Strong women star at film fest

— Meg Ryan leaves behind cute and perky for grim and brooding. Nicole Kidman's an iron-willed janitor with dirty fingernails. Isabella Rossellini is a double-amputee beer baroness in a twisted search for the world's most sorrowful music.

Amid the glitz of the Toronto International Film Festival, actresses with cover-girl faces are playing fast and loose with their images in a movie lineup that includes a wealth of strong women's roles.

Ryan stars in Jane Campion's thriller, "In the Cut," as an emotionally detached writer caught up in a gruesome murder investigation -- and some steamy sex scenes. Rossellini plays the legless puppet-master of a Depression-era musical competition in the perversely funny "The Saddest Music in the World."

Kidman follows her Academy Award-winning role in "The Hours," in which she took on a fake nose and dour demeanor to embody Virginia Woolf, with "The Human Stain," playing a custodian with a tragic past who becomes involved with a disgraced academic (Anthony Hopkins).

Along with "The Human Stain," the Toronto festival that ends Saturday also showcased Kidman's "Dogville," a harrowing drama about a fugitive who carries out terrible vengeance against a town that abused her.

"Your job as an actor is to be malleable," Kidman said. "Your body, your voice. What I aspire to is to be where you say, this is an instrument, my identity is not what I'm bringing to the role. What I'm bringing is the ability to give over to the piece."

Festivals such as Toronto tend to feature strong women's roles because so many of the movies come from the indie world. Still, this year's lineup is especially promising, even for a festival that historically has been a solid showcase for female-driven films.

Some actresses say commercial and critical success for recent women's films has eased the way.

"I think with the success of 'Legally Blonde' and 'The Hours' and all these great performances that have happened over the years by these wonderful actresses has definitely opened a lot of doors," said Katie Holmes, who stars as a black-sheep daughter trying to make peace with her dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) in the Toronto flick "Pieces of April."

"I think it is the age now of women really taking on the challenge and losing our vanity," said Clarkson, who presents a grim portrait of a woman coping with breast cancer in "Pieces of April."

"We are realizing it's all right if your hair does not look good or if you do a movie without makeup," said Clarkson, who also co-stars in Kidman's "Dogville" and a third Toronto film, "The Station Agent."


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