Film

Rom-com royalty Meg Ryan is coming home to woo us one more time

What Happens Later is Meg Ryan's return to the romantic comedy, decades after the roles that made her name

When Harry Met Sally...

THAT scene from When Harry Met Sally... in 1989 Image: Allstar Picture Library Limited / Alamy

The holy trinity of modern romantic comedies is the much-loved informal trilogy of When Harry Met Sally… (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998).  The incandescent onscreen presence of Meg Ryan, combined with the wit of late writer and director Nora Ephron, supercharged the rom com, dispelling the shallow and gendered cliches of the genre (spoiler: a bubbly female character enjoying a happy ending doesn’t make up for complex interiority or flimsy narrative).

As Ryan makes a much-anticipated return with What Happens Later, out in the US this week, now is the time to celebrate her successive slays, especially as Ephron’s graceful protagonists. 

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

In her book, I’ll Have What She’s Having, Erin Carlson discusses Meg Ryan’s early soap opera days: “Yes, she could cry on cue. But you never saw the wheels spinning. An open and giving performer, Meg ripped open her soul and laid it bare.”  

After a series of one-dimensional, cute girlfriend roles – including a fizzy turn as Goose’s loss-suffering other half in Top Gun (1986) – and losing out on ’80s hits The Sure Thing and The Princess Bride, Ryan was cast as Sally Albright in what remains perhaps the most acclaimed rom com of all, When Harry Met Sally…

Ryan’s fruitful partnership with Ephron seemed fated. Ever-ready with retorts for her scene partner Billy Crystal, she flexed her improv muscles, at ease with the fast-paced, spirited tête-à-têtes in the scripts. 

In a thriving rom com ecosystem there must be electric chemistry between the actors – a connection so convincing that it transcends scripts, so you feel the love even during a shouting match – of which there are plenty with Crystal and Tom Hanks in the later films. 

As a collaborative, challenging space, Ephron’s sets were fertile ground and Ryan was ready to up the ante. Recalling her idea to act out the infamous, provocative diner scene, she shrewdly observed that Sally “doesn’t necessarily have punchlines in that script, but she’s behaviourally funny. It came out of understanding that.” 

Meg Ryan was intuitive and energetic, simultaneously channelling a magnetic kind of Lucille Ball whimsy as well as the sensuality of a formidable movie star.

In terms of the pantheon of female romantic leads, the ’30s and ’40s had Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn, the ’50s and ’60s had Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn, the ’70s and ’80s had Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn, and seeing out the 20th century was Ryan. But her take on the female romantic lead was more dynamic and nuanced than her predecessors’.

Just as engaging in her plucky monologues as she was in the playful parts, as well as the more poignant moments, Ryan brought irreverence, embodied joy and emotional vulnerability to the big screen in an unprecedented way. Her impressive marriage of bold comedy instinct and emotional sensitivity – neither corny nor melodramatic – distinguished her. For every acerbic quip there was an adorable frown or quietly emotive moment. Not stilted or hammy in the way leading ladies sometimes were in the past, she was refreshingly natural in how she carried herself.  

The female stars of 2000s rom coms (Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Lopez, Sandra Bullock, Drew Barrymore, Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson, Cameron Diaz…) went on to employ shades of the colourful essence Ryan defined in the ’90s: the endearing vagaries, body language, and stirring sincerity; that well-calibrated mix of softness, spunk and strength. 

Meg Ryan was delivering substance, but also style. The trilogy’s richness and warmth – I’m nostalgic for a time feature films were shot on film – frames her enviable knitwear and preppy elegance. As a result, Ryan remains a timeless reference for chic autumn and winter fashion – just check Pinterest and Instagram mood boards. 

Now, as the star, director and co-writer of What Happens Later in which former flames (her co-star fittingly being fellow ’90s icon David Duchovny) are stranded at an airport, Ryan is sticking to Ephron’s winning formula. It’s one that still informs films today: a taut script with a simple conceit and appropriate portion of schmaltz, knowing that a not-too-overwrought premise allows for the humanity and humour of the characters to charm and move the audience.  

The mother of the rom com is coming home to woo us one more time.

What Happens Later is due out in UK cinemas in late 2023. Lucy Fitzgerald is part of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough scheme .

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Furiosa director George Miller on the function of stories and why Mad Max is a 'cautionary tale'
Furiosa
Film

Furiosa director George Miller on the function of stories and why Mad Max is a 'cautionary tale'

The Garfield Movie review – we're not feline the tubby orange tabby's full CGI makeover
Garfield in The Garfield Movie
Film

The Garfield Movie review – we're not feline the tubby orange tabby's full CGI makeover

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger – Scorsese's tribute to duo who inspired him
Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell, 1981.
Film

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger – Scorsese's tribute to duo who inspired him

Filmmaker Melanie Manchot explains how her drama Stephen can offer hope to addicts
Stephen Giddings in Stephen
Film

Filmmaker Melanie Manchot explains how her drama Stephen can offer hope to addicts

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know