"Meg Ryan"

By Johanna Schneller, US (April 1998), pp. 50-54, 96.

S0 THIS IS WHAT HAVING ALL THE money in the world looks like: a freshly shorn hilltop in Los Angeles, pale travertine-marble buildings so alive in the thin winter sunshine that they appear to breathe, a maze of azaleas dense with red and pink blossoms, and a movie star loping around an open plaza, swinging her arms. Not just any movie star: Meg Ryan, the most ethereal yet alert movie star around. She's visiting the new Getty Center museum in Brentwood, which has generated a buzz about art and architecture unprecedented in La-la Land and which has opened two hours early just for her. In a brown suede jacket and black pants as shiny and skinny as two licorice sticks, and with small oval sunglasses perched on her nose, Ryan spreads her arms wide and says, "I love the idea of the architect coming here before this was built and just sitting on top of the hill, deciding what views he wanted to see."

Inside the museum, Ryan exchanges her sunglasses for geeky black rectangular reading specs (which, because God is unfair, make her look only more beautiful) and takes a good look at the paintings and photographs. She pauses before a triptych of a bullet detonating against a metal block. "God, that's really violent; you can really feel the impact," she says. She pauses before a small Cezanne called The Eternal Feminine, in which a blank-eyed nude woman reclines in the center of a crowd of lusting men. "Kind of unexpected for him, isn't it?" she says. She pauses before the Getty's most famous painting, one of van Gogh's Irises, and stays there a long time, tilting her head this way and that. "Come over here and look at this," she says. "Look at this glass." At the glass? The glass in the frame that protects the painting? "Yes!" Ryan enthuses. "It's so nonreflective, you'd never know there was glass on it. I've never seen glass like that before."

AT 36, WITH 22 FILMS TO HER CREDIT, MEG Ryan is the reigning queen of befuddled love. Her little face (the width of most people's nose) dominates the Romantic Comedy shelf at Blockbuster, from A (Addicted to Love) to W (When Harry Met Sally...). Nobody gets dizzy like Ryan; no one careens down the familiar road from Mr, Wrong to Mr. Right half so fetchingly. "Look at that scene in Sleepless in Seattle where Meg shuts herself up in the broom closet to listen to the radio," says the film's co-writer and director, Nora Ephron (who also wrote Ryan's other big hit. When Harry Met Sally...). "Meg comes into the room and she's like a banshee. Her hair is flying back and forth, her bathrobe is flying back and forth; she looks like she's in some kind of hilarious cyclone. That kind of physical comedy is not like a pratfall — it's brilliant but so subtle that people don't realize how much it adds to the frenzy of a scene." Ephron is currently directing Ryan in their third romantic comedy, You Have Mail, in which Tom Hanks and Ryan fall in love on the Internet. "She gives you a delicious security," says Ephron. "She understands that writing a funny line is only the beginning of what has to be done to get a laugh. I'm embarrassed at how often I write scripts hoping that Meg will be in them."

Of course, Ryan also excels at the other half of romantic comedy: the romance. In midtizzy, she suddenly goes still, her face softens, and she becomes the embodiment of yearning — not just for love but for some unnamed something out there, something bigger than all of us. "She is absolutely beautiful but has no vanity about snorting through her nose," says Griffin Dunne, the director of Addicted to Love. "Then she can turn on a dime, from making you laugh to moving you."

"Meg has a light inside her, and she lets it shine through," says Luis Mandoki, who directed When a Man Loves a Woman. "She lights up the screen; she lights up a room. But it's not a performance. It's authentic."

But Ryan also has another, parallel career: darker, riskier films such as Promised Land, Flesh and Bone and When a Man Loves a Woman — stories of missed opportunities and violent mistakes, about love damaged or lost. These films fare less well at the box office. America, it seems, doesn't like to see its sweetheart looking so sad. ("I was fascinated by the reviews of Addicted to Love," Dunne says. "So many reviewers seemed appalled by Meg's being in such a dark movie. They took it personally—like, I've been tricked!' ")

"Meg is very cognizant of what's made her popular," says Colm Fiore, who plays Ryan's earthbound boyfriend in her latest movie, City of Angels. "She knows, in effect, that tousled hair sells tickets. But she's done that. Now she's trying to redirect the focus to other facets of her talent." (Due out in April, City of Angels, which co-stars Nicolas Cage, is a love story loosely based on Wim Wenders' delicate 1988 masterpiece, Wings of Desire, in which angels are sent to earth to comfort souls in need.)

"A lot of the films I've done are essentially stories about women who are finding their voice, women who don't know themselves well," Ryan says. "In romantic comedies, it takes the form of, 'Who should I marry?' But I can't do that anymore. I've kind of gone as far as I can go with that one." (Still, she is following up City of Angels with a Nora Ephron comedy; the girl is no fool.) In many ways, Ryan is just now finding her own voice. Sometimes its strength surprises her.

RYAN HAS BEEN CALLED "PERKY" APPROXI-mately 682,549 times. And although she has a tendency to mug — and yes, her grin inspires one to ponder just how many angels could dance on the curl of her upper lip, and her speech is embedded with exclamation points — in person she is not perky. She is not mindlessly happy. She is, rather, mindful, aware, on "receive" at all times.