On a sunny, cool day late last month in post-quake Los Angeles, Meryl Streep, 44, Glenn Close, 46, and Winona Ryder, 22, gathered in armchairs around a roaring fire in a suite at the Hotel Bel-Air. The three star together in Bille August's harrowing and majestic The House of the Spirits, which opens April 1, but their conversation proved to be a funny, fractious, and frank summit on life in Hollywood.
First to arrive were Streep, wearing a gray pantsuit, brown shoes, and nothing but a gold wedding band on unmanicured hands, and Ryder, dressed in old overalls and scuffed combat boots. Ryder excitedly told Streep about her next project, a film adaptation of Little Women to be directed by Gillian Armstrong, Ryder's first female director. ''You can't get away with as much,'' she said, giggling. ''Like you can't say, 'Oh, I'm tired' or 'I have my period.' It's not as easy.''
When Close arrived a few minutes later, all three actresses instantly assumed roles. Streep -- who by sheer strength of personality could probably command the U.S. armed forces in addition to tending to her acting career, her husband, and her four children -- ordered room service for everyone (tea, soup, and a basket of breads with butter in the shape of swans) and rearranged the furniture so Close could sit by the fire. Close, dressed in black, with a scarf protecting her throat for that night's performance at the Shubert Theatre of Sunset Boulevard, let Streep minister to her. Ryder was sweet and respectful but held her own with her costars. Since working together on The House of the Spirits, an adaptation of Isabel Allende's 1985 novel, also starring Jeremy Irons, Vanessa Redgrave, and Streep's daughter Mamie, 10 (playing her mother's character as a child), all three actresses have moved on to other projects: Streep takes on her first action role in this summer's The River Wild, Close plays a tabloid editor in the spring comedy The Paper, and Ryder stars in this month's Generation X comedy Reality Bites. The three remained warm and friendly -- but this was no cozy fireside chat. These women have climbed to the top of the mountain, and sometimes the air in the room was so thin it was hard to breathe.
Entertainment Weekly: How did you feel about Michelle Pfeiffer's speech at the Women in Film awards ceremony last year? She took aim at Hollywood for movies in which women were ''sold'' to men, like Pretty Woman, Mad Dog and Glory, and Indecent Proposal.
Meryl Streep: Well, good for her, because there's no benefit to giving that speech -- none -- except in the hearts of the people you reach. Most people won't get up and give it, but it's a truth that everyone knows. It's like talking about someone's bathroom habits in public. It's just not attractive. I was talking to Jack, though, and he said [mimicking Nicholson's drawl], ''You should see what's around for 60-year-old men! There's no good parts for anyone, babe!'' [They all laugh.]
Glenn Close: It's definitely an aspect of Hollywood. Everyone wants f -- -able women in their movies. In this culture, f -- -able women are young and thin and up to maybe 34 or 35.
Streep: But films operate on the level of dreams and fears and projections, so when people imagine themselves, they imagine themselves in their glamorous prime. I think if there were an enormous audience clamoring for stories that centered on 50-year-old women, then these guys would be killing themselves out here to find those scripts.
Close: It's so ironic, because I feel more glamorous and sexual than I've ever felt in my entire life. I don't know about you. [She laughs a little nervously and looks over at Streep.] Well, it's so silly here, but in Europe, isn't it different? [She looks again at Streep.]
Streep: In Europe? No.
Close: Oh, they do think of [older] women differently.
Close: You always hear that older women are more appreciated and --
Streep: [Leaning toward Close and rolling her eyes] Hello? Hello? No, they don't. We have to look at that age group of women that are most desirable in certain men's eyes and find out if they have parts available to them as plentiful as male protagonists -- or if we're screwed on every level. Here's the difficulty of having this conversation: You're talking to incredibly privileged people. You know, I made one speech [about actresses being paid less than actors, at the first National Conference of the Screen Actors Guild's Women's Committee in 1990], and I have regretted this speech every day of my life. It's like that's my thing! Gawd! And then I read interviews with other actresses and they say [affecting haughty tone], ''Oh, well, I'm not going to complain because I feel very privileged,'' and I think, oh, right [laughs]. I'm not raising any banner. All I did was say in one speech what everybody knows. If the people who are making this money at the top of the profession don't speak about it, then when will there be equity down the line?
Close: I don't think it will ever change. I think they look at the dollars and cents at the box office. That's the bottom line. Now, women like Julia Roberts and Whoopi, they're getting valued.
Streep: It isn't based on that. It isn't. Now I love [she goes off the record to name a major male movie star], but he doesn't bring in the box office. But he will command a big salary
Close: But that's because he's a male icon to all the guys.
Streep: That's right, because he's a guy, guy, guy. People who are paying him feel, oh, I wish I were like that! So he seems valuable, but really, in terms of box office, if you put his name on that marquee, it's not going to bring in the people who watch Beavis and Butt-head. Am I wrong?
Winona Ryder: Ahhh, I think you're right. For my generation, I know that no one knows who he is.
EW: Winona, we're talking about your generation. You're supposedly in this f ---able group --
Close: [Pointing at Winona's overalls and combat boots] Not in that outfit. [Everyone laughs.]