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 Woman, Flesh and Bone, Courage Under Fire, Hurlyburly, etcetera).
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 Cut, When 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?