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Cut to darkness

Meg Ryan, survivor, pushes beyond 'America's sweetheart' in a raw new film.

October 05, 2003|Fred Schruers | Special to The Times

She'D take Manhattan -- if she could.

"I find it kind of rough being here," says Meg Ryan.

She's not referring to the specific Venice restaurant where a shaft of harsh midafternoon sun has just intruded. She's speaking of the literal and figurative urban sprawl that goes only two blocks west to meet the Pacific but goes so far in the other three directions that it legendarily makes human connection strained. She's just pointed out that the crucial thing anchoring her here is that her 11-year-old son, Jack -- from the marriage with Dennis Quaid that ended in a tabloid cataclysm two-plus years ago -- is happily in his seventh year at the same Westside school: "He's so clear about wanting to be here. I don't think he's gonna go for moving to New York."

Anyone who's seen Ryan's forthcoming film for director Jane Campion, "In the Cut," might question why she'd want to reenter a New York City where seemingly every man her character Franny meets is a candidate to be revealed as an especially bloodthirsty serial killer. It's a city where sexual encounters tend to be unloving (if fervent) jousts, and police and ambulance sirens wail against a backdrop of ad hoc shrines to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Yes, Ryan says, Franny "is up against a male-dominated, chauvinistic, misogynistic world of sexual predators" and "completely marginalized, living in the East Village on the fringes of everything." But Ryan was able to reach back to her days living downtown as a New York University journalism student. "Whenever we were shooting there it was great, because it was such a vibrant place and really eclectic, passionate neighborhood."

Her face is no less intriguing for its familiarity. The much-discussed and emulated blond bird's nest of hair still sets off her highly mobile mouth and eyes, and when she laughs, as she does easily and often, or squints to ponder a question, she's still the movie star next door.

Ryan, an engaging if sporadically restless talker who uses all the territory on her side of the table as she gestures, grapples with her thought: "Maybe I'm really talking about feeling a real sense of community. I have a really hard time doing that here -- I have it, but it's a real effort for me 'cause I'm from the East Coast and it occurs a little more organically for me there." She gestures over her shoulder to where the airliners groan out over the ocean as they begin their flights from LAX. "I guess my community is the people at 33,000 feet, ya know?"

Yet so many people on the ground below have a curiously intimate view of the very public changes in her personal life.

Some have judged her harshly for them. "I never defined myself as 'America's sweetheart,' " she says a bit wearily. "I got assigned an archetype. And then I betrayed it," she adds, not without a mildly bitter laugh.

LURID INK

Though she'll issue the customary disclaimer that she knows how privileged her life as a movie star is, Ryan has, over the past few years, lived an unenviable odyssey through divorce, a very public love affair with Russell Crowe that led to a public lashing in the tabloids, and a career-hobbling pair of less-than-boffo films.

Even with all the lurid ink about her and co-star Crowe, 2000's "Proof of Life" stalled at $33 million, and "Kate & Leopold" (2001) was only about a third as lucrative as the average take for the triumvirate that made her America's somewhat reluctant sweetheart: "When Harry Met Sally ..." (1989), "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993) and "You've Got Mail" (1998). Films such as those made her a $15-million-a-movie actress, but she's cut her price considerably for her recent edgier efforts.

The best-known fact about "In the Cut," which opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, is that Ryan is seen in full-frontal nudity in love scenes. Tie that in with her career worries and the easy equation is that a 41-year-old actress is somewhat desperately looking to cause a sensation. (Never mind that Nicole Kidman, who was originally slated to star and served as a producer, is a white-hot personality who's appeared undraped in the service of various roles.) When Ryan turned up to promote the film at the Toronto Film Festival with noticeably fuller lips, the British and Canadian press had a field day, calling the look her "trout pout."

The film's reviews and audience reactions were mixed, but Ryan drew many good notices. The Hollywood Reporter summed up the film as a "cop-out" (Susanna Moore co-wrote the screenplay with Campion, changing the ending from that of her novel on which it is based) but praised Ryan's "fearless, emotionally raw performance." A Denver Post reviewer called her "a revelation.... Campion drained every gram of cuteness from Ryan. In its place is this weighty performance." And England's Guardian said Ryan "thoroughly reinvents herself."

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