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MAKE HER DAY

HOLLYWOOD'S LEADINGEST LADIES ARE GETTING IN ON THE ACTION GENRE

A quick Hollywood quiz: Meryl Streep’s next role will be: (a) a heartbroken New York book editor, (b) an angst-ridden Swedish aristocrat, (c) a gun-toting mom on the trail of psychopaths who menace her family during a rafting trip. The answer is (c). Streep will go nut-hunting in River Wild, and she isn’t the only female Oscar winner getting a piece of the action. With adventure flicks holding steady as the No. 1 movie genre here and abroad, some of Hollywood’s most in-demand actresses are muscling in on the territory staked out by the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their trend-setting projects include: *Trackdown, starring Jodie Foster as an American engineer who must save her son-and the new English Channel train tunnel-from terrorists. *Anne Bonny, a $65 million swashbuckler directed by Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Total Recall) and featuring Geena Davis as real-life 18th-century pirate Anne Bonny, based on the book Mistress of the Seas. *Four shoot-‘em-up Westerns focusing on women. Sharon Stone will portray a gunslinger in The Quick and the Dead, directed by Sam Raimi (Darkman). In The Ballad of Little Jo, Suzy Amis (Rich in Love) disguises herself as a man to survive on the frontier. Bad Girls, from director Tamra Davis (CB4), focuses on five prostitutes (including Drew Barrymore, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Madeleine Stowe) on the trail of bank robbers. And Outlaws-a story about a cowgirl gang, directed by John Duigan (Wide Sargasso Sea)-is rustling up interest from Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern. True, female action heroes are nothing new: Sigourney Weaver faced off against the mother of all evil species in the Alien series, and Linda Hamilton pumped biceps as well as bullets in Terminator 2. But ever since Thelma & Louise, the studios have realized that tough girls aren’t such a hard sell. ”Thelma & Louise took women out of the passenger seat and put them in the driver’s seat,” says the movie’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, Callie Khouri. Even the failure of Bridget Fonda’s Point of No Return, in which she played a CIA assassin, hasn’t diminished Hollywood’s interest in the girls-with-guns genre. The studios aren’t as concerned with striking a blow for feminism as they are in tapping into a potentially lucrative crossover market. ”They’re going for a broader audience,” says producer Denise Di Novi (Batman Returns), who is shepherding both Trackdown and Outlaws. ”They’re trying to get both men and women (into the theaters) instead of one or the other.” Adds Michael Nathanson, president of worldwide production at Columbia Pictures, ”Movies with women in heroic, active roles won’t necessarily take the place of male action movies. They’ll simply add to the mix.” So what’s in it for a respected Academy Award winner like Streep? A higher profile and a considerably bigger paycheck. If River Wild blows audiences away, she’ll move out of her estimated $3 million salary range and into the $5 million stratosphere usually reserved for your everyday action hunks. ”This could cause Meryl to be known to an entirely different class of people: people who see movies, rather than films,” says S.C. Dacy, an independent producer who specializes in martial-arts films. While some are troubled that actresses are resorting to violent films to , increase their box office appeal, others say that’s just the nature of the business. ”Action movies pull in the big bucks,” says Khouri. ”That’s one of the justifications for the incredibly high salaries going to men.” Still, there are obstacles. River Wild director Curtis Hanson (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) admits he’s having trouble finding an A-list actor to play opposite Streep. ”Many top actors are used to being in movies where everything revolves around them,” says Hanson. ”It’s a sexist situation.” And when push comes to shove, it seems that Hollywood stands by its men. As soon as Steven Seagal expressed interest in Warner Bros.’ Dead Reckoning, a film about a woman lawyer who gets caught up in a Washington conspiracy, the studio abandoned all thought of snagging Foster or Michelle Pfeiffer for the part and agreed to rewrite the script-with Seagal as its star.