Movies: A Woman On The Verge Of A Breakthrough

Back in January, Patricia Clarkson got to be queen for a day. Actually, for about six days. At the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, Clarkson starred in just about every good movie in competition (OK, four), won a special jury prize for her work and spent the week as the toast of Park City, Utah. All the while, there was talk that she'd soon land an Oscar nod for Todd Haynes's 1950s melodrama "Far From Heaven." But Oscar never called, the Sundance festival ended and the 44-year-old actress with the strawberry hair and smoky voice had to turn in her crown and go back to lodging at Howard Johnson to keep her tiny movies on budget. Oh well. "Look, I'm not 25 anymore," Clarkson says cheerfully. "At this point, it was nice to be the queen of something."

This month, two of Clarkson's Sundance entries finally arrive at an art-house theater near you. The first, "The Station Agent," is a sweet wisp of a movie about a train-obsessed dwarf, in which she plays a woman coping with the accidental death of her son. Clarkson is good--"I get to play the chick!"--but in "Pieces of April," starring Katie Holmes as a black-sheep daughter trying (and mostly failing) to host Thanksgiving, she's downright unforgettable. As Joy, a mother with terminal breast cancer, Clarkson is cruel, bitter--and mordantly, marvelously funny. To shoot a handful of scenes on the road to April's dumpy Manhattan apartment, the actress had to get cozy in some of New Jersey's most elegant rest stops. "Let me tell you, those were real bathrooms in real gas stations. It was brutal," she says. "Ah, the perks!" Nights spent at a HoJo, days spent at a Mobil station--yes, it's good to be the queen.