Are actresses' paychecks getting bigger? -- Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, and Jodie Foster top $15 million salaries

Except for the number of zeros at the end, movie stars’ salaries are a lot like the rest of America’s. White men (like Cruise and Hanks) make the most — and then there’s everybody else. But last month, Julia Roberts struck a blow on behalf of womankind. She signed on to Paramount’s Runaway Bride, a romantic comedy that will reteam her with her Pretty Woman costar Richard Gere for a record-shattering $17 million up front. That puts her within striking distance of the whopping $20-25 million salaries commanded by Hollywood’s leading men.

Meanwhile, Meg Ryan, who received $10.5 million for the upcoming You’ve Got Mail, is now asking for — and will probably get — $15 million for her next role, the same fee that Jodie Foster is making for Fox 2000’s Anna and the King, a retelling of the King and I tale. Are the barriers finally being shattered?

As with most signs of great sociological import, nobody really knows. Foster, for one, doesn’t think the money matters. ”The difference between $15 million and $25 million, I mean, that seems to me not a very important thing in the grand scheme of things,” she says. ”Much more important is that there are virtually no female directors. That’s a place where you can really see some biases and prejudices.” One DreamWorks executive, a woman, thinks the actresses’ gains are just temporary: ”When women start getting $20 million, it’s when men start getting $30 million. That’s just the way it is.”

Still, the higher actress salaries do indicate a shift in the Hollywood power structure: It’s becoming clear that female stars can fill seats. Roberts’ My Best Friend’s Wedding grossed $127 million domestically, Foster’s Contact made an impressive $101 million, and Ryan’s charmer City of Angels grossed $79 million (though the presence of Nicolas Cage probably helped).

And the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Another factor, says Roberts’ agent, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, is the slow death of the studios’ boys’-club atmosphere. ”There are more women in powerful executive positions now,” says Goldsmith-Thomas, referring to Paramount’s Sherry Lansing, Sony’s Lucy Fisher, and Universal’s Stacey Snider. ”Stacey called me about My Best Friend’s Wedding the second she read it,” says Goldsmith-Thomas. ”And it turns out she was right. It appealed to a lot of people in America.”

But you’ve got to sell overseas to make the big per-picture bucks. That’s why international faves like Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Jim Carrey, and Arnold Schwarzenegger are in the high-end salary range — though it should be noted that the $228 million worldwide take of Schwarzenegger’s 1997 Batman &amp Robin was $66 million less than that of My Best Friend’s Wedding, released the same summer. The irony isn’t lost on Roberts. ”It’s kind of silly that there’s this gap,” says the Highest-Paid Movie Actress in History. ”I’ve seen enough bizarre responses to things that I think, Wow, people really are into this chick-stay-down-boy-come-up thing. But we’ll beat their asses — eventually.”

Additional reporting by Kristen Baldwin, Judith I. Brennan, and Andrew Essex