“Magic.”

13 Dec

Sleepless in Seattle isn’t a Christmas movie, but it’s not NOT a Christmas movie, either…

So, there I was, glued to the TV set that February morning in 1990, eagerly waiting for the announcement of Oscar nominees for the 1989 film year.  I chose to tune-in to Good Morning America with then host, good ole Charles–Charlie–Gibson, an unabashed Oscar enthusiast. Among Gibson’s projected faves was Meg Ryan, enjoying a commercial and critical breakthrough with director Rob Reiner’s smash When Harry Met Sally… And why not? Ryan had already snagged a Golden Globe nomination and had plenty of name recognition. Furthermore, at that point, with only Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) and Michelle Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys) the only sure things, the Best Actress race seemed wide open. Ryan, Andie MacDowell (sex, lies, and videotape), and Kathleen Turner (War of the Roses) were heavily favored in some quarters.  I was rooting for some or all of the above, but mostly Jessica Lange (Music Box) who seemed to only have an outside chance against actresses in better received films.

And then it happened. Ryan was not among the five finalists, and Gibson seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed, if not incredulous, and he was not alone by any stretch. For example, my mother loved When Harry Met Sally…, but my relationship with it is a little more complicated because I don’t love it though I like it as a friend. I saw it when it first came out, and I enjoyed it very much while I watched it, but even then it seemed like a bit of a Woody Allen retread, a not uncommon observation. Yeah, I guess Meg Ryan is adorable in it, and, yes, she has that much lampooned scene in the deli in which she explains to Harry (Billy Crystal) how easy it is for a woman to fake an orgasm, and I think it’s cute that the two of them enjoy calling each other and talking during Casablanca, but I just don’t love the movie as a whole.

By the time Meg Ran appeared as Sally at a mere 28, she had already been acting in movies and TV since about the tender age of 18, but she wasn’t a star, that is, she wasn’t a star…yet. Of course, When Harry Met Sally… changed all that, and Ryan emerged as one of the most popular actresses of the early-to-mid 1990s. During the years between, say, 1990 and 1994, she starred in a number of high profile releases, not all of them necessarily huge hits, but those films revealed Ryan to be a particularly game,  risk-taking actress with a range that might not have been given its full-due. Consider that fresh from the success of When Harry Met Sally…, she segued to Joe Vs. the Volcano, an interesting failure from Oscar winning writer–turned director–John Patrick Shanley starring Ryan’s most famous acting partner, Tom Hanks. What’s interesting about this odd little flick is that while Hanks plays only the singular title character, Ryan portrays three women, each completely unique from the others. She scarcely looks like good ole Meg in one particular incarnation. The effect is a bit of stunt that’s not 100% successful, but Ryan rolls with the challenge. In 1992’s Prelude to a Kiss, opposite Alec Baldwin, and based on the Tony nominated play, Ryan portrays a new bride whose body is hijacked by a elderly, dying, man who crashes her wedding. In the first half (or third) of the film, Ryan bounces along as a slightly hesitant bartender falling in love with a man who adores her in a way she is not used to being adored. In the last half, she plays her character as if suddenly reinvigorated. Ryan portrays a man playing out his idea of how a young woman, a bride, no less, should walk, talk, and generally enjoy herself on a sun-soaked island honeymoon, but it’s not all cheap laughs. In one particularly powerful scene, Baldwin tearfully confronts the stranger masquerading as his wife and pleads for her return, but Ryan remains coldly defiant, revealing one of her greatest assets as an actress: listening. Really, really, listening.

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Coincidentally, Holly Hunter, 1993’s Best Actress Oscar victor for The Piano won damn-near universal acclaim for portraying a mail-order bride who, for reasons never entirely explained, remains mute. Like Ryan’s Annie, Hunter’s Ada makes listening look like art. She just does it on a seemingly deeper, more profound, level, and good for her. Writing this piece is in no way sour grapes against Hunter as her performance in The Piano is a truly singular achievement, one my all-time favorites, but a nomination for Ryan would have been a nice touch; after all, so strong was Hunter’s grasp on the statuette from the moment The Piano premiered at Cannes, it almost didn’t matter who else was nominated that year. No one stood much of a chance though Angela Bassett (pulling out all the stops as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It?) was well situated as a possible spoiler. The rest of the bunch included Stockard Channing (reprising her acclaimed stage role in Six Degrees of Separation), Emma Thompson (The Remains of the Day), and Debra Winger (Shadowlands, opposite Anthony Hopkins–who also co-starred in Thompson’s film as well). Winger was enjoying something of a comeback, thanks to strong notices in both Shadowlands and A Dangerous Woman. Of the nominees, only Thompson looms (or loomed) as a weak link, but not because she wasn’t splendid. Of course, she was, but she had just won the previous year (for Howard’s End, also opposite Hopkins); moreover, Thompson’s role in Remains of the Day doesn’t dominate her film as thoroughly as her competitors do theirs. Of course, even if Thompson had not been nominated, Ryan would have been far from a sure thing, thanks to the likes of Jodie Foster (Sommersby), Ashley Judd (Ruby in Paradise) and Michelle Pfeiffer (The Age of Innocence), to name a few other high profile contenders.

Between June of 1993 and December 1994, Ryan pushed herself to new heights in a quartet of wildly different films. First, she reunited with Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, a romantic comedy inspired by the vintage Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr weepie from the 1950s (itself a remake). The catch is that Ryan and Hanks share almost no screentime. Instead, their characters fumble across the map until finding each other atop the Empire State Building in the last reel. The Nora Ephron sleeper netted Ryan her second Golden Globe nomination. Next, was Flesh and Bone, a slice of Texas-noir in which Ryan co-starred (for the third time) with Dennis Quaid, her then husband. He’s a drifter, and she’s a down on her luck party girl. Unbeknownst to her, they harbor an almost unimaginable secret that leads to a confrontation with Quaid’s menacing dad, played by James Caan. Also on board in one of her earliest film roles? None other than future Oscar winner, Gwyneth Paltrow–riveting–as Caan’s wisecracking heartless sidekick. In the spring of ’94, Ryan landed her most demanding role up to that time, playing an alcoholic wife and mother in When a Man Loves a Woman. Ryan earned her first and so far only Screen Actors Guild award nomination, but neither a Globe nor an Oscar nod, in yet another year marked by much hand wringing that members of the Academy would not be able to find five suitable Best Actress candidates. Of course, history shows that movies about addiction often attract the Academy’s interest. Not so in this instance, but When a Man Loves a Woman still rates a second look, not only for Ryan’s powerful performance but also because it shifts focus from the usual Hollywood take and explores the role of the enabler in such situations, in this case played by Andy Garcia as the husband who tries to help Ryan in all the wrong ways. Ouch. Finally, December of 2004 found Ryan in a Doris Day-Rock Hudson style piece of fluff known as I.Q. Ryan’s character is, improbably, presented as the niece of no less than Albert Einstein, wittily played by Walter Matthau. Tim Robbins makes the most of his role as a mechanic with a crush on Ryan, but he over-estimates his appeal by passing himself off, with Einstein’s full-support, as a scientist–a plot, less the Einstein part, that at least partially recalls Day’s own Lover Come Back. Alas, I.Q., with all its whimsy proved to be a difficult sell for Paramount Pictures, but it’s a fine piece of entertainment, anchored not only by wonderful performances but also the exquisite touch of director Fred Schepisi.

No, Meg Ryan never reaped an Academy nod in spite of her considerable audience appeal–not that one necessarily translates to the other. Of course, Ryan famously gave up the role of Shelby in Steel Magnolias when presented the opportunity to star in When Harry Met Sally…. We all know what happened next: up and coming Julia Roberts, not nearly as well known as Ryan at the time, came on board and earned her first Oscar nomination for playing Steel Magnolia‘s pivotal role. Who knows if Ryan would have reaped the same accolades, but it is what it is.  Certainly, being the female lead in a project helmed by hitmaker Rob Reiner seemed more strategically sound than being in a female-led ensemble featuring three Oscar winners: Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, and Olympis Dukakis.  Of all Ryan’s most acclaimed performances, the one that arguably had the best chance of meeting the Academy’s approval is When a Man Loves a Woman. I certainly would not have balked at that. Her performance was as compelling as just about anything that actually found favor with the Academy during the 94/95 awards season.

That noted, the one Meg Ryan performance that strikes me as the one that Oscar truly got away from is in the aforementioned Sleepless in Seattle, a movie most appropriate to the current holiday season. No, technically, it does not begin with Christmas festivities, thanks to a brief prologue, but the story begins in earnest on Christmas Eve when Ryan, as a Baltimore Sun reporter, introduces her mild mannered fiancee (Bill Pullman) to her stuffy family over dinner. Later the same evening as Ryan’s Annie drives to Washington D.C. to meet her future in-laws, she flips her radio from one station to the next and soon becomes intrigued with the plight of Sam, aka “Sleepless in Seattle,” a widower whose son phones the “Dr. Marcia” show in hopes of helping his dad find love again. Against her better judgment, Annie cannot help but be drawn into a stranger’s story of meeting and falling in love–like magic–with this deceased wife, and his sense of profound loss. Of course, Annie loves her fiancee Walter, but she does not necessarily believe in magic, so why can’t she stop thinking about lonely Sam and his sad story?

Referring back to the powerful scene in Prelude to a Kiss in which Ryan’s newly “possessed” character listens defiantly to Alec Baldwin pleading for the return of his less aggressive wife, Sleepless in Seattle allows this actress plenty of opportunities to focus on the challenges of listening in a way that registers cinematically. Essentially, co-writer and director Nora Ephron charges Ryan with silently registering the emotional journey of a woman, who generally appears to be easily placated, as she finds herself slowly falling in love with a man she knows only by voice. The first and most powerful stage of this journey begins when Annie first hears about Sam (Hanks) while driving alone late at night. Her growing infatuation is subtle until she realizes something deep within her has been touched in a way she could not have imagined. Of course, Meg Ryan while not movie star gorgeous, a la Michelle Pfeiffer, is nonetheless, photogenic. That’s a bonus, but just look at how she exquisitely modulates a host of changes. Now, consider that when the scene was filmed, Hanks was likely nowhere in sight, and Ryan probably didn’t even have the benefit of playing off a recording of him reading his character’s lines. My educated guess would be Ephron filmed Ryan’s closeup as she responded to a burly crew member or an eager production feeding her the lines just off-camera, making her performance all the more remarkable. I first saw this movie when I was in my early 30s, only a year older than Ryan herself, and I didn’t even know how to drive at that time; however, since that first viewing, my life has changed significantly, and I have had many opportunities to make those solo treks late at night, and I now well know what it’s like to be puttering along, alone, and how the (relative) stillness and the radio can unlock suppressed memories, feelings, leading to slight or not so slight crying jags. Know what I mean? That’s what Ryan does in this film.

She actually performs an encore or two of the same scene, both late at night, of course, but in the cozy confines of the teeny kitchen of something resembling a famed Baltimore row house, close to the water. In the first variation, she tosses and turns in bed, literally inches from her snoring fiancee, and slowly creeps downstairs, and perhaps not so reluctantly turns on the portable radio while she sits at the table and, exquisitely, peels an apple. This being a movie, and a movie about how audiences love movie romance, the Dr. Marcia show is on at that very moment, airing a highlights show that revisits the whole “Sleepless in Seattle” bit. Ryan is so damned good at this that even with her face partially obscured, the audience registers what she’s feeling, what she’s thinking because, to clarify, we’ve already seen her experience it once, so we know without her necessarily repeating herself to the nth degree. Smart stuff. In another scene, having been tipped off by her friend and colleague (played by ever-reliable Rosie O’Donnell) to a new wrinkle in Sam’s saga, Ryan once again finds herself in the kitchen late at night, only this time she hides in the broom closet, lest she be busted by her beau. This scene is played strictly for laughs, and it’s fun watching Ryan engage in a little bit of slapstick as she tries to squeeze into the tiny closet.

Over the past decade or two, we have seen the likes of Hanks (Cast Away), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Robert Redford (All is Lost), and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), star in movies in which they share limited time with other performers, their characters adrift in unthinkable, uninhabited surroundings. Such enterprises can be construed as either the pinnacle of acting challenges or misguided strokes of vanity. What Meg Ryan does in Sleepless in Seattle is a bit different in that the effect is used sparingly and because, even when she’s not physically sharing space with another actor, she’s always listening and responding as if another actor is present. Also, even though Ryan and Hanks are kept apart throughout most of the movie, she still plays off two formidable performers, meaning Rosie O’Donnell and Bill Pullman.  Ryan and O’Donnell really do seem like old pals, whether in the workplace, grabbing a bit of lunch, gabbing on the phone, or, best of all, parked in front of the TV while watching An Affair to Remember and scarfing snacks. Pullman, meanwhile, turns out to be a real find, bringing substance to a role that doesn’t offer many prospects; however, he reveals in his last scene with Ryan that he certainly isn’t a pushover. And good for him. Oh, and a special shout-out to David Hyde Pierce, barely known by mainstream moviegoers at the time, for being so perfectly in-sync as Annie’s brother. Physically, Pierce and Ryan match up nicely as siblings, but they also share a sense of deft comic timing, quite effectively.

Even though Sleepless in Seattle gets its title from Hanks’ character and his  son’s matchmaking propensity, Ryan is the draw for me even though the script seems rigged in Hanks’ favor. Certainly, his character seems more sympathetic than Ryan’s does, a near inevitability remarked upon by both writer-director Epron, and her producing and screenwriting partner, sister Delia Ephron. Maybe that’s why I admire Ryan’s performance to the degree that I do–because she has to work harder since her character is not as sympathetically drawn as is her co-star’s Furthermore, Ryan’s Annie comes across as a bit of, well, a stalker. She even misappropriate company resources in her effort to track down, and, yes, stalk Hanks. She even does so with the covert blessing of her supervisor, that would be O’Donnell. Ethical considerations seem not to bother these two, but, maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing; after all, it’s just a movie, right? Indeed, Sleepless in Seattle is especially synthetic in that regard as the romantic longing that marks the movie’s first several sequences gives way to an increasingly obvious riff on Ryan’s favored old movie, An Affair to Remember. Maybe not plot point for plot point, but close enough Ultimately, as, again, affirmed by Ephron, Ephron, and Ryan on the Sleepless in Seattle DVD, this whole enterprise celebrates the power of movie romance, pure and simple. Yep, it’s a movie about movie romance because, and the point is indeed valid, by this point we are all groomed to expect real love, real romance, the way we see it depicted in the movies. Think about it. The effect is overwhelming.

Indeed Ephron, both Ephrons, have a point in that we do take our cues, and build our expectations for love and romance, from the movies. We want to feel like we’re in love in a movie, complete with backlighting, filters, and a really cool musical score. Similarly, many of us react just as fervently to the Christmas holidays, meaning we have absorbed the way Christmas is portrayed in movies, everything from It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street to A Christmas Story and Home Alone. And this is where I came in. No, Sleepless in Seattle is not a Christmas movie, but it’s not NOT a Christmas movie either. Certainly, like An Affair to Remember, it’s worth curling up in front of the TV with a full complement of snacks, taking a breather from  the holiday crunch, or watching with a loved one.  Enjoy, and may the magic of the holiday season be yours.

Thanks for your consideration…

 

 

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