August 21, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

STARRING Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts, Ed Harris, Jena Malone, Liam Aiken

DIRECTED BY Chris Columbus

Roberts and Sarandon! Two of Hollywood’s best actresses and even better friends! Together on screen! The idea sounded pretty great, especially to the two longtime pals, who signed on to Gigi Levangie’s tearjerker of a story, about a divorced family’s torn loyalties, two years ago. Not only would they get to work together, they also relished the idea of playing jealous, hostile rivals. The script cast Sarandon as the abandoned wife who hates the new girlfriend (Roberts) of her former husband (Harris). And not only is her replacement considerably younger, she seems to stink at taking care of the ex-couple’s kids. ”We liked the idea of having this problematic, antagonistic relationship with each other,” says Roberts.

But laborious rewrites kept the pair’s dream at bay. Roberts didn’t like the way her character was portrayed. ”She was a comedically bad mother in a way I didn’t find plausible,” she says. ”She was feeding them strange things for breakfast and I thought, I wouldn’t do that.” Eventually, Ron Bass contributed a script polish. Then Roberts and Sarandon, also coexec producers, spent a while trying to find the right director before agreeing on Columbus. ”Julia and Susan were slightly skeptical,” he explains. ”People remember me for throwing bricks on people’s heads in Home Alone.”

Columbus also reworked the story, trying to inject humor while also raising the dramatic stakes. His own mother had succumbed to cancer just a year earlier, and he drew on that experience to rewrite the ending. In the final version, Sarandon’s character is diagnosed with cancer and forced to befriend her adversary. ”I had lived through it,” says the director. ”I wanted it to be real.” Incidentally, TriStar has decided not to advertise this plot development in Stepmom‘s trailers: ”It’s a hard sell if you say she’s dying,” confides Malone, who plays one of the children.

Did Sarandon and Roberts enjoy going at each other’s throats as much as they thought they would? ”It was probably more fun for her to be the aggressor,” groans Roberts. ”She’d give me a severe tongue-lashing and I’d be like, ‘Okay, a little less of a brilliant performance on that one, Miss Sarandon.”’ (Dec. 25)

THE LOWDOWN Note to TriStar: Study the marketing strategies of Steel Magnolias and Terms of Endearment. We know she gets sick. Work with it.

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