NEW YORK – First it was the middle-aged men whose "Full Monty" (search) striptease became a surprise box-office hit.
Now the quirky tale of 11 middle-aged calendar babes who posed nude for charity is tipped as the next small-budget British comedy to captivate audiences in the United States.
"Calendar Girls," starring Helen Mirren (search) ("Gosford Park") and Julie Walters ("Billy Elliot"), is based on the true story of a group of English housewives - all members of the Rylstone Women's Institute in rural Yorkshire - who defied convention by stripping naked for a 2000 calendar, with only a string of pearls, baked goods and carefully arranged kitchen utensils to cover their blushes.
The audacious stunt, which flew in the face of stereotypical homemaking skills like knitting, jam making and flower arranging, generated worldwide attention.
The calendar stars, aged between 44 and 65, became overnight celebrities, and on a promotional tour to the United States sold 300,000 calendars and raised more than $1 million for charity.
The Disney movie - dubbed a less raunchy female answer to 1997's "The Full Monty" - won rave reviews at its premiere in London Tuesday night and is being touted as a sure-fire hit here when it opens later this year.
"If it lives up to the stir that it's made overseas, it could be a break-out British hit like 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' or 'The Full Monty,' " says Hollywood Reporter on-line columnist Martin Grove.
"'Calendar Girls' will undoubtedly have some sort of buzz that alludes to 'The Full Monty' - they're both based on average-looking people being seen in the nude for a good cause - and that reference may help to drive it.
"It's a good title, too."
When it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival (search) in May, "Calendar Girls" stole the show.
The London Evening Standard called it "a comedy that hits all the right notes" with a cast that "unselfishly act as ensemble midwives to the homely humor. They shed their clothes but keep their dignity - all without ever having to straddle the saddle of a Harley Davidson."
The Guardian dubbed the script "cinematic hormone replacement therapy," noting that critics in Cannes were "[crying] and laughing."
"Calendar Girls" was filmed mostly in the rolling hills of Yorkshire, in northern England, but also features scenes set in Hollywood, where the women sipped champagne and enjoyed the trappings of fame during a whirlwind publicity tour.
Like the calendar itself - which outstripped the calendar sales of Britney Spears (search), Cindy Crawford and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (search) - the movie has a sizable feel-good factor.
It examines the best-selling calendar's massive impact on the lives of ordinary women who set out to raise a few hundreds dollars for a cancer ward of their local hospital, but ended up as cover girls and cheerleaders for a generation of everyday country folk.
The calendar girls' leader, Tricia Stewart (Miss October), who came up with the idea for the project to raise money for the hospital where her best friend's husband died of leukemia, is played on screen by Mirren, 58, who said she had no problem with the nudity.
"I'm of the Gerard Depardieu school of getting your kit off and dropping your pants," Mirren said.