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Happy 50th Birthday, Meg Ryan

She rose to fame just before Julia Roberts who rose to fame just before Sandra Bullock. Together the three of them inarguably ruled the Romantic Comedy genre for a full decade back when, and this is an important note, the genre was producing regular classics. (Look at any modern RomCom Queen's filmography and try to find films half as good; the qualitative dropoff is more like a horror movie!) 

Cut to 2011 and the other two members of America's Sweetheart Trinity: 1990s Division are still headliners and now Oscar Winners. So what happened to Meg Ryan and why did goodwill not follow her or rescue her as it did her royal sisters in big screen love and laughter? For a good long while people wondered when her Erin Brockovich would arrive. Eventually they stopped wondering but why couldn't she even stumble onto her own The Blind Side

It isn't a simple matter of talent. While Meg is mostly remembered for romantic comedy blockbusters like When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail (recently revisited at Stale Popcorn) and Sleepless in Seattle she was always alternating those films with dramatic work, sometimes chasing Oscar nominations which never materialized and sometimes, one assumes, merely to stretch herself or work with great actors (When a Man Loved a WomanFlesh and Bone, Courage Under Fire, Hurlyburly, etcetera).

Gwyneth Paltrow and Meg Ryan in "Flesh and Bone" (1993), the year of Sleepless in Seattle

In fact, if you lay their 90s filmographies down side by side, without the benefit of knowing what came after, Ryan was demonstrating far far more range than Bullock.  

Was she simply too good at romantic comedy, making her dramatic work feel unexciting in comparison? Did she push herself too far past her natural talents in films like In The Cut (2003) that may have been better suited to miraculous dramatic thespians like, say, a Moore or a Kidman? Or did her own career stumbles tie in too chronologically well with the decline of her signature genre? Or was it just that her volatile personal life (the Dennis Quaid divorce and the Russell Crowe affair) rubbed too abrasively against her "cute" screen image? That's a problem that Julia never seemed to have despite an even more volatile love life -- maybe because her image wasn't as "cute" but leaned a little spikier and more narcissistic.

I'm just theorizing now... Join me. I'd love to hear your (non hateful) theories and your take on her best work. It's her 50th birthday so we wish her well. Her next feature is an ensemble drama called Lives of the Saints with an eclectic cast featuring Kat Dennings, Kevin Zegers, 50 Cent, and John Lithgow. 

What do you make of her more dramatic work in In the CutWhen A Man Loves a Woman, Hurlyburly, Flesh and Bone, Top Gun, Prelude to a Kiss? Which of her romcoms do it for you: ...Sally? ...Mail? French Kiss? Addicted to Love? ...Seattle? Kate & Leopold?

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Reader Comments (45)

I don't think there's a single answer. Just my guess, but I'd imagine it's a mixture of age-ism in Hollywood, the stink that she got on her due to the Dennis Quaid/Russell Crowe scandal which was in such dramatic contrast to the types of movies she was known for, a few bad choices in films, unfortunate plastic surgery, and perhaps a lessening of her ambitions. I think at a certain point, she may have just been happier to devote herself to her kids and take on roles in films that fit with her schedule that she thought would be fun.

November 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRJ

To me it's mind boggling she has never been nominated for an Oscar...one of those roles should have done it for her back in 90's. She may be still only known for Rom Com's while Sandra and Julia have gotten to show and explore their dramatic side in bigger films, Meg just fell off the wagon.
Sandra really worked hard and wanted it, I'm not so sure Meg feels the need to find her own Blind Side. but with Meg's combined film work she's still a movie star and it's a shame she doesn't have a Oscar nom to show for it. Her personal life + plastic surgery didn't help either. anyway Happy Birthday Meg!

November 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLola

There's no official reason why Ryan never broke through with at least one academy nomination. She was well liked professionally in her prime.
We know it isn't the end for her.
You may whole heartedly disagree with the Kim Basinger Oscar win over Moore but it does represent an example that actresses who were once major stars can receive sentimental Oscar attention as a thank you for surviving and getting notice again.
Basinger's win has me hopeful for just about anyone who hasn't gotten their just due.

November 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter//3rtful

In terms of range, Ryan is easily superior to Roberts or Bullock. Roberts has also shown a similar initiative as Ryan did to venture out into other genres, but she came short in most of her attempts whereas Ryan excelled in comparison. However, the three queens have fascinating comedic ability, although Ryan and Roberts have always impressed me slightly more than Bullock (I say this because many of Roberts' and Ryan's comedic performances I believe where Oscar-worthy material, while I've never really been blown away by Bullock to the degree that it made me want to nominate her, much less bestow her with a statue). But back to Ryan, the two performances that sting the most, in terms of Oscar ignoring her, are When Harry Met Sally and You've Got Mail. Those two are her crowning achievements, at least in the comedic arena, and it's a shame she didn't get an Oscar for the first. She just aced When Harry Met Sally. (Hollywood needs to resurrect her!)

November 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

She got a SAG nomination, and a few GG nominations, but still came short. I never even got to enjoy her because she came before my time and she doesn't get like any good work anymore. :(

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

I've never really followed much of Meg's films but i have to say Sleepless in Seattle totally does it for me. That last scene is just so worth it. You know that they are going to get together but when actually it happens, you still end up swooning. That reminds me that i need to watch 'An Affair To Remember' one of these days.

Kate and Leopold wasn't half bad either. Hugh Jackman was pretty great in his role. Plus, i did like Sting's 'Until..'

I've never had a problem with Meg. I'm not so sure why she seems to have fallen off these days, but like RJ noted, that whole Dennis Quaid/Russell Crowe thing did put a damper on her star.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck

This post makes me so happy and so sad at the same times. I always think of Ryan as one of the most underrated actors in the 90s.

It's weird that no one seems to ever mention her fine work in “Promised Land”, which was really the one that put her on the map in 1987. That performance was a great mix of both her comedic and dramatic chops, and I'd would even give her a supporting nom that year.

Another one of her underrated gem is "Addicted to Love". Funny what was considered too "creepy" as rom-com back then is looking almost too "innocent" in nowadays. Also wish people would rediscover her winningly nuanced performance in "I.Q", which was strangely ignored by the Golden Globes even though she was clearly better than four of the comedy nominees (besides Jamie Lee Curtis) in 1994.

1. When Harry Met Sally
2. Promised Land
3. You've Got Mail
4. When a Man Loves a Woman
5. Addicted to Love
6. In the Cut
7. I.Q
8. Courage Under Fire
9. Joe Versus the Volcano
10. Hurlyburly

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjoy

Meg's always been underrated, maybe it's her "cuteness" or maybe it's her roles...I have no clue but it stinks either way. I'm not so sure the Russel Crowe affair is really that much of an issue anymore, I don't know many people who even remember it. When Harry Met Sally is my favorite of all of her rom-coms and she was great in When a Man Loves a Woman.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

My view would simply be that, while Meg showed the widest range of acting possibilities, the dramatic films she chose to balance her rom-coms were not quite as good as her sisters-in-crime's. Who remembers any of these films ? Even In the Cut is not exactly Campion at her best... So I bet it is mostly a result of bad choice and ... bad luck.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLuc Martinon

Interesting question. What's interesting to notice Ryan in comparison to Roberts is that Roberts was already being distinguished for her film work at the VERY beginning of her film career. By her early 20s, Roberts had already won two Golden Globe nominations and had two Oscar nominations to her name, which is impressive and kind of seems to me that her peers were already entranced with her and eager to award her for her work. When Erin Brockovich came around--which was the perfect mixture of Julia Robert's dazzling screen persona + comedy chops + dramatic elements--it was a done deal for the Oscar...

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

^^^ Sorry, meant to say Roberts had won two Golden Globe AWARDS.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

She is a good actress especially in romantic roles. But while i agree that The Russell Crowe affair alienated form her american audience, it was also one of the few things that made her personality interesting. In fact what prevents me from calling her a great actress is the fact that she is a dull actress. She is always good, but predictable, most of the times the audience knows how she is going to play each role.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterManos

Well, if you become a movie genre "the Meg Ryan movie" you can't suddenly try to become another one, the "Meryl Streep movie".

I think she was by far the more constricted to the rom-com genre. Roberts had started with dramatic roles and always tried to combined both (am I the only one who liked Mary Reilly? Yes, probably) and Bullock had had her breakthrough in an action movie (Speed), so both had a wider range of movies to star in.
The reaction to her more dramatic roles was similar to the reaction Harrison Ford had when playing anti-heroes: Whaaat??

I also think the genre, the rom-com started to get worse during their queendoms. It had its peak with Ryan, an uneven second chance with Roberts and a Katherine Heigl level with Bullock.

And then, the Russell Crowe affair was just the ending. We're too hypocritical to accept flaws in our heroes(/heroines. And unfortunately nothing has changed much. If there were pictures of Whiterspoon playing with a dildo leaked to the internet today, it'd be the end of her career, even with her Oscar and all.

What she's done to her face to me it will never be enough reason to stop working, not as long as there are the Lisa Rinas or the Barbara Walters etc, that really look like mad scientists experiments and are still working.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

My views on Meg Ryan are well known, so it gladdens my heart to see other people giving her some respect.
Good call on the Flesh And Bone picture too Nat, I know it's a terrible cliché, but that film blew me away. For me it's the best film of Meg's career and that moment when she exhales on hearing the gunshot is incredible.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul S

I agree with posts above about her love life tarnishing her sweet family image and her p/s disaster although that hasn't stopped kidman getting roles even though she looks less and less like a real person,her age went against her too as often happens and the projects she picked,all star vehicles,an ensemble like crash would have been a good idea in 2004 or a juicy support role i always imagined her in virgina madsens sideways role.

Her best work imo is when harry met sally comedy and when a man loves a woman drama,she should have been in the 94 line up over winona and miranda defintely.

I feel renee z has gone the sam way as meg and will never get her early 00's reign back just as meg never got hers back.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMARK


November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

I'm surprised The Doors hasn't come up; I think she's fantastic in it.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I lurve the scene in Sleepless in Seattle where she's singing along with the Christmas music in her car. If you don't fall in love with her in that scene.....

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDerek

It's always astonished me that neither "When Harry Met Sally" nor "Sleepless in Seattle" netted her nominations. I mean, given their tremendous popularity and the fact that Ryan was universally acknowledged as enchanting in both. And she certainly exhibited plenty of range in some of her later roles. Her sterling work in "Courage Under Fire" was definitely nomination worthy. And as far as I'm concerned, the only disappointing aspect of Campion's "In the Cut" was its lacklustre box-office performance. Ryan was marvelous in it. And it should have netted her yet another nomination.. It would have been frustrating enough if she'd always been a bridesmaid at the Oscars. But the Academy never even invited her to the wedding. Inexplicable.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterken

I lurve Sleepless in Seattle-I personally think that it's the best of all the Rom-Com's they all did (my favorite of Julia's being Notting Hill and a sentimental attachment to While You Were Sleeping keeping it to Bullock's). I personally think that was the year she could have taken the nomination away from Debra Winger in Shadowlands, though she obviously wouldn't have been able to beat Hunter. I think if she wants a comeback, it will have to be a couple of years before Oscar calls-reunite with Tom Hanks/Nora Ephron, and then couple what will be a certain blockbuster with a second, "Erin Brockovich/Blind Side"-esque feel-good drama that will land the Oscar nod. It'll take more than just an out-of-the-blue role for her to make it a first-time shot at the Kodak, however.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Tper

Call it the Gwyneth Paltrow problem - perceived as too sweet, too blonde, too charmed, too square. I think that, like Paltrow, she built up a kind of negative charge among certain sectors of the audience during her years at the top that, when she stumbled, instantly became a huge backlash. And she didn't have the time to recover that Paltrow has had, as the stumble happened later in her career.

She may also be one of those stars whose core constituency of fans was always smaller than it appeared; plenty of people were happy to see her because she indicated reliable Hollywood entertainment like 'Sleepless' etc., but once the movies stopped being as reliable, or became 'difficult' like 'In the Cut', they just fell away.

Roberts's career got rockier earlier, which may have helped innoculate her in the long term, and I think she and Bullock were always more popular with straight guys than Ryan.

BTW, I think her best comic work is in 'Joe vs. the Volcano', particularly as the second of her third characters - really funny, stylised stuff. And I think she's really interesting in 'In the Cut'.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaika

@Mike in Canada

Ryan was cast because Stone didn't have a star in the film. The real irony is she's the only one who actually ever was a star. The other female performance in Kathleen Quinlan did snag herself a much deserved career nomination in Supporting Actress for Apolo 13. It did help that her Doors' producer Brian Glazer also produced that picture too. I love Quinlan in The Doors. It's so good it makes me wish someone will wise up and use her well to another Supporting Actress nomination/possible win.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter//3rtful

I love WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN. I remember it being wrenching. (And I'll admit THE WOMEN is a guilty pleasure. Quite guilty.)

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKurtis O

Indeed, I always loved the romcom triangle of Ryan/Roberts/Bullock. They were so likeable and yet capable of really interesting, at times harsh variations of their typical mode (Ryan in "Addicted to Love", Roberts in "My Best Friend's Wedding"). As I wrote in that "You've Got Mail" piece that you linked to, I think Ryan's downfall came through the general public's deminished desire for her sort of romcoms - "You've Got Mail" came out the same year as "Sex & The City" premiered on TV and the romantic comedy was never the same - which lead into the Crowe scandal, which must've stressed her into getting unfortunate plastic surgery and taking roles in lesser films just to remain working. Sad, really.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

She ruined her face. Too much surgeries. Have you seen her lips lately.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDominic

Maybe she is just not that good. Like, get over it?

I mean, there is not special about her but the fact she can carry awful movies directed my absolutely untalented people like Nora Ephron. Her drama skill are not special, either. Commendable, at best.

I don't think she is bad, at least not bad all the time, but her fate was not unfair. She made a lot of money and her time has passed. She is like the Dolph Lundgren of rom-com. He was good at beating people hard but nobody expected him to be an Oscar nominee!

Bullock, too. She is not special, but she tried hard and, yeah, she is lovely.

Roberts is a completely major league. She is ironic, funny, has an excellent talent for line reading and her comedy is really exceptional. And she plays romance brilliantly, too, keeping it down-to-earth and real for most of us with her self-deprecating and tender sarcasm. And she knows she is not that beautful, but her normality is absolutely charming.

Meg Ryan is not that interesting, at all. She is just a blond woman with good looks and no IT. No big persona. She could overcome this by commiting herself to being a more interesting actress, but she just can't be that great. She will never be a, let's say, Cate Blanchett.

Now that her romcom subpar queen career is over (thank God) she could try some supporting roles in a few mainstream pictures, to earn some cash. That's fine, and never delivering an oscar-caliber performance is not a shame. Not every actor is gonna be great. That's it.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Well, it only took 25 comments before we got the usual clichéd comments about Meg's face.
Funny I could have sworn Nathaniel asked for non hateful reasons for Meg's decline.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCustard

Not having seen all her dramatic work I can only base my opinion on the few I have seen and her comedic work most of which I have viewed. In her prime, Sally and Sleepless, she is sweet, charming and very relatable and even in her films leading up to that say Innerspace and The Presido the same was true but then suddenly she started to distance herself both from the audience and her characters and the magic started to ebb. Starting around Addicted to Love she became brittle and arch hardly the things you look for in a romantic herione. Add in her choice of material most of which was not that great and the fade was inevitable. I don't think her unfortunate choice of far too much surgery and that ghastly stringy hairdo that she adopted necessarily factored into her decline initially but right or wrong it now is so often distracting that it impedes the impact of any performance she gives. I always thought she was much closer to Sally Field in her persona than either Bullock or Roberts but Sally's talent is of vast scope and she has always remained herself and so has been able to weather the winds of change I don't see that happening for Meg. I don't think she's untalented she has just strayed too far from what people responded to during her salad days.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Custard --- thanks for noticing. I'll never get why some people hate her. I think she is quite a good actor. Maybe she made bad choices but MANY actors do, and many of them recover from the bad moves. So i just think her case is an interesting one. I really think it's a combo of all of hte problems rather than one specific thing.

Laika -- great point that i hadn't thought of actually. Maybe early career stumbles aren't actually bad for the major actors. It seems crazy to think of it now but many people thought Julia Roberts was "over" long before My Best Friends Wedding and Notting Hill and Erin Brockovich rolled around.

Glenn -- thanks for chiming in. I don't really like You've Got Mail but I liked your article :) and sometims i've considered rewatching it because Nick really likes it too and you both have good taste.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I've never really understood the whole America's Sweetheart designation for most of the people who've been chosen. I'd be more likely to choose someone like Sarah Paulson. I never really warmed to Meg Ryan, although I liked her in When Harry Met Sally. But for me, the funniest scene in the movie is where Carrie Fisher and the other second lead in the movie ditch Harry and Sally and run away.

But Meg started overusing a specific expression, a sneer. She tilts her head to one side, opens her mouth and curls her lip, and squints her eyes. I believe it's meant to express comedic disbelief, but it always took me outside the movie. It's an expression that reminds me of a mean alcoholic. Then I'd feel ambivalent, like the actress wasn't really a mean drunk, but she really wanted to play a dramatic part like that, but why was she doing it now?

I gave up on her totally with Kate and Leopold. She has the gorgeous Hugh Jackman, and all she can do is sneer at him as if he's scum.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I think people who hate Meg Ryan are typically people who hate rom coms, plain and simple. I also think Ryan knocked it out of the park with ...Harry and I haven't seen her knock it out of the park since. I'd handily put Roberts and Bullock ahead of her as my favorite rom com queens, but I think the goodwill is there, if she can find a way to cash in on it. Her looks don't help her at this stage, sadly, and she's had some real misses (when I think recent Meg Ryan, I think The Women).

Plus, we should remember Bullock only received a single nomination. I think the icon status has now been solidified for the rom com queens of that era, but Oscar needs an excuse to shower them. She needs a box office hit that reminds us why we liked her in the first place.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Laika said: "I think that, like Paltrow, she built up a kind of negative charge among certain sectors of the audience during her years at the top that, when she stumbled, instantly became a huge backlash."
I couldn't have told it better. Moreover, regrettably, it is also applicable to Julia Roberts nowadays (why so many hate?)

I think that the problem of Meg Ryan may have been simply bad luck with her dramatic choices. She has not an 'Erin Brockovich' or a 'The Blind Side', but neither a 'Closer' or a 'Crash' to certify her acting talent (Because we know that, unfortunately and inexplicably, a 'Closer' certifies an acting talent more than a 'My best friend's wedding').

And I also think that 'Mary Reilly' is tremendously underrated, Iggy!

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbonobo

At first, when Nathaniel mentioned "Moore," I couldn't understand why he was talking about Demi in such respectful acting terms. Once I figured out he meant Julianne, my faith was restored. :)

Put me down as a Meg fan, and I also LOVE her in Joe vs the Volcano. The first 2/3 of that movie are funny, smart, and life-affirming.

I think her looks -- in their cuteness -- do not easily translate to an acting career of a woman in her 40s and 50s, though you would have thought the same about Sally Field, and she has defied that. But I think her type of look is behind the plastic surgery overreach. Sad, really. I am rooting for a comeback, and Serious Moonlight was a disaster.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

My comment about her face was not hateful. It is simply a fact. Don't get me wrong: I do love Meg Ryan, but she can't play an everyday woman now. Her face implies money to pay for the surgeries. She could play a soccer mom, but it has to be a rich soccer mom. Can you imagine Meg Ryan playing a homeless woman? Or even just a clerk in a small town fast-food joint? Unfortunately, no. Seeing the stills from Flesh and Bone reminds how much her face changed. Sad reality of Hollywood, where women don't think they can age...

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDominic

When a Man Loves a Woman was VERY intense, I saw it in the theaters back in the day and LOVED it!

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGarrett

I've always been a fan-- and not just of the rom coms. She was great in Courage Under Fire and When a Man Loves a Woman, among others.

I agree that the big problem is the way her appearance has changed. Again, not a hateful comment at all-- it's just that she doesn't look like herself any more. I'm sure Roberts and Bullock have also had work done, Kidman certainly has, but they're still recognizable.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

Meg Ryan's career stalled when she f'd with her face. No need to sidestep around what's obvious.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLem

I'm not a huge fan of Meg Ryan, but I do think she's delivered some great performances. I remember the Russell Crowe affair having a negative effect on her public image, but I still wonder if that was the main reason why her career started it's decline. I enjoyed her dramatic work in "In the Cut" (as well as that inspirational biopic that same year - "Against the Ropes"), and have been kinda rooting for her to get another successful film every time she's released one lately. After that "The Women" remake, it seems she's been stuck in indie films ("In the Land of Women" "Serious Moonlight").

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P.

I am sad to see Meg Ryan's drift as well. Always loved her radiant face on screen. I disagree with some who feel Sandra is not as interesting as Julia. "While You Were Sleeping" is a guilty pleasure. It would be fun to see all three "queens" together in the same film. Sad to say, but I do think Meg's affair with an unloved Russell Crowe affected her popularity negatively. And although she did more meaty roles, none of them struck the right note with Academy voters. Sandra and Julia are also savvy with an interview and wooing the public and voters. I never remember Meg being especially talented in these same circumstances. Oprah interviewed her once, and Meg seemed befuddled that people actually liked her.

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermichaeltn

I liked In the Land of Women and alot that had to do with Meg Ryan's performance. There was such a quiet sadness in her character. I didn't notice her plastic surgery. I hope that she has a hit and comes back, she has made me laugh and cry many times during her hey day!

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn K.

she still looks like herself to me.

but then... i guess i have a higher tolerance for botox and the tuck and lift here and there. I see her face and she just looks like Meg Ryan older to me but with fuller cheeks (a common procedure i don't like (see also Madonna). the only thing that really bugs me is the intense stretching and worked over look. I sometimes have a hard time watching Jessica Lange and Faye Dunaway now but i often don't get what people are upset about in regards to Meg Ryan's face.

November 21, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Because Meg Ryan looks horrible now, and there's no real getting past it. It's not a difficult concept to grasp what was the real cause of her career collapse. It's not about a lack of talent or poor career choices. She's run the gamut of hit comedies and Oscar-bait dramas. The reality of things now is that she's just not believable looking as an actress anymore. It happens to the best (and worst) of them.

November 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLem

@MARK and bonobo, He! We can found "The 3 Mary Reilly fans fan club". An exclusive one indeed. .)

November 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

Loved her in "Renaissance."

November 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLynne

Do you mean Restoration ?
One of several great Meg Ryan performances that passed virtually unseen.

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul S
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