We, the American movie going public, are collectively the worst boyfriend in the world. Compelled by a societal yearning every ten to fifteen years, we dump our reigning darling and cast about for our next national sweetheart, framing our search with the panache of a personal ad: she must be funny, beautiful, but not intimidatingly so because men must want her and woman must want to be her; she needs personality quirks, but not crazy, Annie Hall quirks; and, most importantly, she needs to be wholesome: the type of girl who can bear the weight of our PG, maybe PG-13, fantasies. She will be the answer to our mass loneliness, and the object of affection in our ideal romances. We will woo her onscreen through the tropes and machinations of the romantic comedy. She will be our destiny until time dims the spark between us and the search begins anew. The role of America’s Sweetheart is ageless. Sadly, the women who get to play it are not.
In 1989, Meg Ryan emerged from a handful of supporting roles in middling thrillers and unremarkable action films to be our girl. As Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally, she offered us a fresh face to adore, and we adored Meg. She seemed like the type of girl you could strike up a conversation with at a bookstore, coffee shop, or any other hip in a smart, sensitive sort of way setting. She emanated warmth and approachability, making her antithetical to Julia Roberts, who always seemed more cold and mocking than adorable.
Though a slender woman, a small amount of baby fat lent character and expression to her face. It creased when she smiled or frowned, but removed all markings when her expression returned to neutral. This subtle softness gave the illusion that she was unmarked by time, allowing her to seem forever twenty-eight to thirty-two throughout the 1990’s. And, like a good craftsperson, Meg Ryan learned to hone the expressiveness that seemed so natural in When Harry Met Sally. She captured befuddlement with wide eyes and a slack jaw: it played even better with a slow turn of the head. She mastered the double take and the long stare of deep perplexity. She knew when to smile when she cried and cry when she smiled. Meg Ryan made us race through the streets of New York to tell her that we loved her, brought us to the top of the Empire State Building, and made us want to be better men, just so we could see the smile, dry the tears, or hear her heavy sigh when we told her how much we cared.
Then, in 2001, time caught up to Meg Ryan with sudden cruelty. In the months after filming Proof Of Life she looked in the mirror and did not like the reflection. Perhaps it was the affair with her costar from that film, Russell Crowe, that exploded across the international gossip rags, the subsequent failure of her marriage to Dennis Quaid, or her looming fortieth birthday, but, for reasons that are wholly her own, Meg Ryan made a decision to alter her most valuable asset, her highly expressive face. The softness was gone, replaced by a thinner, more angular visage. These new features debuted in the film Kate and Leopold, the story of the Duke of Albany who travels through time from New York in 1879 to New York in 2001 and falls in love with a female executive who has given up on the emotion.
At its core the film is a classic exercise in star making. The established star, Ryan, breaks in the newcomer with the post blockbuster smolder, Hugh Jackman. Jackman wants to expand his appeal from his action hit, X-Men, into romantic comedy, and Ryan needs a hit. Jackman plays his lost in time, 19th century gentleman with charm and humor, striking the perfect romantic lead while Meg Ryan…
Meg Ryan played her market research executive, Kate McKay, like an old champion on a losing team who is calling it a career at the end of the season. Forgiving the tropes of the script, her character is brokenhearted, the source of the recent heartache occupies the apartment above her, and that she is an executive on the rise, bucking for a glass ceiling shattering promotion, every line the woman utters comes off as a shrill whine. What accompanies this unpleasantness is an expression from the assortment Ryan perfected over her career, but they are not the same expressions. She reached into her bag of tricks for something reliable, but she no longer has the face to achieve the effect she desired. The skin around her eyes and forehead have been stretched free of any sign of defect or character, her cheeks have thinned, and her lips protrude due to botox or some stiffening enhancement. What remains is not a nightmare but a sad frigid mask, Kate as the anti-Sally.
She does play one scene honestly. The dialogue describes what so few know for sure, but what can be theorized as the emotional toll of being America’s Sweetheart:
“I haven’t had all that many comforts and conveniences, Leopold, because I have been paying dues all of my life. And I’m tired. And I need a rest. And if I have to peddle a little pond scum to get one then so be it.”
The words read like a retirement speech spoken on 2,400 screens across the nation, but America wasn’t listening. Whether Meg Ryan knew it or not, the country had moved on without her. Legally Blonde had opened that summer, and Reese Witherspoon had us all at hello.