SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE

Directed by Nora Ephron. USA. 1993.


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It's difficult to conceptualise a canon: most might say that it is a self-evident selection of great works.

But is it that simple? It might be merely a question of longevity. Put it this way: if you were an ancient artefact in Baghdad museum last year, you won't be around to jostle for position with other relics when posterity comes calling. Similarly, in film terms, if there were a disaster with the archives and, say, only Ace Ventura survived, that would be it: an entire century's art unavoidably reduced to one representative. A canon consisting of Jim Carrey's rubber face.

If we consider that, for some, this would not be so disastrous were the surviving film Citizen Kane, we come to perhaps the most obvious means of composing a canon: top-down critical orthodoxy. They do the poll every ten
years and that's your lot.

It seems, though, that the antithesis of this method would actually be the most desirable way of composing a canon. Not only is it the most desirable, it is also the most democratic and, arguably, inevitable: we are talking about the bottom-up reappropriation of works deemed inferior by the earlier critical orthodoxy. Viz, Grease: a 50s-set high-school musical performed by thirtysomethings? Come off it, they cried. But look at it now. Also, Blade Runner: a future-noir hotch-potch where the money speech is littered with arcane sc-fi imaginings? No chance! How wrong they were.

Now this is not to say that Sleepless in Seattle should represent cinema in a post-apocalyptic world. No (that would be Groundhog Day). But it is to say that it is a 24-carat bona fide classic - and there's nothing you or I can do about it now. It's formulaic, yes. It's sentimental, yes. But it has entered the canon: as with Grease, Blade Runner and countless others, the people have spoken.

Moreover, the film's lasting success was not some random event, but carefully planned: and for this we must give credit to its makers. Nora Ephron, the writer and director, had established her credentials with the equally canonical When Harry Met Sally, which also starred Meg Ryan. Tom Hanks came from a background of solid romantic comedies such as Big and The Man with One Red Shoe. Add a mellifluous soundtrack, a supporting cast of adept comedy players such as Bill Pullman and Rosie O'Donnell, a child actor who was remarkably less irritating than his contemporaries, and it becomes clear that they could hardly go wrong. It was like assembling the dream team; Fantasy rom-com, if you will.

Maybe it doesn't have as many laughs as When Harry Met Sally nor a memorable scene to match the diner orgasm, but if you let yourself be swept along with it you will find yourself in blissful entertainmentville. In fact, returning to this film a decade later it actually seems something of a high watermark for all involved. Hanks went down the serious route to the point where comedy is now a departure sandwiched in between his annual attempt at the Oscar hat-trick. Ryan, after a decade of feeble rom-coms such as French Kiss and Addicited to Love has also recently taken this road with In the Cut. Interestingly, she initially wooed Oscar immediately after Sleepless with When a Man loves a Woman, but was roundly ignored - in the same year that her counterpart Hanks won his first Oscar. Not to question Hollywood's motives, but one wonders who would have been waving the statue had When a Man Loves a Woman been about AIDS and Philadelphia about alcoholism. Anyway, we might say that Ryan has learnt from this and has now opted for the Nicole Kidman makeover: feminist indie cred established by Jane Campion, you can alternate between mainstream and art-house, keeping everybody happy.

We wait with (Oscar)baited breath to see where Meg will turn next, but wherever she goes she must know deep down she isn't going to match the giddy heights of her rom-com prime. Her and Hanks are both just brilliant in this film: unselfconscious, natural and charming. Ryan's Annie Reed being guided by An Affair to Remember is not only a sly, postmodern attempt by the film to bridge the gap between modern rom-com and Hollywood's Golden Age by wearing its references on its sleeve, but also serves to illustrate how Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant pale in comparison to their successors atop the Empire State. Although Cary Grant can never really pale in comparison to anything, such is the extent of his tan.

As for Nora Ephron: not only has she not scaled these heights of entertainment, she was guilty of the ostensibly cardinal, nay papal sin, of re-assembling everybody in an attempt to recapture the magic. You've got Mail, bless it, is a redundant movie, which should have been sent straight to the junk mail folder. Runaway Bride just about recaptured the magic of Pretty Woman, surpassed it even (Pretty Woman, you'll agree, was seriously dodgy in terms of its take on the whole prostitution thing: "You and I are the same Vivian - we both screw people for money." Erm, hostile takeovers are not prostitution, Edward), but Gere and Roberts have left well alone since. Perhaps Norah didn't do her homework, because Hanks and Ryan were on screen together in the neglected Joe vs the Volcano - and this quirky litle flop makes a much better companion piece to Sleepless than the by-the-numbers Cyberspace effort.

But whilst in some respects it is sad that You've Got Mail was made, as some of the lustre bestowed on its participants by their past success was inevitably lost, perhaps we should take an alternative view. Perhaps Hanks and Ryan shouldn't have stopped there but kept on going instead, in an attempt to establish a proper screen couple, just as in Hollywood's Golden Age. Could we really ever compare Hanks and Ryan to Tracy and Hepburn or Bogart and Bacall? Obviously, we'll never know, but what we can say is this: if romantic comedy is ever going to get the respect it deserves, we need the actors and actresses who are best at it to keep the faith. I don't want to see Josh Hartnett and Minnie Driver; I want to see Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, even if they make a few duffers along the way. As Johnny Depp said so memorably: "I don't pretend to be captain weird - I just do what I do." And in Pirates of the Caribbean he's just got his first leading actor nomination for doing precisely that - a lesson to us all, Hanks and Ryan included, that success is eminently attainable without self-consciousness.

Peter Anderson
 
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