Ms. Ryan marathon 

Insights gathered from 20 hours of Meg

By now you’ve probably heard that Meg Ryan appears nude in some graphic love scenes in her new movie, the Jane Campion-directed In the Cut (also reviewed in the issue). To hear people discuss this turn of events over the past week, from sportscasters and late-night TV hosts to the man on the street, American men have been looking forward to seeing Meg Ryan naked more than peace in the Middle East or a cure for cancer.

What’s really interesting about this is that she’s just getting around to doing this now. She’s gone partway naked before, with a brief topless flash in The Doors, but usually actresses do nude scenes early in their careers and worry about living them down later. At 42, aging very gracefully and looking back on a career of squeaky-clean “America’s sweetheart” roles, Meg Ryan appears to be going about the whole thing in reverse.

Of course, Jane Campion is a respected director (even if her newest movie is taking a critical mauling), not some two-bit casting-couch scumbag who exploits young starlets for their natural resources. And it’s dangerous to go second-guessing actors’ motives in tackling certain roles, but questions remain: Is Meg Ryan getting desperate (hardly seems likely, since she pocketed a cool $15 million for Kate & Leopold)? Is she a more daring actress than we might have guessed from her light romantic-comedy fluff? Is she just bored with being such a goody-goody, and has she even always been as much of a goody-goody as we tend to think? I spent all weekend reviewing the evidence.

Top Gun (1986)
It’s easy to forget that Meg Ryan has a small part in this macho stroke-fest, even with her immortal line “Take me to bed or lose me forever.” Actually, it’s easy to forget there are women in this film, period, because they’re basically there as a smokescreen for the flyboys preoccupied with lubing each other’s fuselages. You can choose to ignore the hilarious double-entendres (“I want some [male] butt,” “I’m gonna be straight with you, man.”), but can you ignore the oiled-up beefcake beach-volleyball romp to the tune of Kenny Loggins’ “Playin’ with the Boys?” Or how about the last shot of the film: two fighter planes roaring off into the sunset, and 10 bucks says Kelly McGillis ain’t flying one of them?

The original tagline of Top Gun was “Up there with the best of the best,” but it should be “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” None of this has much to do with Meg Ryan, but at least she got to add “minor role in the saber-rattlingest future cornerstone of gay critical studies” to her resume. If she even noticed, that is—but how could she not? Note: The love scene between Cruise and McGillis was filmed and added after the movie’s initial release—after audiences demanded one. Now why do you suppose they did that?

When Harry Met Sally (1989)
If you had to (read: got to) chuck the entire Meg Ryan filmography except for a single movie, this would be the one to keep. All the crucial Meg Ryan elements are there: the blue eyes and blond hair, obviously, plus the defiant, eyes-closed, chin-tilted-upward smile and the adorable capacity for mock umbrage. “I have just as much of a dark side as the next person,” she tells co-star Billy Crystal, but he doesn’t believe her and neither did anyone else.

When Harry Met Sally laid the foundation for the kind of role Ryan would play in nearly all of her subsequent romantic comedies: the romantic dreamer stuck with a boyfriend/fiancé she likes but doesn’t love, emotionally available should just the right man happen to come along. And he always does. This is also the movie history will blame for introducing Meg Ryan to her chief enabler, writer Nora Ephron. Classic Meg Ryan: The fake orgasm scene. Swear count: Meg says the f-word twice, once for effect and a second time out of anger. Possible turn-ons: black knee socks, karaoke version of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
Ryan plays three characters: an office clerk, a suicidal “flibbertygibbet” and the flibbertygibbet’s sister, who falls in love with a man (Tom Hanks) hired by a superconductor magnate to jump into a volcano on a Polynesian island. The islanders won’t grant mineral rights to the island unless the tycoon comes up with a way to appease their angry volcano god, so Hanks—mistakenly diagnosed with terminal “brain cloud”—takes the job for a change of scenery. This movie, distantly related to It’s a Wonderful Life and the epic of Gilgamesh, is just as bizarre now as it was when it first came out. Swears: one “bullshit.”

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Better than its wretched sequel, but that’s like saying chlorine gas is better than mustard gas, or that drawing is nicer than quartering. Nora Ephron must be destroyed, not just for Meg Ryan’s sake but for all of ours. Their collaboration is hastening the technological alienation of American society, and also a catastrophic schism in dating demographics that might already be underway. On the bright side, Sleepless in Seattle gives you a lot of one-on-one time with Meg Ryan because she spends most of the movie listening to the radio and making cute faces with no one else around. You know how, in Blade Runner, the replicants start developing strange obsessions because they only have a few years to store up the feelings that humans take for granted? If you watch enough Meg Ryan movies in a row, steeped as they are in maudlin sentimentality, you start to develop some weird feelings yourself. Possible turn-ons: Ryan tries on a wedding dress, which is closer to marriage than her characters usually get and might be a turn-on for some people.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)
In the future, movie roles will be given not to overpaid actors, but to overpaid CEOs outbidding each other to limp and grimace through feature-length corporate infomercials like this one, which affords an obscene amount of product-placement time to Starbuck’s while masquerading as a defense of independent bookstores. Marxist film scholars: Note that characters played by Meg Ryan are typically willing to let themselves be compromised by capitalism, as long as it’s capitalism with Tom Hanks’ face and that’s good with kids and likes to write vacuous e-mail prose. For sheer banality, few movie experiences can touch watching You’ve Got Mail back to back with Sleepless in Seattle. It’s like staring at vanilla pudding for two hours and then starting at cottage cheese for another two. Possible turn-ons for Meg Ryan fans: black tights, good typing skills.

Proof of Life (2000)
Ryan stars as the wife of an engineering subcontractor (David Morse) who falls afoul of a South American revolutionary group because the dam project he’s working on is underwritten by a large oil company that wants to run a pipeline over it. Russell Crowe co-stars as the “K and R” (kidnapping and ransom) agent for a London-based insurance firm specializing in wealthy and/or politically important clients. During hostage negotiations, it comes to light that the subcontractor has a comforting ritual of saying, “Let’s see what Alice has made for us tonight” while cooking grubs and tree bark in his mountain death camp. Which just goes to show you the lengths a guy has to go to really impress Meg Ryan with his tenderness.

Proof of Life is a good example of how rumors surrounding a film’s production can often lend a strange flavor to the film itself, like an apple that’s been stored near a bag of onions. If you pay any attention to these kinds of things, it’s hard to watch the film without thinking about the tabloid frenzy in the wake of Ryan’s alleged offscreen dalliance with co-star Crowe. The denouement leaves you with the unsettling feeling that Ryan halfway wants her husband to die so she can hook up with Crowe and not feel bad about it. Meg Ryan’s swear tally: one s-word, one f-word, one “bullshit.” Weirdest line: “Let me grieve!”

Addicted to Love (1997)
By now, viewers should be used to Meg Ryan playing characters in a permanent state of leaving one relationship and easing right into another. Addicted to Love is slightly different because she actually wants to destroy her former fiancé, not let him down easy, and that’s how she ends up with Matthew Broderick, an astronomer whose former girlfriend is Ryan’s ex-fiancé’s new flame. Together, they squat an abandoned building across the street from the new couple’s apartment and spy through a camera obscura that Broderick builds before eventually figuring out they’re really in love with each other. A truly awful movie with about as much chemistry as an IRS audit, but at least it’s something different for Meg Ryan.

Specialty turn-ons: Ryan eats a hot dog, drunkenly hurls her panties at Broderick, threatens to nail his penis to an overhead beam. I can’t believe Meg Ryan said it!: “The only way that girl is coming back to you is if a blast of semen catapults her across the street and through the window.”

City of Angels (1998)
Every so often, along comes that movie to make you wish you were a million-ton can of Raid pointed right at Hollywood. This is one of mine—a toxic distillation of every cheeseball angel-movie and chick-flick cliché ever. Just when you think it can’t get drippier than Nora Ephron, you get dialogue like this from Nicholas Cage: “I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss from her mouth, one touch of her hand, than eternity without it. One.” It astounds me that people are so easily taken in by such contrived quasi-spiritual schmaltz. I would rather spend eternity chewing down a mountain of tin foil than ever, ever, ever see this movie again. Naughty bits: Nicolas Cage’s weenie, glimpsed briefly during the shower scene.

Hurlyburly (1998)
Meg Ryan’s first real bid to shed the America’s-sweetheart image was taking the part of Bonnie in this indie, directed by Anthony Drazan and co-starring Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, and Garry Shandling. It’s got some of the best ensemble acting you’ll ever see, including Meg Ryan’s, yet a farther cry from the bland, sterile sentimentality of most of her other movies is hard to imagine. Hurlyburly is unflinching in its depiction of misogyny as a male-bonding compound; Ryan’s character appears only after the male characters have already chortlingly recounted a bizarre sex story involving her, an airport shuttle, and an adjacent child. Ryan actually plays a troubled character with some carnal dirt under her nails in this movie. A chilling transformation.

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