IN THE RECENT HIT ""THE First Wives Club,'' Goldie Hawn, as a collagen-pumped actress, rattles off the three ages of Hollywood women: ""babe, district attorney and "Driving Miss Daisy'.'' But the current vogue for the classics has blurred the lines between these cruel categories. Last year's Jane Austen craze allowed babes like Gwyneth Paltrow (""Emma'') to be as crafty as lawyers and as tart as old biddies. This year, Shakespeare's the savior of the serious actress. Imogen Stubbs, as Viola, spends most of Trevor Nunn's ""Twelfth Night'' disguised as a handsome youth, thus enjoying the twin privileges of playing the guy and getting the guy. Given Premiere magazine's recent report that a scant 34 percent of 1995's movies had female protagonists, it's no wonder that stars like Claire Danes and Winona Ryder are willing to struggle with corsets and verse to play Shakespeare.
The playwright originally wrote the women's parts for young men. Even after 1660, when the first actress went onstage, there was still a tradition of tricksy casting. In the 19th century Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet. Director Robert Lepage is now touring as Ophelia and Gertrude (as well as the prince) in ""Elsinore,'' his high-tech riff on ""Hamlet.'' ""What's so fantastic about these female roles is that they were written for men,'' says Lepage. ""They were made for a man to find his own feminine emotions.''
If you've already accessed your femininity, playing Ophelia may not be such a thrill. ""You come on, you have about three lines, you come back, you go mad in a scene where everyone knows your lines--and then you die,'' says British actress Helen Mirren.
Better to stick to the comedies, where Shakespeare's courtly lovers catch hell. In ""As You Like It,'' bedazzled Orlando sticks goony verses on Arden's trees: ""Winter'd garments must be lin'd/So must slender Rosalind.'' Said Rosalind spends the play teaching him how to love her as a 3-D human. Savvier lovers woo by flyting--sexy bickering--which allows them to hammer out a partnership. When Elizabeth Taylor swapped double-entendres with Richard Burton in Zeffirelli's 1967 ""The Taming of the Shrew,'' audiences tuned in to watch an offscreen couple flyte on screen.
When the Bard tackles Big Questions-- e.g., being/not to being--men tend to get the good lines. But British director Deborah Warner, who last year cast Fiona Shaw as Richard II, says that Shakespeare's women escape the cramped confines of sex roles. ""He never painted a small portrait based on gender, thank God,'' she says. ""Cleopatra's a woman and Antony's a man, but both of them transcend that. Nobody's kept small in Shakespeare.'' Good news indeed for aging babes.