Kurt here. This week saw the rare screening of a romantic comedy at the gym. The film was While You Were Sleeping, Sandra Bullock's first effort following her bomb-on-a-bus breakthrough. An extremely nice movie with minimal ambitions, its key function was to introduce the world to Bullock: Girl Next Door, soon to be Bullock: Queen of Ubiquity. Seen retrospectively, it's a major career indicator. Even the first 20 minutes – which are the minutes I saw – are teeming with the Bullockisms that Americans have been gorging themselves on since the film's 1995 release. Bullock is Lucy, a ticket booth operator at a Chicago train station who has many of the traits we've come to know so well: unlucky-in-love aura, frumpiness that barely hides her beauty (unkempt hair, choppy bangs, oversized sweaters), unladylike behavior (she dips her Oreos in her cat's milk), peripheral support system of surrogate family members, and an everyday earnestness so complete it seems exhausting. There's even a calories-be-damned mention of the local Chinese food guy, a la Two Weeks Notice.
I've never had the pleasure of an end-to-end While You Were Sleeping sit, but as I and most of you know, this is a Big Secret movie hinged on a well-intended lie that will surely come out in the wash at the close of the second act. Lucy is nuts about Peter (Peter Gallagher), the dapper businessman who visits her window each day but barely knows she exists. When he's mugged and tossed onto the tracks, Lucy saves the day and rushes his comatose behind to the hospital, only to have her out-loud thoughts of marriage get her mistaken for his fiancée (or, as the fib-spreading nurse memorably repeated in the TV spots, his "FEEE-ahn-say"). In a charming bit of farcically contrived, old fashioned group hysteria, Peter's family fawns over Lucy after funneling into the hospital room, wholly believing and embracing the made-up engagement news as a desperate means to relieve some alluded-to family drama. As is typical, Lucy is too overwhelmed – and far too kindhearted – to wreck the mood and spill the truth.
A joy of the earlier scenes is seeing the many older actors who play Peter's relatives, at least a couple of whom are no longer with us. The late, great Peter Boyle is Peter's father (Peters, Peters, everywhere); character actor Jack Warden, who passed in 2006, is Peter's godfather; and Glynis Johns, who's still going strong at 87, is Peter's grandmother. The latter, who was indeed the one and only Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins ("votes for women!"), is at the center of the earlier portions' best jokes. Suffering from a heart condition that's been troubling the fam, she's the key reason Lucy needs to keep up her act. "When my mom found out I wasn't getting married, her intestines exploded," says Lucy's co-worker and lunch partner (Jason Bernard). "If you back out now, you may as well shoot grandma." The biggest laugh comes when the relatives arrive at the hospital one morning to find that Lucy spent the night with her faux beau. Abruptly and inexplicably, the godfather, addressing Lucy, says of the grandmother, "You're like her – she can sleep anywhere. And believe me, she has."
Such a nasty little zinger sticks out like a scarlet letter in this squeaky-clean star vehicle. Most of the time, we're awash in Lucy's goodness, and asked to nibble our nails as that goodness pulls her deeper into uncharacteristic dishonesty. Of course, what ends up happening is Lucy falls for Peter's brother, Jack (Bill Pullman), while Peter's conked out, but I didn't make it that far. What I did see was a sweet bedside confessional that Lucy offers to Peter, a gooey romcom monologue that really showcases Bullock's then-blossoming powers. With an almost impossible cuteness, she exudes mainstream-friendly desperation and self deprecation, which somehow seems both put-on and very true at the same time. You can see the career of a lovable superstar taking shape in that moment. It's no wonder Lucy's earnestness became a career staple. Bullock's so good at it, she does it too well.
1. For a while, it seemed Bullock was destined to star alongside vehicles: Bus (Speed), Train (While You Were Sleeping), Boat (Speed 2). It's totally a metaphor for her meteoric rise. Faster than a speeding Bullock!
2. During that same time, it also seemed she was destined to share the screen with Jacks: Keanu Reeves in Speed (Jack), Jeremy Northam in The Net (Jack), Bill Pullman in While You Were Sleeping (Jack).
3. Revisiting a film from the early days of a star's career can reflect a lot in terms of how said star's career panned out.
4. If you really want to make it as a leading lady in Hollywood, it might not be a bad idea to act opposite Sister Suffragette.
Do you like early Bullock? Or will you never get over that Oscar win?