Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan. Fifteen years ago, no two actresses in Hollywood had greater pull. They were bankable powerhouses capable of generating $100 million-plus at the box office. They collected paychecks upwards of $8 million per role, among the highest in town. And in 1994 they decided to test their strength as a duo, signing on to co-produce and costar in New Line's remake of The Women, the classic all-gal comedy about betrayed wives and backstabbing friends, directed in 1939 by George Cukor. Diane English, the Emmy-winning creator of CBS' Murphy Brown, would update the script. James L. Brooks, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker, would direct. It was a mid-'90s dream team of talent that also included Blythe Danner, Candice Bergen, and Marisa Tomei, whose career was on the rise following her 1993 Oscar win for My Cousin Vinny. When they all piled into a conference room on the Sony Pictures lot one day in 1996 for the first table reading, the result was ''amazing,'' says Ryan. ''To be funny in a read-through is really hard, and those women were great.'' Adds English: ''There was a point where Julia squeezed my knee under the table because she was getting laughs big laughs. You could see she was having a blast.'' By the time they reached the last page of the script, everyone was pumped up, sensing they had a potential hit on their hands. According to English, the overall feeling was, ''Let's go! Full steam ahead!''
Unfortunately, the ship hit the rocks, and The Women fell apart. The agonizing experience that followed stretched over more than a decade, and involved innumerable script revisions and what seemed like the entire female membership of SAG. Only English remained fully committed the entire time, determined to prove that a movie with an all-woman cast wouldn't be roadkill at the box office. ''I got plenty discouraged,'' says English. ''People would say, 'Just let go. It'll never get made.' When I heard the words can't be done, it became a mission. I think that's what it takes for some of these films, just one idiot who sticks with it for the whole duration, refusing to back down.''
Now, all these years later, she's about to find out if her doggedness has paid off. On Sept. 12, Picturehouse will release The Women, a $16 million indie that English wrote, directed, and co-produced. True to Cukor's original, it boasts not a single man on screen. Ryan stars as Mary, a rich housewife forced to snap out of her pampered haze when she discovers her husband is having an affair with a younger woman (Eva Mendes). Annette Bening plays Mary's best friend, Sylvie, an uptight, high-powered magazine editor. Bergen appears as Mary's face-lift-happy mother, while Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Bette Midler pop up as various supporting characters. No question, it's a talented cast, but it skews significantly older than the group that assembled in 1996. (At that first table reading, Roberts was 28, and Ryan, 34.) The mature cast won't help attract the much-coveted Facebook generation. Yet English is hoping that her movie will bring in the same folks who recently made cash registers ring for Mamma Mia! and Sex and the City. ''I keep telling women, 'You can't complain that there's nothing to see! When a movie comes out that's for you, you've got to go vote with your wallet.'''
NEXT PAGE: ''I would go from studio to studio with my list of female ensemble movies that have made a ton of money, like 9 to 5, First Wives Club, and Steel Magnolias,'' English says. ''And always the response was, 'Well, that was a fluke'.''