Cover Story

Mothering Heights

Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon go head-to-head -- The two actresses star in the holiday film ''Stepmom''

Let's begin with the gossip.

''If you make a movie with a male star,'' says Susan Sarandon, ''everyone assumes you're f---ing. If it's a female star, everyone assumes you're fighting.''

The female star under discussion is Julia Roberts, Sarandon's costar in Stepmom. The film unites two of the preeminent actresses of the '90s in a duct-emptying drama about a divorced mother of two (Sarandon) whose life-threatenng illness forces her to accept her ex-husband's fiancée (Roberts). Now the movie is finished and, despite the aforementioned assumption, Sarandon and Roberts still say they like each other very much, thank you.

But gossip is a powerful thing, and on Christmas Day, when Sony rolls Stepmom into megaplexes across America, Sarandon and Roberts are (mildly) concerned that their collaborative debut will be undermined by that aforementioned rumor.

Sarandon, 52, mother of three, Academy Award-winning actress, is resigned to ''the knee-jerk thing.'' Gossip is no skin off her hot cocoa (her throat still hurts from shouting ''Surprise!!!'' during her costar's birthday party last month). But Roberts, freshly 31, single, an Academy Award nominee with her own production company, is a little more animated about this stuff.

''There's got to be something new,'' she says, with the Julia Roberts flair for speaking in italics and exclamation points. ''It can still be a total lie, because — you know — nobody wants the truth. I understand that. I've accepted it. But a better lie? Please?! This is such a yawn.''

Then Roberts leans back, puts her arms around her knees, and proceeds to spin a better lie: ''Actually, Susan and I were kinda hoping that people would say we were f---ing. Now that's delicious cocktail-party fodder. But this? Boring.''

Let's move on.

The Four Seasons in midtown Manhattan is usually a temple of power-lunch testosterone, but one afternoon in early 1996, the action was at a table filled with women. Huddled together were Sarandon, Roberts, their respective agents Martha Luttrell and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, and Wendy Finerman, a producer of Forrest Gump. Finerman had long known that Roberts and Sarandon wanted to work together. She thought she had the script. She did, and she didn't. Finerman was pushing a screenplay by Gigi Levangie, a writer whose greatest professional achievement was an episode for TV's In the Heat of the Night (and who also happens to be the wife of Brian Grazer, cochief of Imagine Entertainment). Levangie's Stepmom featured something rare in Hollywood: two juicy female leads. The actresses were intrigued. Still, no one was uncorking champagne.

''The script,'' recalls Sarandon, ''had a lot of potential. But...it wasn't very realistic.'' Roberts found it ''flawed.'' (''I don't know what they're talking about,'' responds Levangie. ''I am a stepmom. I wrote this from personal experience.'') Nevertheless, there was enough there there to give Stepmom a shot. Three new writers were hired. Then Ron Bass, My Best Friend's Wedding screenwriter and Oscar-winning coauthor of Rain Man, was summoned. (''I was thrilled,'' claims Levangie, who scored story and screenplay credit. ''Having Ron Bass means your movie gets made.'') Revisions continued. And Roberts, an executive producer on the film, quickly learned why Hollywood executives invariably look more harried than the talent.

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