I watched when When Harry Met Sally last weekend and found myself wondering afterwards, whatever happened to Meg Ryan? There was a time when she was America’s sweetheart; when she was the queen of romantic comedies and was considered an A-list actress; a time when, well, she made movies. How did the actress who reigned the box office in the 80s and 90s wind up making commercial and critical bombs like The Women and straight-to-DVD schlock like My Mom’s New Boyfriend in the last decade? Proof of Life happened, that’s how.
Meg Ryan epitomized sweetness, wholesomeness and effervescence. Years earlier, she and co-star Dennis Quaid fell in love on the set of their successful sci-fi comedy Innerspace and married in 1991. Theirs was a beloved Hollywood union that seemed destined to go the distance. She was making movies regularly and scoring hits consistently, like 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, and had appeared to cement her status as an A-list actress and America’s sweetheart until she encountered Russell Crowe.
In 2000, they co-starred in Proof of Life together; a film overshadowed by the media coverage of the actors’ purported affair. By this time, Ryan and Quaid had been married for 10 years, an eternity by Hollywood standards, and as far as the movie-going public knew, they had a perfect marriage and were living the American dream. When reports surfaced that Ryan had cheated on Quaid with Crowe, her professional image as America’s sweetheart was shattered. It came to light later that Ryan and Quaid’s marriage was all but over by the time she hooked up with Crowe, and Ryan dispelled the notion that theirs was a happy union when she stated that Quaid had been unfaithful during their marriage, but still the damage had been done and Ryan suffered the brunt of it. Her personal and professional worlds imploded and Ryan was branded with what was tantamount to a scarlet letter for her involvement with Crowe.
The scandal ruined Ryan’s public image and her career suffered a significant blow. Her career was largely built on the perception of her as a wholesome, old-fashioned romantic, girl-next-door in a long and happy marriage. Once the affair with Crowe surfaced, it seemed audiences and the industry no longer wanted anything to do with her. She made attempts to restart her career by retreating back into the romantic comedy genre with Kate and Leopold, but audiences did not warm to Ryan’s return to familiar territory and the film bombed. Then she took a couple of years off and returned with a completely unexpected role in a gritty and erotic thriller called In the Cut. Promotion of the film seemed to focus heavily on Ryan’s nudity in the movie rather than on its own merits or on Ryan’s acting in it, and even that didn’t generate enough interest to move audiences to see it.
Then in 2004, Ryan got another chance to reinvigorate her career post-scandal with a role as a boxing manager in Against the Ropes. The film was panned by critics largely due to its overuse of boxing clichés and overt likeness to the Rocky series, and grossed a paltry $6-million domestically. Then she starred in The Women – a female ensemble in the works since Ryan’s glory days as America’s sweetheart. When it finally got made, it suffered the same dismal results as Against the Ropes and it failed to reignite Ryan’s career or bankability.
After watching When Harry Met Sally last weekend, I was reminded of how much talent Ryan possessed during the golden years of her career as a romantic comedy leading lady. She was endearing, funny, warm and relatable, and she delivered performances with heart and humour, great comedic timing and wonderful sentiment. Her performance in When Harry Met Sally is my favourite with her role in Innerspace a very close second. It’s a shame that her career suffered so greatly after the Russell Crowe scandal and that she never really recovered professionally from it. Ryan’s career isn’t the same as it once was, but it still flickers with some life, and I, for one, hope that she is still offered some great opportunities with the promise of some good film roles ahead. Until then, we’ve got her great early performances when she was America’s sweetheart to tide us over.
What are your favourite Meg Ryan performances? Let us know in the comments section.