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Meryl Streep once again tops Hollywood's A-list of actresses to win the lead in ``The House of the Spirits.'


What was that strange grinding noise reverberating through Hollywood recently? The collective teeth-gnashing of a number of A-list actresses.

Meryl Streep, the casting coup queen, strikes again. First ``Sophie's Choice,' then ``Plenty,' then ``Death Becomes Her' and now ``The House of the Spirits.'The lead in director Bille August's next movie, which begins shooting Jan. 18 and is penciled in for Christmas 1993 release, was, it seems, the most coveted female part since Catwoman. Streep will play the role of Clara opposite Jeremy Irons, a role she quickly agreed to do after reading August's adaptation of Isabel Allende's 1985 best-seller.

``Almost every actress in town wanted this role, and with good reason,' says one source. ``The movie's a multigenerational epic set in Chile, and Clara ages from 18 to 60 ... parts like this don't come down the pike too often.'

Streep was not the first choice. That honor went to Annette Bening, who eventually declined due to the responsibilities of new motherhood. Michelle Pfeiffer got a crack at it but declined for reasons that no one close to the production can understand.

August also met with Glenn Close, who loved the material and wanted to be involved. August, it is said, toyed with the idea of casting Close as Clara but thought he wanted someone younger. Would Close be interested in the equally juicy part of Ferula, Irons' older spinster sister, whom Clara awakens from a lifetime of dourness and doom? She was.

But for the part of Clara, August considered practically every A-list actress. Among them: Laura Dern, Dana Delany, Geena Davis, Elizabeth Perkins, Robin Wright, Isabelle Adjani, Andie MacDowell, Juliet Stevenson, Winona Ryder, Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts. Madeleine Stowe, Nicole Kidman and Kim Basinger also were screen-tested for the role, but August wanted to keep looking. And then Streep's name was mentioned.

The decision to cast Streep, 43, in the role of Clara over Close, 45, when the director was reportedly ``looking for someone younger' is, of course, a mysterious one. Apparently, the final factor in the decision was that August was looking for someone with ``a great ephemeral quality.'

Before casting Streep, however, the filmmakers consulted Close and told her how they were leaning. Despite their fears that she would be offended, Close was quite excited. ``She said she was very happy with that idea because it would be a good thing for the movie,' says a source. ``She was incredibly gracious and wonderful. It was a smart thing to do.'

Although not involved in the casting decision of the year, Irons is said to be quite pleased with the result. ``He's worked with Meryl (``The French Lieutenant's Woman') and Glenn (on Broadway in ``The Real Thing' and in the film ``Reversal of Fortune') and adores them both, and they adore him.'


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