A-List Smackdown: Pfeiffer Vs. Ryan
Regular readers of my What the Hell Happened articles know that sometimes the comments section takes on a life of its own. For reasons unknown, we have discussed Michael Keaton fighting just about every actor who worked in the 1980’s. The most recent entry focused on Michelle Pfeiffer. Blogger, Paul S brought up the idea of comparing Pfeiffer’s career to previous WtHH subject, Meg Ryan. This resulted in an excellent article on Paul S’s blog devoted to the two actresses comparing their careers.
I started typing up a response to the article. It may not surprise anyone to know I rambled on and on. My final comment was practically an article unto itself. But then tragedy struck. Blogger.com (which doesn’t seem to like me very much) ate my comments! I left an abbreviated version of my original comments and vowed to come back later for a more detailed analysis.
You’re clever folks. You have probably already figured out that those comments morphed into this article.
Both Michelle Pfeiffer and Meg Ryan spent the early 80’s paying their dues. They were both fetching blondes with winning smiles. As the decade progressed, Pfeiffer and Ryan gained the attention and admiration of critics and audiences alike.
By the end of the decade, Pfeiffer had slowly built critical acclaim in movies like Married to the Mob and Dangerous Liaisons. Ryan lacked Pfeiffer’s consistency during this decade. But she had a star-making performance in a blockbuster movie. When Harry Met Sally… took Ryan to the top of the A-list.
This is where the two career paths diverge. Where Pfeiffer was seen as an ethereal beauty, Ryan was the pixie-like girl next door. Pfeiffer’s beauty could enhance a variety of roles. But cute works best in romantic comedies. Once audiences got a taste of Ryan as an adorable dream girl, that was the only way they wanted to see her.
In the early 90’s, Meg Ryan was at the top of the A-list. She alternated between crowd-pleasing rom coms and smaller, independent fare. Although these art house movies allowed Ryan a chance to break out of the girl-next-door mold, they were largely ignored by audiences. Whatever range she may have demonstrated went unnoticed by the majority of viewers, myself included.
One of the things that struck me about Paul S’s excellent write-up is that I have missed almost all of Ryan’s riskier films. I had always considered Pfeiffer to have been the bigger risk taker while Ryan cranked out one safe romantic comedy after another. Each one just a little more formulaic than the one before it.
In my mind, Pfeiffer was a talent actress that happened to be beautiful. Ryan was a brand. But I was only seeing half the picture. While I haven’t seen Flesh and Bone, Hurlyburly or In the Cut, I have to admit they were pretty ballsy career choices.
On the other hand, Pfeiffer steered clear of the safe rom coms. She did dip into them from time to time with movies like One Fine Day and Frankie and Johnny. But even her romantic comedies had a little bit of quirk to them. They weren’t as mainstream as Sleepless in Seattle or French Kiss. This gave Pfeiffer a smaller audience, but one that was more willing to accept her in a wide variety of roles.
Whether she had the chops or not, Meg Ryan was pigeon-holed by being cute. She fought it hard with movies like When a Man Loves a Woman and Courage Under Fire. Even The Doors was an attempt to break out of her mold. But audiences want to see the guy get the girl next door. And for a time, that meant seeing Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal fight with and then fall in love with Ryan.
Meanwhile, Pfeiffer was free to do period drama, comedies, musicals, super hero action movies, melodrama, romance, spy thrillers and horror flicks. She didn’t have the big box office hits that Ryan did (save for Batman Returns), but she was consistent. A Michelle Pfeiffer movie would almost always turn a modest profit and get favorable reviews.
Fair or unfair, Meg Ryan came to be seen as commercial whereas Pfeiffer remained a critical darling who could play any genre.
At some point, both actresses too a break from Hollywood. Pfeiffer walked away at a time when her career was cooling to concentrate on her family. But Ryan was nearly exiled. Her personal life blew up in the tabloids. Ryan was vilified. Her girl-next-store status was destroyed.
I have said it before, what happened to Meg Ryan wasn’t fair. But for all intents and purposes it ended her career all the same. Audiences were no longer willing to accept her in romantic comedies. And without the money-making hits, Hollywood was no longer willing to indulge her in her edgier films.
Invariably when making such comparisons, one is expected to pick a favorite. My gut reaction is to give the nod to Pfeiffer. She’s made more movies I enjoy. But I have to acknowledge that Ryan was the bigger box office draw. And no one did “cute” like Meg Ryan did.
Despite their similarities, the two actresses are very different. I couldn’t imagine Meg Ryan playing Catwoman. And I can’t see Michelle Pfeiffer in When Harry Met Sally… Pfeiffer consistently made smaller films that earned back their budgets and won her acclaim. Ryan alternated between big crowd-pleasers and edgy films no one saw.
Picking a favorite really comes down to how you are grading. Ryan ranked higher on the A-list but never successfully broke out of her rom com image. Pfeiffer consistently enchanted in movies that rarely achieved a massive audience.
If you twist my arm, I’m going to stand by my Pfeiffer vote. At least until I track down some of those Meg Ryan movies I skipped along with everyone else.