the advice of casting agent Bonnie Timmermann (Quiz Show): ”Everything changes, but you have to be good to stay on top. It’s a club that’s free, but the dues are high.”

You May Like