The way Hollywood is heading, high schoolers won't need Cliffs Notes to cram for their American-lit exams a movie ticket will suffice. On the heels of Demi Moore's announcement that she'll star in The Scarlet Letter, Winona Ryder is using her newfound cachet (thanks to a Best Supporting Actress nomination for The Age of Innocence) to spearhead a new film version of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.
FOR POLLY Ryder has long wanted to do a movie based on the 1868 classic about four sisters coming of age during the Civil War. Her mother, Cindy Horowitz, is an aficionada of Alcott's works, and Ryder discussed Women with producer Denise Di Novi (Batman Returns) while shooting 1989's Heathers. But it was the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas that prompted her to act. Klaas lived in Ryder's hometown, Petaluma, Calif., attended the same junior high school, and shared her love of Little Women. Ryder agreed to do the film if it were dedicated to Klaas' memory. ''I'm looking forward to making a movie that doesn't contribute to the misery of the world,'' she has said.
BIG 'WOMEN' But the film's noble inspiration isn't the reason every young actress in L.A. is vying for a part in the movie, scheduled to begin shooting April 18 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The film's executive team is a virtual who's who of female players. Along with Di Novi, Columbia president of production Lisa Henson, production exec Amy Pascal, and Australian director Gillian Armstrong (The Last Days of Chez Nous) are attached to the project.
In addition to Ryder, who will star as the headstrong Jo (played by Katharine Hepburn in the 1933 version and June Allyson in 1949), Susan Sarandon is close to signing on as Marmee, the book's matriarch. The roles of the responsible Meg, coquettish Amy, and ailing Beth are still up for grabs. Among those vying, Christina Applegate has had an audition and Mary-Louise Parker has met with the director. ''We were deluged with calls from agents,'' says Armstrong's agent. ''Everybody read the book when they were little girls.''
Of course, this wouldn't be Hollywood unless there were some improvements on the original text. This time out, Jo's love interests will include Laurie (Empire of the Sun's Christian Bale) as well as Professor Bhaer, who will be younger and sexier than he was in the book. To date, Mandy Patinkin, John Turturro, and David Strathairn have read.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS Though Little Women, due this Christmas, is one of several classics on Hollywood's roster (others include The Little Princess, Treasure Island, and The Pearl), some insiders fear it could fall prey to the girl-movie curse. ''I could never have gotten Little Women made here,'' says New Line's Sara Risher. ''Girls are not as big a market as boys. And boys don't go see girls' movies.'' Then again, these are uncommon Women. ''It's a title [recognized] around the world,'' says producer Neil Meron, ''and Winona's one of the hottest leading actresses. She'll only broaden the movie's appeal.'' Armstrong, who plans to pass her childhood copy of Little Women on to her daughters, shares her leading lady's faith in the book's popularity. ''Many generations loved it not just women,'' says Armstrong, who has a radical idea ; about how to make men go. ''We could change the title.''