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Ballad of Narayama

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'Telling Lies' will reveal another side of Eszterhas

TORONTO -- Joe Eszterhas hasn't become history's highest-paid screenwriter by penning quirky little stories about coming of age in Cleveland - but one of the big hits of the Toronto Film Festival's closing weekend is just such a film.

Guy Ferland's "Telling Lies In America," based on a somewhat autobiographical script by Eszterhas, tells the story of a 17-year-old kid, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, who gets a job as an assistant to a shady local disc jockey. His prime attributes, although he doesn't know it, are that he is underage and a good liar - which makes him ideal for the purpose of accepting the DJ's payola money.

The kid is played by Brad Renfro, in a coming-of-age performance of his own, and the DJ, who calls himself "Billy Magic," is played by Kevin Bacon in one of his best performances - as a cynic who has an affection for the kid and wants to show him the ways, however sad, of his world.

Eszterhas, himself a first-generation American, specialized in sex and treachery ("Basic Instinct," "Showgirls"). He obviously wrote this one from the heart, but also with a rich vein of humor and period color; it's an unlikely combination of sex, booze, rock 'n' roll, and a kid who believes that if he ever learns to pronounce "the" like an American, he might be a disc jockey himself some day. Or a screenwriter.

For Robert Downey Jr., the past year has been a publicity nightmare of drug problems, rehab centers and probation terms. But he also worked steadily, and now his comeback begins with two remarkable performances, filmed in the shadow of personal troubles but filled with life and intelligence.

Downey starred here in two premieres. In James Toback's "Two Girls and a Guy," he's a pickup artist who returns to his Manhattan apartment to find that his two girlfriends, who are not supposed to know about one another, have met by accident, let themselves in, and are waiting for him.

For an hour and a half, they all fight, argue and theorize about men, women, sex and honesty - in a tough, thoughtful script that completes a circle, since Toback and Downey also collaborated on the 1987 film "The Pick-Up Artist," which cast a much more forgiving eye on male behavior.

The other Downey performance comes in "One Night Stand," Mike Figgis' well-received drama about a man and a woman (Wesley Snipes and Nastassja Kinski) who meet by chance, have a brief and tender fling, and then meet again a year later under much different circumstances. Downey plays a dying AIDS patient, who despite playing the entire role from a hospital bed manages to fill it with life and humor; it's not easy for a dying man to get a laugh by lifting one eyebrow, but Downey does it.

"When I saw him being led away in handcuffs, wearing an orange prison suit, that's when I knew it was time to work with him again," Toback told me after the screening of "Two Girls and a Guy." Days after Downey was released on parole for drug charges, he was working with Toback on an 11-day shoot with actresses Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner; "I felt Bob was ready to reveal some truths about himself," Toback said.

This comes under the heading of backstage gossip, but I am happy to pass it along: Dame Maggie Smith may have saved Jennifer Jason Leigh's life, or at least her intestines, during the filming of "Washington Square." The Henry James adaptation stars Leigh as a rich heiress who is courted by a poor young man (Ben Chaplin). Her father (Albert Finney) disapproves, but her aunt (Smith) schemes behind the scenes as a matchmaker.

"I had no idea what it was like to wear a corset," Leigh told me: an understatement, since she has specialized in playing women who need corsets the way a fish needs a bicycle. "I was dying the first three weeks. I wore the corsets the way women did in those days - right under my ribcage. They gave me a 19-inch waist, but I couldn't breathe, I couldn't move, I couldn't even go to the bathroom by myself."

Smith, who has appeared in many a costume role, advised her to loosen the corset and move it down to her natural waistline. Then Leigh did research on the subject, "and I found out why women were always fainting in those days. They were being squeezed to death. In one book I even read about a plug that was used to keep their intestines from falling out!"

The bright side? "Under all those petticoats, no one can figure out what's going on," she said. "I could play a scene looking formal and composed, and actually be sitting cross-legged, and no one would know."

Many of the festival types are staying at the Four Seasons Hotel, where three times in recent days there have been false fire alarms. Fire alarm specialists were on the job Saturday. Perhaps they should have talked to New York superpublicist Leslee Dart. Her theory: "Paparazzi knew Brad Pitt was staying in the hotel, and set false alarms hoping to get pictures of him standing in the driveway in his bathrobe."

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