You would be hard pressed to find a woman more closely associated with romantic comedies than Meg Ryan. Ryan practically defined the genre in the 1990’s and dated male stars as big as Dennis Quaid, Russell Crowe, and John Mellencamp during the peak of her career. Yet, the once sought-after leading lady hasn’t had a major hit in almost 15 years. Perhaps Meg Ryan could have taken a lesson from Sandra Bullock, who also spent many years as a romantic comedy darling, but, unlike Ryan, Bullock branched out into action films and serious dramatic roles while she was still in high demand. As a result, Ms. Bullock has multiple academy award nominations, one win for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and literally hundreds of awards and nominations with other awards associations. Ms. Ryan’s most recent nomination was a Golden Raspberry for worst actress. What happened?
Pushed into acting at a young age by her “almost famous” mother, Meg Ryan’s early career was marked by bit parts and inauspicious roles in minor genre films. One of her earliest roles was as Betsy Stewart in the soap opera As the World Turns. She also appeared in horror movies, science fiction flicks, fast food commercials, and mystery films before snagging a minor role in Top Gun. On screen for only a few minutes as one of the pilot’s husbands, Ryan still managed to make a big splash with her classic line, “Take me to bed or lose me forever!” The spirit of this cute-but-tough character would help earn Ryan a breakout role in Rob Reiner’s bar-raising romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally.
Reiner’s so-called “perfect date movie” exploded across America in 1989, growing by word of mouth as the distributors catered to endless demands for more screenings. The movie featured the story of a would-be couple and their relationship over a dozen years, exploring the question of whether or not men and women can ever manage to just be friends. The two stars, Ryan and Billy Crystal, were lauded as having instant, palpable chemistry, and the movie has gone on to be a staple for first dates, midnight movie screenings, and “greatest film ever” lists. It is widely considered to have set a new standard for romantic comedies and put the young Ryan in high demand.
Ryan’s subsequent movies followed the pattern set by When Harry Met Sally, plopping Ryan into plucky, dream girl characters appearing opposite charismatic, lost-puppy-like leading men. She appeared with Tom Hanks in two romantic comedies, the wild, globe-spanning silliness of Joe vs. the Volcano, and the more subdued, better received, quiet desperation of Sleepless in Seattle. Sleepless in Seattle featured star-crossed lovers who were born to find each other. The idea resonated with the world’s lovers and the world’s lonely-hearted enough to make ten times its production budget at the box office. It was also nominated for several awards and brought more attention to Meg Ryan. Five years later, Hanks and Ryan would unite for a third romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail. This film was similar in theme and similarly successful. Ryan went on to film further romantic comedies including French Kiss, I.Q., and Hanging Up, but these were less successful. Despite a few wins in slightly more dramatic turns, including the animated Anastasia, City of Angels, and When a Man Loves a Woman, Ryan was unable to break out of her early typecast. Her cachet was coming to an end.
Ryan made a number of unsuccessful films throughout the 2000’s, with regrettable reviews and levels of attendance. One notable hit during this period of time was 2001’s Kate and Leopold, in which Ryan was paired with Hugh Jackman. Kate and Leopold was a wish-fulfilling romantic comedy about a woman who falls in love with a wealthy time travelling gentleman. It was a surprise hit, making almost $80 million worldwide on a budget of just over half that. Apart from that spike in fame, Ryan struggled to find praise, attention, and work throughout much of the decade. Ryan left the limelight for several years, but eventually returned to Hollywood to star in several more poorly received films. 2008’s remake, The Women, was so heavily panned that even its few positive reviews had to be given disclaimers and warnings. Time magazine called it one of the worst movies of all time. Other reviewers suggested that it was intolerable past 30 minutes. Ryan made few movies after The Women and even those struggled to find theatrical distribution.
Most recently, Ryan has attempted to branch off into other media. She has made an attempt at directing with the film Ithaca, an adaptation of the 1943 William Saroyan book, The Human Comedy. The film is slated to be released at the end of 2015. Ryan may be in talks to star in the female-centric sequel to How I Met Your Mother, unsurprisingly entitled How I Met Your Dad. She has also reportedly attempted to produce and star in a new comedy pilot of her own design, but this effort has seemingly been abandoned or otherwise fizzled out before it could get off the ground.