A fact of life, Hollywood-style: Between fickle audiences and a male-dominated industry, it has never been harder for an actress to stay a film star than it is right now. Without yesterday's supportive, albeit oppressive, studio system, a reign at the top today requires canny choices and smart public relations. Three young actresses are striving to keep their career momentum going, knowing there are of plenty if ingénues ready to take advantage of any misstep. Queen of the hill Julia Roberts is reeling from the less-than-spectacular opening of her new film and from the media swirl surroundings her aborted engagement with Kiefer Sutherland. Struggling to maintain her star status and sorely in need of a hit, Debra Winger just lost a coveted role to competitor Geena Davis. And indecisive Meg Ryan has yet to find the right follow-up to her 1989 smash, When Harry Met Sally.... Behind the scenes, tout Hollywod carps and comments on their every move.
When Roberts, 23, escaped, to Ireland for a brief respite after canceling her wedding, the town wondered whether she would get canned as Tinkerbell in Steven Spielberg's Hook. (Roberts returned to work on schedule June 24 and was seen lunching with new companion Jason Patric at the studio commissary. Speculation then turned to Roberts' next schedule project, Renegades, a Western for producer Ray Stark. Mel Gibson and Roberts has both withdrawn from the film early on, but Roberts was lured back when Sutherland was named after her costar. After their split, everyone speculated about whether Patric would get signed for the picture. (He turned down the role.) Don Safran, a spokesman for Stark, insists casting is far from final and blames talents agents and the media for ''batting stories around that aren’t necessarily so.''
Inside the industry, people note that the breakup followed a major L.A. Times profile of Roberts, which mentioned that she was being paid $7 million for Renegades to Sutherland's $2.5 million (which was twice his usual fee). While Sutherland's alleged womanizing was blamed for the breakup, insiders also wondered if career competition could be at the bottom of the couple's unhappiness.
Whatever the truth, Roberts clearly has the kind of leverage few actresses can exercise this days. Nevertheless, she’s a quasar with an uncertain future. Dying Young, in which Roberts plays a radiant muse to leukemia victim Scott Campbell, opened June 21 to a respectable $9.8 million gross, but the members have been falling off quickly, indicating poor word of mouth and lack of crossover beyond Roberts’ youthful core audience. ''They aren’t getting the grown-ups,'' says one studio marketing executive, who points out that Roberts' fans are largely 16-to-25-year-old women. ''To survive as a major star you have to cross over the adults over 25,'' he says. ''Otherwise you wind up like Ryan O'Neal or John Travolta.''
On the other hand, on-line research shows that 82 percent of those who attended the first weekend went to see Roberts. ''There's no question that without her the movie would have made $3 million,'' says one industry observer.
The recent media attention surrounding Debra Winger's lost role in Penny Marshall's World War II baseball movie A League of Their Own, underscores the fragility of female stardom in Hollywood. Winger, 35, had been working out for two months to prepare for her part as a catcher when things started to go wrong. She, director Marshall, and the picture’s male leader, team manager Tom Hanks, are all represented by the powerful Creative Artists Agency, which was seeking a plum movie role for Madonna. Expressing her anxiety to Daily's Variety's Army Archerd about costar Madonna, Winger said, ''I'm afraid of the press zoo...I don't care for stunt casting.'' One Columbia producer suggests that company chairman Frank Price was already worried about the picture's $40 million budget and possible rivalry between Winger and Madonna: ''The Columbia suits said to themselves, 'Penny Marshall might survive with one shark in the tank, but two?' They figured they'd tighten Winger's contract so she couldn't pull any power plays on the set.'' So when push came to shove, Columbia deemed Winger the most volatile thus expendable in the cast mix. By mid-June, Winger, with no one to champion her cause, reluctantly left the project, and another CAA client, hot-as-flapjacks Geena Davis, was in. (Winger still plans to costar as Hanks' alcoholic wife in Disney's Significant Other, a film about codependency for which Hanks has just rewritten the script.)
By starring in a string of hits in the early '80s, culminating in her 1983 Oscar nomination for Terms of Endearment, Winger has earned a reputation as a serious actress with sex appeal and attitude. Her post-Terms career demonstrates how tough it is for actresses to land quality roles in commercial movies. Most of her recent films, up to 1990's The Sheltering Sky, were duds; only in the 1986 thriller Black Widow registered even modestly at the box office. ''Winger is an amazingly tough woman and a perfectionist,'' says one industry observer. ''But she gets criticized because she's a woman. Dustin Hoffman has an equally bad reputation, but he doesn’t get slammed for it.''
Hollywood's standard response: Hoffman gets away with attitude because he's a star who guarantees substantial opening weekends for his movies. (With this logic, Roberts, not Winger, could get away with attitude.) ''In contemporary movies, male stars get paid more and are given more leeway than female stars,'' explains Variety editor Pete Bart. ''Their sins are forgiven. No doubt Winger, like Kim Basinger, has pushed the envelope a little bit.''
Hollywood is also watching the choices being made by another cooling ingénue, Meg Ryan, 29. After her starring role in When Harry Met Sally..., offers were flying fast for the actress. But her subsequent films, Joe Versus the Volcano and The Doors, fell flat. While Ryan just completed shooting with Alec Baldwin Prelude to a Kiss, a spring film that may boost her career, ''creative differences'' prevented her from going forward on both The Butcher's Wife (out this August with Demi Moore in her stead) and a movie tentatively titled Housesitter, set to film in August (Universal is seeking Melanie Griffith to star opposite Steve Martin). Ryan had ''script problems,'' according to sources, and it's rumored that she tried to have Martin replaced. One view is that Ryan's husband, Dennis Quaid, is giving her advice. ''No one is able to talk to her about what's in her best interest,'' says one agent. ''There's so much competition for these few roles.'' And for a Hollywood actress, it takes only one miss to make a once-hot career die young.