TORONTO -- 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 told The Associated Press. "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.
"And that means what you want as an actress in this industry is to have a face that can be changed, is to have a voice that can change, is to have a body that can change the way it moves so that it can morph into different beings."
Other Toronto films featuring strong women's roles include "21 Grams," "Casa de los Babys," "Lost in Translation," "Girl With a Pearl Earring," "The Company," "My Life Without Me," "Prey for Rock & Roll" and "Veronica Guerin."
In the days of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford, female-driven films were a Hollywood mainstay. The rise of television in the 1950s kept more older adults at home, and many intriguing women's roles dried up as movie studios catered to younger crowds with action films and teen comedies.
Actresses such as Julia Roberts or Kidman have the clout to line up studio financing for some pet projects, but even they turn to lower-budgeted independent movies for challenging parts that Hollywood fails to offer. Kidman, a producer on "In the Cut," spent years developing the film with Campion, intending to star in it before turning it over to Ryan.
"In the independent film world, there are always more interesting characters, and you can get a - quote - more famous actress to do your low-budget film because finally, there's a role that she's not getting in Hollywood," said Marcia Gay Harden, who stars in John Sayles' ensemble drama "Casa de los Babys," about American women adopting babies in Latin America.
"The economics of Hollywood are so stringent and severe now that you can barely get a film financed even with certain very famous people," said Harden, a supporting-actress Oscar winner for "Pollock" two years ago who also co-stars in Roberts' upcoming "Mona Lisa Smile."
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."
Others in the industry say it runs in unpredictable cycles, with a wave of solid women's roles one year and a dearth the next. "I would like to think it's about time that smart, edgy, challenging roles are going to women for all the right reasons, but to a big degree I do think it may be serendipitous," said Michele Maheux, managing director of the Toronto festival.
At the very least, the Toronto lineup hints that the industry might be more forgiving when top stars trade glamorous roles for more somber characters. Roberts stumbled in the 1990s when she strayed from her pretty-woman image with such dour dramas as "Mary Reilly," but Kidman, Halle Berry, Julianne Moore and others are managing to balance glitz and gloom.
"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."
"I think now 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." "You're still going to get another job. If you're good in the film, your work will get you the next job. Not because your teeth look good."
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