Once one of Hollywood’s best-loved actresses, Meg Ryan seemed to star in almost every hit film of the 1980s and 1990s. Now, however, America’s former sweetheart is a stranger to cinema screens, and heartbroken fans are wondering just what happened to her. But as it turns out, there’s more to Ryan’s case than meets the eye.
Having been raised by her actress mother, Susan Jordan, Ryan could have been expected to inherit the acting bug early on. But, strangely, this wasn’t the case. In fact, the future star actually grew up with her heart set on a different career entirely: journalism.
And although Ryan began studying the subject on the East Coast, she soon drifted instead towards the acting profession. Yet her decision was motivated less by a desire to perform than it was by financial necessity. “I only started acting – in commercials – to pay my way through college in New York,” she admitted to The Sun in 2014.
Around the early 1980s, Ryan made her first few commercials while studying at New York University. Most memorably, the budding actress played a thoughtful friend in a Campbell’s Soup advert who comforted her dejected roommate. Other gigs included commercial slots for Burger King and Aim Toothpaste. In fact, the Burger King ad featured a very fresh faced Ryan talking about a new £1 million game.
Ultimately, the allure of Hollywood proved too much, and the would-be journalist soon ditched college for acting. Through her mother, the then-19-year-old Ryan landed her first film role in Rich and Famous by famed director George Cukor. Nevertheless, this production lacked prestige with some such as The New York Times’ Vincent Canby labelling it as “all subsidiary effects” in a 1981 review.
Despite failing to win over the critics, Rich and Famous was a modest hit with audiences. And it resulted in Ryan gaining a recurring job in the soap As the World Turns. Like the best examples of daytime television, the program saw Ryan’s character involved in many kooky and farfetched storylines.
“It was fantastic,” she chuckled years later to The Guardian concerning her character’s marriage with a disability-faking psychopath. And yet Ryan – who starred in the series between 1982 and 1984 – always stayed professional despite her reservations. As she went on to explain, “We were so innocent because we were all trying our best.”
With a smattering of roles now on her resume, Ryan began to receive offers for higher profile productions. In 1986, the actress even gained a part on what would become the year’s highest grossing release Top Gun. But it wouldn’t be until When Harry Met Sally… that the actress truly gained stardom.
Indeed, a classic rom-com, When Harry Met Sally… charted the story of Ryan’s Sally Albright and friend Harry Burns (Billy Crystal). Nonetheless, this fame-making casting almost didn’t happen. In fact, Elizabeth Perkins, Elizabeth McGovern and Molly Ringwald were all offered the role before the relative newcomer Ryan.
And yet in hindsight, it was a part that Ryan was born to play. Although Nora Ephron wrote the original screenplay, the actress contributed valuable material of her own to the picture. And in a now famous scene where her and Crystal’s characters discuss sex in a diner, Ryan made comedy history.
At first, Ryan’s character was merely meant to tell her bemused friend that women sometimes fake their reactions in bed. However, the star insisted that an actual demonstration would be funnier. “Comedy of Sally is so behavioral,” she opined at the 2019 Turner Classic Movies Festival. “It’s not really so much talking…it’s doing.”
Following its 1989 release, When Harry Met Sally… proved a hit with audiences amassing a domestic gross of $92.8 million. And since it was made, the film has been recognized as one of the best romantic comedies of all time. Indeed, the American Film Institute deemed it in 2002 the 25th greatest cinematic love story of all time.
Moreover, When Harry Met Sally… cemented Ryan as Hollywood’s rom-com leading lady in chief. Just one year after her breakthrough, the actress appeared alongside the ever-wholesome Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano. But it would take another three years before the pair perfected their onscreen chemistry.
Teaming up once more with Ephron, the actress gained another big hit with 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle. And the story of a journalist (Ryan) who falls for a widowed architect (Hanks), after a radio broadcast, became another classic. In addition to a $227 million gross, Sleepless in Seattle also confirmed Ryan’s status as “America’s sweetheart.”
For instance, in a review in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert commented on Ryan’s charm. Describing her as “the most likeable actress around,” he admired how the star showcased “a certain ineffable Doris Day innocence” on-screen. Meanwhile, he also admitted that the film left him “[smiling] the whole way through.”
Clearly, the coupling of Ryan and Hanks was a blueprint for success. And the pair followed up Sleepless in Seattle with 1998’s You’ve Got Mail – again written by Ephron. Even today, the actors’ mutual fondness shines bright. During a 2016 chat with Good Morning America, Hanks yelled, “Sweetie, I love you,” to Ryan who watched from the crowd.
Now, although she and Hanks made a brilliant screen couple, Ryan would ultimately fall for another leading man. Yes, in 1987, the star met fellow thespian Dennis Quaid on the set of the film Innerspace. One year later, the two worked together on the film D.O.A.. And this time, they both discovered that sparks were flying.
So, soon after making their second on-screen appearance together, Ryan and Quaid became a couple in real life. And just three years later, the lovebirds tied the knot on of all days, Valentine’s. With their relationship official, the pair became parents to son Jack in 1992. Therefore, you could say that both professionally and personally, Ryan seemingly had it all.
And yet, interestingly, the star began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of fame. As she recounted to The Sun, the actress had “mixed feelings” about her time in the spotlight. “It means that you live out your worst moments in the public eye,” she confessed. Alarmingly, and somewhat naive perhaps given her many years in Hollywood, Ryan started to raise this point repeatedly.
During a now infamous 2003 interview on British chat show Parkinson, Ryan expanded on her mixed feelings about fame. “It always feels very awkward for me to be in front of an audience or in the spotlight,” she explained. “It’s not something that comes easily or fits naturally.”
Moreover, Quaid himself revealed in 2018 that he too had felt the effect of his ex-wife’s public adoration. “We met and I was the big deal,” the actor told NBC’s Megyn Kelly. “Then we’d be out in the streets of New York and [people would] be like, ‘Meg, Meg!’ And I have to admit I kind of did feel like I disappeared.” But ultimately, Ryan herself would be the one finding herself disappearing.
Yes, because in 2000, the star became the subject of one of Hollywood’s most notorious falls from grace. For she started an affair with her Proof of Life co-star Russell Crowe. And when news of the tryst became public, the tabloids reacted like sharks to blood. Soon Ryan’s reputation became the target of every gossip column.
Of course, such actions have consequences. In the wake of the affair, Ryan and Quaid separated and many of the actress’ former fans took her ex-husband’s side. Nevertheless, the actress maintained that her actions were not the reason for their split. “My marriage was broken,” Ryan stated to W magazine that year. “Nobody else broke it up.”
Furthermore, their relationship – as Ryan continued – had already run its course. “It dissolved before it became sport for the press,” she added. “The public and press tuned in way after.” In a later interview with InStyle, the star even argued she wasn’t the only philanderer. “Dennis was not faithful to me for a very long time,” she claimed in 2008.
Despite her attempts at damage control, Ryan could do little to stop the public backlash. In no time at all, the star went from America’s sweetheart to its dirty secret. In fact, she likened the ordeal to the one experienced by classic literature character Hester Prynne. “So this is what it feels like to be the Scarlet Woman,” Ryan lamented.
More than anything, both fans and tabloids began to see Ryan as a villain. And this only increased her disillusion with the nature of celebrity. “I think that when things get played out that simply in black and white, it makes people feel good,” the star explained to Insight magazine. “The tabloid culture can’t tell a complicated story.”
Yet becoming a pariah in the public eye did have some benefits. Indeed, Ryan’s experience of being the press’ punching bag actually made her feel free to be herself. “I didn’t have to care about what people thought,” she revealed. “I could… be totally under the radar and live my life.”
Moreover, the knock to Ryan’s public image also allowed the actress to break free from her typical romantic comedy lead roles. After experimenting with Proof of Life, Ryan made a huge career turn with 2003’s In the Cut. And besides testing her dramatic chops, the erotic thriller also required the star to engage in much racier scenes.
Though the project seemed like an exciting career move, Ryan discovered that her gambit wasn’t paying off. Despite being helmed by respected director Jane Campion, In the Cut was released to scathing reviews. “Campion… may want audiences to think [she’s] created a groundbreaking, grisly woman’s picture,” wrote The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday. “Don’t believe it.”
Meanwhile, Ryan didn’t do herself many favors during a press tour that appeared destined for disaster. In particular, her appearance on Parkinson left many fans shocked due to her seemingly cold and defensive demeanor. Years later, veteran host Michael Parkinson himself would call their chat his second worst interview experience ever.
Although many criticized her for exhibiting bratty behavior, Ryan defended herself claiming the host’s prying questions “offended” her. “I don’t know what he is to [the British], but he’s a nut,” she vented to Marie Claire in 2006. “I felt like he was berating me for being naked in the movie (In the Cut).”
With its pitiful gross of just $23 million, In the Cut was deemed a dud. And Ryan’s career took another blow just one year later when her follow-up effort Against the Ropes saw a similar commercial defeat. To make matters worse, tabloids began again featuring her on their front pages – this time with rumors concerning cosmetic surgery.
Following this period of exhausting press attention and critical failures, Ryan decided that enough was enough. Taking a much-needed hiatus from celebrity, the actress devoted her life to being a mother to her newly adopted daughter, Daisy. Moreover, she spent time in India as a representative of the charity CARE.
Since Ryan’s departure from the spotlight in 2006, she has made intermittent steps back into the world of showbiz. Indeed, she has had roles in films and TV shows like The Deal and the unaired How I Met Your Dad. But some of these projects – particularly 2008’s The Women – were received poorly by fans and critics alike.
Nevertheless, these critical setbacks don’t seem to be bothering Ryan too much. Now residing in New York, the star has given up Hollywood for a much quieter life with her daughter. Since moving away from the spotlight, Ryan’s also enjoyed a steady relationship with John Mellencamp whom she began courting in 2011.
Nearly a decade after first getting together, Ryan and Mellencamp became engaged. However, for the time being she seems content with the way things are. “I am happy,” the actress admitted to InStyle in 2019. “Yes, I’m going to get married at some point. But for now this engagement thing is a state of grace.”
After stepping away from stardom, Ryan has found herself able to take a few more risks with her career. For instance, the actress released her directorial debut Ithaca in 2016 – a move that helped the actress fall back in love with movies. As she explained to Vanity Fair upon its release, “Even if the movie stinks, you just feel like, ‘Wow. I actually did that’.”
In addition, shooting Ithaca allowed Ryan to team up with her old friend Hanks once again. “He’s just so easy,” the filmmaker gushed to Today in 2018. “[He] doesn’t like to be there for the drama. I feel the same way. We’re just really there to have fun, this is supposed to be a creative experience and there’s no reason to get heavy.”
While Ryan is content with being out of the spotlight, there remain those longing for her return. In particular, Friends actress Jennifer Aniston bemoaned the star’s disappearance from Hollywood in a 2019 chat with Variety. “I think we would so love to have the era of Meg Ryan come back,” she said.
Nevertheless, there’s at least one star who’d beg to differ. “I am a terrible celebrity,” Ryan explained to Vanity Fair. “If I started my career today, I wouldn’t have a chance.” And while the comment may do Ryan a disservice, we’re grateful that she’s sticking around in one form or another.