MOVIE SEQUELS are always so worrisome. But I like to think I personally helped my old friend Sly Stallone get this last gasp of the “Rocky” franchise made. I believe I convinced Stallone and his longtime friend and producer Irwin Winkler to kiss and make up after a misunderstanding. So I had been worrying ever after, “What if the movie is a dog?” Everybody knows what Sly can do. And his courage in making a film about what age can do to even a great champion is commendable. This particular “Rocky” really works. Now I want to talk about Stallone’s new leading lady. Her Philly accent is spot-on, but she’s an Irish lass through and through. If the movie becomes a hit, then Geraldine Hughes is poised to become the Pride of Belfast. Hughes is a kind of Carole Lombard-esque beauty and she was discovered by casting genius Sheila Jaffe who caught her solo play “Belfast Blues,” which Anjelica Huston had presented at the Culture Project. Stallone, also the director and writer of “Rocky Balboa” film, immediately cast Geraldine. She says, “This is a wild dream; I can’t believe any of it.” Hughes will also be making her B’way debut in the MTC production of Brien Friel’s play “Translations” on Jan. 4 at the Biltmore. When “Rocky Balboa” bowed recently at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Geraldine’s entire Belfast family was in the audience, as well as what she calls “my American family” — Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman. (Geraldine was nanny to their children for several years.)

THEY MAY have to expand the list of actress nominees for the Oscars. For moments we had only Meryl Streep for “The Devil Wears Prada.” She seemed like a shoo-in even though she was in a comedy. Then, along came Helen Mirren in “The Queen.” Alongside of Helen appeared Penelope Cruz for “Volver” and Kate Winslet for “Little Children.” Cate Blanchett then received award-type raves in “Babel.” Now she has popped up again with “Notes on a Scandal.” In this new movie, opening Wednesday, she co-stars with Judi Dench. Now there are at least six top contenders. In “Scandal,” Dench is the central figure and narrator but Blanchett has equal time and goes toe-to-toe with the veteran Dame. This film is a compellingly nasty 90-minute psychological thriller. Its melodrama doesn’t make much sense, but delivers jaw-dropping cinematic punch. Nobody in it is likeable but there is a thrill in watching Dench and Blanchett face off. Here are performing pyrotechnics of the highest order. Just what Oscar likes best.

BEFORE IT all ends, rush to Feinstein’s at the Regency to hear Michael himself fool around with Christmas songs and in between he does some other unusual shtick. … The divine Rockettes are doing their stuff at Radio City through Dec. 30. Here’s something I never knew until this year. Rockette Angie Everett says, “You never touch the girl next to you in the kick line. It’s an illusion that our arms are hooked up behind us. You just ‘feel the fabric’ of the costumes next to you, so there’s never any pushing. You’re completely on your own.”… Don’t miss the Lexington Avenue windows of Plaza Flowers at 69th Street. Three trees dressed to the nines but balancing upside down. … “Project Runway’s” Tim Gunn was lunching at Michael’s with the former editor of Vogue, Grace Mirabella. They were laughing it up, perhaps planning Tim’s future should he and Bravo not come to an understanding about whether he stays or goes at “Project Runway.” Tim says, “None of us have contracts.”

(Email Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com)