NEW YORK – In Hollywood's battle of the Southern Belles, blondes are definitely having more fun -- with Reese Witherspoon dethroning Julia Roberts as the reigning queen of romantic comedy.
With its box-office take of $35.6 million, Witherspoon's Sweet Home Alabama set a new record for date movies over the weekend -- that's half a million more than the previous opening mark set by Roberts' Runaway Bride in the summer of 1999.
It won't be long before the Tennessee-born, 26-year-old Witherspoon -- who graduated to the A-list with the campus comedy Legally Blonde last summer -- joins the Georgia-bred Pretty Woman, who turns 35 this month, as the only female stars in Hollywood's $20 million club.
"Reese is younger, she's cuter and she's hotter," said Martin Grove, a box office analyst for the Hollywood Reporter.
"She plays to a much broader demographic than Roberts," he added. "Younger girls identify with her, older guys drool over her -- and that translates into big box-office success."
Sweet Home Alabama and Runaway Bride are both fluffy crowd-pleasers set in small Southern towns, with plucky heroines trying to choose between hometown boys and slick suitors from the Big Apple.
But Runaway Bride was a big-budget event movie that was highly anticipated as a reunion between Roberts and Richard Gere, the star of her most famous movie, Pretty Woman.
Sweet Home Alabama, by contrast, is a modestly budgeted comedy with two little-known male co-stars (Patrick Dempsey and Josh Lucas) and was expected to perform roughly as well as Legally Blonde, which opened to a surprising $20.3 million last summer.
Both films got middling reviews, but Alabama shocked the industry by ending up the all-time top opener among romantic comedies -- and the No. 3 opener among all films starring women, behind the action films Tomb Raider ($47.7 million) and Charlie's Angels ($40 million).
While other romantic-comedy veterans have "hit the ceiling" (sorry, Meg), Witherspoon is well-positioned to rise to the top of the Hollywood ladder, film scholar Jeanine Basinger, author of A Women's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, told the Los Angeles Times.
"The audience found her," Basinger said.
"That is always authentic stardom. It was not given to her, nor did it happen overnight."
Meanwhile, Roberts doesn't seem to be interested in getting her box-office crown back.
After her screen turn this summer in the little-seen Steven Soderbergh ensemble Full Frontal, she's currently filming Mona Lisa Smile, a drama set in the 1950s -- her first full-fledged starring role since winning an Oscar for Erin Brockovich two years ago.
But the ambitious Witherspoon will next been seen reprising her breakthrough role as ditzy legal eagle Ellie Woods -- for a $15 million paycheck -- in the Legally Blonde follow-up Red, White and Blonde, set for next summer's lucrative July 4 weekend.
"It's a very short reign for actresses at top, because younger ones always come along," said Grove. "But Reese is definitely the right girl at the right time."