A-List Smackdown: Pfeiffer Vs. Ryan

Jodie Foster in a Pfeiffer/Ryan sandwich!

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. (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.

More Smackdowns

Le Blog 


Posted on October 18, 2011, in A-List, Movies, smackdown and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Sorry, but BS on the In The Cut thing. It has nothing to do with her career going down. Bad movie choices and her focussing on her kids lives is more the reason.

    Anyway, I like some Pfeiffer movies, but Meg’s romcom’s are the real classics you can watch over and over again. So my vote goes to Meg Ryan.


    • It’s not that In the Cut ended Ryan’s career. But post-scandal, people weren’t buying her as the girl-next-door. Plus, she was older (sad, but it was a factor) and I get the sense she was kind of sick of the rom coms anyway at that point. In the Cut could have been a career reinvention for her. I’m sure she was hoping it would lead to edgier roles. Instead, the movie tanked and reviews were less than kind. So, it’s not that In the Cut ruined anything. It’s just that it failed to resurrect her career the way she must have hoped.

      It’s a matter of personal preference. I love When Harry Met Sally… But each romantic comedy Ryan did after that paid diminishing returns for me. It’s rare that I enjoy romantic comedies these days. The genre as a whole has become so formulaic. But if you love rom coms, Meg Ryan was the undisputed queen of the genre for many years. For all her talents and beauty, Pfeiffer never competed with her in this popular genre.


  2. This is superb. I was hoping you’d come back with a post of your own and I wont argue with you giving your vote to Michelle. How could I after reading such an interesting and insightful piece.
    Doing companion posts on this subject is something I’d hoped to to do ever since I first dabbled in blogging and while it’s sad that it’s happened at the end of my interest it was certainly worth the wait.
    Thanks a lot my friend it’s been a pleasure associating with you.


    • This is definitely the sort of thing that makes blogging worthwhile. Loads of fun.

      I hope “at the end of my interest” doesn’t mean you’re walking away from blogging. I’ve enjoyed your posts and I’m looking forward to more (as well as going back and reading older stuff).

      If you do take a break, I hope you’ll rehcarge you batteries and come back for more. In September, I took a bit of a break to concentrate on my comic book blog. It did me a world of good.

      Either way, glad our paths crossed. If you keep writing, I’ll keep reading.


  3. I was never an enormous fan of either of these actresses (I like both OK), but this is a great idea for a series of articles!
    What’s next!?!?
    DeNiro v Pacino?
    Murphy v Martin?
    Ryder v Tomei?
    York v Sargent?
    Bugs v Daffy? (just kidding, we all know Daffy is better)


    • I’ve been thinking about a series of potential smack-downs. Some will be A-List actor vs. actors like this one was. Some will be more along the lines of Bugs vs. Daffy in that they will be fictional characters or film franchises. That sort of thing. And, yeah, cartoon ducks are hard to beat. There was a point where Disney practically benched Donald because he was eclipsing Mickey in popularity. But Donald is funny and Mickey is boring. So, that was never going to be an even match. Looney Tunes > Disney characters.


  4. Donald is the one Disney short mainstay who was consistently funny.
    Daffy is straight-out the greatest cartoon short actor of all time. Something about him just inspired the artists working on his ‘pictures.’ I steal something from Daffy in almost every play I do. Last time it was the “toungue cluck as expression of exasperatiom” from (I believe) “Rabbit Seasoning.”


  5. pfeiffer , ryan and jodie foster are good actresses.


  6. As you’re an old school fan of Meg and Michelle I was wondering, if you compiled a combined list of your ten favourite films from their careers which films would be on it?
    I’ve just updated my own top 10 and I’d be interested to hear yours.


    • I’ll have to give that some thought. When I’ve completed a list, I’ll come by your blog and post it in the comments section over there.

      I’m not nearly as well-versed in the Pfeiffer and Ryan filmographies as you are. So my list will probably be a little more pedestrian. But coming up with 10 should not be a problem.


      • I enjoyed your 10 and I really appreciate you taking the time to get involved.
        I’ve added your list to my article and I’ve even done a banner.
        Thanks again.


        • It is always fun to get involved with your excellent site. Here’s a link to the current article for all you Meg and Michelle fans out there.

          Love the banner!


  7. Due to the problems with my blogspot account I’ve had to move to a new domain.
    There’s only one letter difference in the address, if you could update your link I’d appreciate it.
    Thanks for al your support.


  8. God, this is a difficult one…

    If you asked me that question when I was a child and I would have no doubt. Meg Ryan! When I was a child I loved Meg Ryan and mommy made me see all Meg’s Movies (and Julia Roberts). In the same time Michelle Pfeiffer was the beautiful lady who starred in the boring movies that adults like 😀 😀

    Now that I’m adult probabily my vote will change and i will vote for Pfeiffer because of her versatility. Ryan was versatile too (just think about “When a Man Loves a Woman” or “Courage Under Fire”, but unfortunately nobody remembers her for this, they all remember her for “When Harry Met Sally”; “Sleepless in Seattle”; “French Kiss”; “City of Angels” and “You’ve Got Mail”., while Pfeiffer is the one who is remembered for much more “serious” roles like “Dangerous Liasons”; “Dangerous Minds”; “Age of Innocence”; “What Lies Beneath” etc.

    However while I think Pfeiffer is the best actress if I should decide who I’d like to marry I will still pick Meg Ryan 😀


    • It really is a tough call. It’s only gotten harder since I wrote this article. Since then, I have gone back and watched more of Meg Ryan’s attempts to branch out. And I have to admit, she had a range she doesn’t get credit for.

      Where Ryan excels is in being vulnerable. She makes the audience feel protective of her. I became acutely aware of this watching Flesh and Bone to the point where I kind of fought against it. And yet it sucked me in like a tractor beam.

      Pfeiffer, on the other hand, is just staggeringly beautiful. She has an exotic quality that can be interpreted a lot of ways which seems to give her more range. Unfortunately, much of her later career is marred by dreadfully boring movies.

      If I have to choose to sit through the filmography of either Ryan or Pfeiffer (not counting Ryan’s direct to video schlock) I’ll choose Ryan. But if I were casting anything but a rom com, I’d have wanted to cast Pfeiffer.


  9. The debate rumbles on….

    I enjoyed the latest comments and who could argue that “Pfeiffer…is just staggeringly beautiful.”
    This fact was famously demonstrated in the media hype before the release of Batman Returns. One journalist recalled how the last time he interviewed Michelle he’d rushed out, phoned his editor, and got him to hold the front page for the best feature ever. When he transcribed the tape, he realised Michelle had actually said nothing of interest — he’d just been hypnotised by those eyes…

    As for Meg, she was the girl next-door who guys wanted to marry and bring home for the holidays. She was genuine and non-threatening and her beauty was combined with a kind of knowingness.
    One thing Meg certainly never had to fake—in a deli or on a set—was luminescence. Joe versus the Volcano director John Patrick Shanley remembers a cameraman’s amazement when Ryan stepped up to her mark after he had lit the scene for her stand-in. Says Shanley: “He put the light meter up to Meg’s face and said, ‘Do you see that? Her face reflects 200 times more light than the other girls!’

    Meg or Michelle is my eternal dilemma; and stories like these only muddy the waters.


    • I have been preparing for WTHH to Rene Zelleweger. (Shhh. Don’t tell anybody.) Naturally as I am watching and rewathcing movies, I start making comparissons with other actresses I have covered. I started thinking about Zelleweger as compared to Ryan especially.

      I forget who said it, but a critic said of When Harry Met Sally… that Crystal brought the laughs and Ryan brought the sex. In all the talk about Ryan being the “girl next door” I think people forget that she also had sex appeal. It was subtle and got lost under her adorableness.

      Zelleweger strikes me as being a lot like Ryan minus the sex appeal. Circa Jerry Maguire, she is plenty adorable. She’s an attractive girl, but I think she lacked the “roll in the hay” factor that Ryan subtly exuded. And Pfieffer knocked you over the head with.


  10. Choose, but choose wisely. Your decision will affect the balance of your life, and quite possibly fate of the human race. Pfeiffer or Ryan? You must choose! We have ways of making you choose. If you don’t choose now you will spend the rest of your life with, with, WITH….Lindsay Lohan. That’s right, a lifetime of confusion and manic delusion. Choose now.

    Not enough persuasion I see… You still refuse to choose….let’s see…OK that’s it, bring in bring in the big guns, bring in the Rosie O’Donnell….

    No, no, Nooooo. NOT the Rosie….Ok, ok I will choose, I WILL choose, just don’t bring in the Rosie….I choose, I choose…Both.

    Brad Deal

    Don’t let my wife see this.


  11. pfeiffer has more range still has a better career going on right now. meg can only do romantic comedies Michelle can do drama and other things she made better choices . Meg ryan career was on bubbly cutsey girl next door characters now that she gotten old the world realize she cant act. Michelle aged better and do better performances. michelle has more strong performance in her her last hit was in 2007 hairspray which she was the only good part. meg ryan hadn’t had a hit since 1998 you got mail and it was on hanks name alone michelle had hits on her name and she carried a movie before


  12. I think a costner ben affleck smack down is a good idea. both careers are similar both made scifis movies that hurt there career paycheck and postman.Gigli was like costners waterworld.both actors where considered sex symbols in there time but considered wooden actors with no range. Both have had success as a director. affleck with argo and costner with dances with wolves. both made long epics before. both slightly repaired there films with movies that involved superman. Hollywood land and man of steel. They even appeared togather in 2 films field of dreams and company men who do u guys think is a better actor costner or affleck. I think costner blows ben away


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