Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Director: Nora Ephron
Screenwriters: Nora Ephron, David S. Ward, Jeff Arch
Starring: Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, Bill Pullman, Ross Malinger, Rosie O’Donnell, Rob Reiner, Victor Garber, Rita Wilson
One of the most tried and true tropes of the romantic comedy is the meet cute. It’s that pivotal moment when the two leads meet for the first time, usually under humorous or unconventional circumstances, sparking the development of their romantic relationship. Maybe they fall instantly, maybe their love needs time to grow, but one thing is always true: this encounter is the beginning of everything.
But what if this beginning happened at the end? Say, five minutes before the credits roll?
Sleepless in Seattle, directed by Norah Ephron and co-written by Ephron, David S. Ward and Jeff Arch, works not in spite of being a rom-com, but because of it. Upon its initial release, it was revered as an instant classic. In the decades since, it has remained beloved by audiences and critics. The film spawned countless spoofs and homages, and its final scene atop the Empire State Building is one of the most iconic and recognizable images in pop culture. It’s the film that cemented Meg Ryan’s status as ‘America’s sweetheart,’ with several critics quick to crown Ryan and co-star Tom Hanks as the new king and queen of the rom-com. Nora Ephron earned her third Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay following Silkwood (1983) and When Harry Met Sally… (1989). Released 30 years ago, Sleepless in Seattle has endured as a top tier romantic comedy that could turn even the most steadfast cynic into a believer in love, fate, and the magic of the movies.
When architect Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) loses his wife Maggie (Carey Lowell) to cancer, he and his young son Jonah (Ross Malinger) relocate to Seattle for a fresh start. While Sam continues to mourn the loss of his wife, Johan calls into a radio station one night, convinced his dad needs help finding a new wife. While Sam is hesitant as first, he eventually opens up about Maggie live on-air, and thousands of women across the country listen in, including Baltimore journalist Annie Reed (Meg Ryan), who is engaged to Walter (Bill Pullman) and firmly believes that there’s no such thing as fate. But, when Annie hears Sam’s voice that night on the radio, something changes inside of her, leading her to wonder if there is such a thing as destiny.
Though the script was rewritten countless times before Nora Ephron turned in her final draft, three writers are credited with the final product, each contributing an essential piece to the story. Jeff Arch’s sentimentality is utilized best when exploring the melancholy of grief, like in the scene when Sam imagines speaking to his late wife in the living room one night. This occasional heaviness is balanced with Ephron’s trademark wit and humor, and David S. Ward credits Ephron with contributing much of the film’s dialog. Like with When Harry Met Sally…, Ephron uses Sleepless in Seattle to explore the strange world of dating, with all its rules and contradictions, this time through Sam, who is terrified to date again after being married for so long. Rob Reiner’s character’s grim assessment of the dating landscape in the 90s might come across as sexist and outdated to some modern audiences, and it is, but it’s still a fascinating look at the state of relationships between men and women during a time when feminism was facing a severe cultural backlash. It’s especially interesting when Sam tells Jonah how the erotic thriller, Fatal Attraction, “Scared the hell out of every man in America,” showcasing just how much of a cultural juggernaut the film was at the time while exposing men’s obvious anxiety over women’s supposed empowerment.
Throughout Sleepless in Seattle, there is a running commentary on how movies affect our perception of romantic love. Seeing how distraught Annie is about the possibility of never getting to meet Sam, her best friend Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) pointedly tells her, “You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.” An Affair to Remember, the 1957 classic starring Carey Grant and Deborah Kerr that served as the inspiration for Sleepless in Seattle, is referenced several times in the film, bringing more than one female character to tears. What’s the point of movies like that anyway, Ephron seems to ask. That kind of love – the written in the stars, can’t possibly be a coincidence kind of love – isn’t real. But if that’s the question, Sleepless in Seattle itself is the answer. It’s a film that explores the affects that cinema has on our fantasies of love without ever denying its ultimate power.
There is a coziness to Sleepless in Seattle, a quiet contemplativeness, accompanied by a soundtrack packed with Jazz hits from artists like Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. It’s like being wrapped in a blanket on a cold night, drinking hot cocoa and gazing up at the stars. It feels intimate and grand at the same time. Sleepless in Seattle has long been described as the perfect Valentine’s Day movie, but it also works as a Christmas movie as well. Because the majority of the film takes place in between those two holidays, there’s a magical quality to it that makes it feel warm and inviting.
Watching it now, Sleepless in Seattle feels nostalgic in a way that it probably didn’t when it was first released. It’s the kind of film that couldn’t be made now, considering how far technology has come in the last three decades. 1993 feels like such an alien world, a time before smartphones and Facebook, when someone’s very existence could still be shrouded in mystery – when you had to pay for long-distance calling, when there wasn’t instant messaging, when you couldn’t google someone’s name and 100 search results come up – although Annie’s investigation of Sam does seem an awful lot like a primitive version of looking someone up on Facebook or Google. Sleepless in Seattle transports us back to when we could feel the miles between us, when there was a very real possibility that Sam and Annie would never meet. Because of this, the stakes feel higher and the idea of them actually getting together against all odds does feel a little like fate.
Sleepless in Seattle would not be half as charming and funny if it wasn’t for its strong supporting cast. Watching the movie now is like getting a crash course in who’s who in the 1990s. There’s Rob Reiner, who appears briefly as Sam’s friend Jay, who directed When Harry Met Sally…, The Princess Bride, and the classic 80s coming of age film Stand by Me, all within a few years of each other. Contemporary viewers are sure to recognize him as Jess’s dad from ‘New Girl’. There’s Victor Garber (a few years out from his performance in Titanic) and Rita Wilson, who delivers a monologue about An Affair to Remember that deserved an Oscar nomination on its own. There are also blink and you’ll miss them cameos from Frances Conroy (‘American Horror Story’) and Gaby Hoffman, the latter of whom appears as the younger version of Demi Moore in Now and Then and more recently played Adam’s (Adam Driver) sister on the HBO show ‘GIRLS’.
But really, none of this – the supporting cast, the writing, the direction – would mean a single thing if it wasn’t for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. They’re endlessly likable, and their chemistry is somehow apparent even though they spend the majority of the film thousands of miles away from one another. Sleepless in Seattle hinges on their relationship. We need to believe that they’re meant to be and, although they have less than 10 minutes to convince us of that, they manage it flawlessly. It’s true that Sam and Annie don’t officially meet until the end of the film, but there is a moment towards the end, when Annie travels to Seattle in search of Sam, when they briefly come face to face with one another. Love at first sight is a tricky thing to accomplish. It relies almost entirely on the actor’s ability to just look at each other, to express a depth of emotion without saying anything at all. Afterward, Sam tells his friends that, “It was like I knew her or something.”
Sleepless in Seattle dares us to believe in the magic and power of the movies, to live for just a moment in a world where everything works out. Where the stars align and fate intervenes, and the person you’ve been looking for has been looking for you too. But the movie continues to endure because of one simple, universal truth: when it comes to love, sometimes you just know. And, if you’re really lucky, a trip to the top of the Empire State Building feels a lot like coming home.