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Meg Ryan looking for a change of image

New York, July 12: It is among the best-known comic scenes in modern film, and it made Meg Ryan’s career. In When Harry Met Sally, she shows a bemused Billy Crystal in a New York delicatessen how easily women fake orgasms, and ends up thumping the table, shouting: “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Hollywood studios said “Yes!” right back, and Ryan went on to star in a string of romantic comedy hits: Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Addicted To Love and French Kiss. Blue-eyed and blonde, Ryan’s fresh-faced looks led her to be dubbed “America’s Sweetheart”.

But in her new film, the dark thriller In The Cut, she has pulled off the most astounding change of image by a leading Hollywood actress in recent times. Sexually explicit both visually and verbally, In The Cut involves Ryan, 41, nude on screen for the first time. Orgasms are involved, but these are meant to look real.

In The Cut is directed by the New Zealander Jane Campion, 48, best known for The Piano.

Adapted from the 1996 novel by Susanna Moore, it portrays a seamy side of Manhattan life in which all the characters are sexual predators.

Ryan, her hair dark brown and lank, plays Franny, a single college teacher who wants a relationship but is reluctant to embark on dating. The men in her life are unsuitable.

One of her students has a crush on her, but is also obsessed by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Another, played by Kevin Bacon, is an unstable character who virtually stalks her.

When a mutilated body is found near her apartment block, Franny is visited by a detective named Malloy (Mark Ruffalo). Though he is rough-edged, she finds him intriguing and starts an affair with him. He pushes her into sexual territory she had never before explored.

An accomplished piece of film-making, it is also bleak and shocking. Its serial killer sub-plot ensures that sex, violence and gruesome death remain closely linked.

Still, the film may yet be remembered mainly for Ryan’s re-invention of her screen persona. The troubled Franny, scowling from behind her rimless glasses, could hardly be further removed from the giggly, ditsy blonde characters who made Ryan a star. Yet given her recent life and career, this change of direction may not be a total surprise.

Three years ago she split from her husband, Dennis Quaid, whom she married in 1991 (they have a son, Jack, 11) after her brief affair with the actor Russell Crowe, her co-star in the unsuccessful hostage drama Proof of Life. Around then, Ryan started voicing dissatisfaction with her career.

Seemingly she was not content to be her generation’s Goldie Hawn, and not prepared to fade away gently on turning 40. “We’re the first generation of women who were told we could have it all,” she said in an interview. “We’re trying, and it’s really hard. But I think the baby-boom generation has changed Hollywood. As they get older, they can’t help but demand different things.”

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