''Film is a good litmus test,'' said British actor-director Stephen Fry, talking up his latest project, ''Bright Young Things,'' at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival. ''It does stick a thermometer up the ass of society, doesn't it?''
If that's the case, the temperature at the 28th annual event, which again took place around the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, was a bit hotter this year. Just 12 months ago, the reverential fire-chief drama ''The Guys'' premiered in Toronto, and the few anti-American segments of the short-film compendium ''September 11'' were met with boos. But this year's gathering of stars, executives, critics, and reporters witnessed several films with politically frank content -- and there wasn't a hiss to be heard (except during Meg Ryan's sexually charged ''In the Cut''). Lars von Trier's ''Dogville'' launched a three-hour allegorical rant against America's bullying, while the breezy ensemble romance ''Love Actually'' featured a British PM (Hugh Grant) telling off an arrogant Commander-in-Chief (played by good ol' boy Billy Bob Thornton). Even the droll melodrama ''The Saddest Music in the World'' and Fry's social dramedy ''Bright Young Things'' included small but pointed digs at the United States.
But some things never change, and the 2003 festival, which gave the international press a fall preview of movies like Robert Altman's ballet diary, ''The Company,'' and Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu's English debut, ''21 Grams,'' felt more like a 10-day press junket than it has in previous years, with typically bizarre results. One clueless journalist mistook Cate Blanchett, star of the crusading-Irish-newswoman biopic ''Veronica Guerin,'' for Michelle Pfeiffer at a press conference, while Dean Cain, costar of the murder thriller ''Out of Time'' (and former TV superhero), experienced a mistaken-identity crisis of his own: ''One reporter said she liked me in the Superman MOVIE. I'm surprised she didn't say, 'It's wonderful to see you walking!'''
The press weren't the only ones doing the bumbling. ''I did a complete wack-job starf---er routine on ['Monsieur Ibrahim''s] Omar Sharif, which won me a full-on star back-away,'' recalled Sarah Polley, who had two grim films (the cancer weepie ''My Life Without Me'' and the assisted-suicide drama ''The Event,'' both coming out shortly) at the festival. ''I was like, 'Oh, your commentary on the DVD of 'Lawrence of Arabia' is so great!' He literally went, 'It was a great film. Thank you. Bye!''' At least she got up the nerve to speak to her idol. ''I stood next to Robert Altman at the urinal earlier today,'' said Billy Ray, director of the journalistic suspense film ''Shattered Glass.'' ''Not really an opportune time to introduce yourself.''
With some stars completing as many as 65 interviews in one day, several attendees suffered from sound-bite overkill. ''I haven't been outside in the daytime,'' said ''Out of Time'''s Denzel Washington. ''I might as well be in Hoboken.'' Val Kilmer took a trip of his own. ''I did hallucinate yesterday,'' said the star of the porn-murder drama ''Wonderland.'' ''I actually astro-traveled during an interview.''
Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman dominated the media-frenzy portion of the festival with her meaty dramas ''Dogville'' and the Philip Roth adaptation ''The Human Stain.'' ''Yeah, they're bleak,'' she said, relaxing backstage with a glass of red wine during ''Stain'''s gala screening. ''I think it is time for me to do a popcorn movie!'' She's now lightening up with a remake of the camp classic ''The Stepford Wives''; perhaps that shoot is why she abruptly left town in the middle of one of her press days, causing her to miss best friend Naomi Watts. ''The car that dropped Nicole off at the airport then brought me back to Toronto,'' said Watts, who won raves for her emotional performance in ''21 Grams.'' ''And now I'm sleeping in her bed at the [same] hotel!''