What Might Have Been: Meg Ryan


Actors careers are shaped by choices.  Their performances are made up of small choices; how a character should move, what they should sound like, how they should react.  Then there are the big choices like what roles to take and who to work with.  When an actor commits to a movie, they are dedicating a chunk of their lives to preparing for the role, filming the movie and then doing the promotion circuit.  For a lead actor, each movie can be a year-long commitment.  For an actor who is in demand, this can lead to some tough choices which will ultimately shape the course of their career.

As the old saying goes, “hindsight is 20/20.”  Sometimes, an actor’s choices look foolish in retrospect.  Other times, it seems like they dodged a bullet.  Either way, movie fans love looking back and wondering what might have been.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Meg Ryan was America’s Sweetheart and the reigning queen of the romantic comedy.  For a time, Ryan had her pick of projects which means she had the opportunity to pass on a lot of movies that went on to become hits.  The means lots of opportunities to wonder about what might have been.

shields - endless love

Endless Love (1981)

Ryan’s first audition was for the lead role in Franco Zeffirelli’s romantic melodrama, Endless Love.

Fall Out: The film’s tagline was “She’s 15, he’s 17.  The love every parent fears.”  Are you sure this wasn’t a horror movie?  Endless Love was an adaptation of Scott Spencer’s best-selling novel of the same name.  The movie was trashed by critics.  Leonard Maltin called it “a textbook example of how to do everything wrong in a literary adaptation … Scott Spencer’s deservedly-praised novel is thoroughly trashed.”  But the movie became a moderate hit at the box office based on the fact that Brooke Shields was a rising star at the time and Zeffirelli knew how to shoot her.

Also, there was this hit song from the soundtrack:

Yeah, that’s going to be stuck in your head all day now.  You’re welcome.

Actor who got the part: Brooke Shields

Verdict: Missed Opportunity

Next: An Officer and a Gentleman


Posted on February 19, 2014, in Movies, What Might Have Been and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. hope our friend Paul is reading this new writeup on Meg 🙂 And thanks for getting my mind off the biased figure skating judges.


  2. I really think Pretty Woman is the gold standard when it comes to casting in a romantic comedy, at least in the modern era of film. Richard Gere and Julia Roberts were just terrific together…… in this movie. Yet, ironically I find it funny that 9 years later they teamed again for Runaway Bride, but that time it just didn’t work. The magic wasn’t there that time. It goes to show….. I don’t know what that goes to show. I’m too dumb to figure that one out. Ha

    As far as Meg Ryan, it’s too easy at face value to go “Oh! what a mistake that was to pass on what would become a cultural phenomenon”, but I’m not sure lightning would’ve struck exactly the same with different ingredients. I suspect what was released was the best possible outcome out of all possible variations, and until I can travel to other dimensions to watch Pretty Woman with Richard Gere and Meg Ryan, or Richard Gere and Molly Ringwald, that’s the theory I’m sticking to!


    • Agreed. Pretty Woman is 100% about the casting/chemistry. You raise a great point about Runaway Bride. Just because two actors have chemistry in one film, that doesn’t mean they can duplicate that chemistry in another. In PW, a big part of the appeal was that Roberts was a revelation. She was an unknown to most. America fell in love with her. That’s what made the movie work. And no established actress could have duplicated that experience.

      I am willing to bet that a Ryan/Pacino version of Pretty Woman could have worked. But it would have been a different movie. As successful as Pretty Woman was, different probably would not equate to equal or greater success.

      I actually think some of Ryan’s biggest missed opportunities are some of the smaller movies she passed on at the peak of her career. Not the ones she missed early on.


    • re: I don’t know what that goes to show. I’m too dumb to figure that one out. Ha.

      As Nick Tosches once observed: There’s only so many bullets in that gun.

      Also, sometimes that kinda “chemistry” is sometimes unique to a “time + place” — hey, George H and Ringo S were in those Beatles and as swell as many of their early solo albums were, their platters post-1978 were mostly…not so swell. Heck, when vinyl was still the main medium, I recall seeing George and Ringo’s solo albums in the K-MART bargain bins.


  3. Most of these do not seem like good roles for Ryan to my eyes.
    – I think she would have been an improvement over Roberts in Steel Magnolias (although Roberts was very good). Her as Sally Fields’ daughter seems like perfect casting to me.
    – while I don’t think she would have been an improvement over Nicole Kidman in To Die For, I do think she would have been excellent in it.
    – As life circumstances turned out, Double Jeopardy might have been a good idea, and she certainly could have played it well.
    – She would have been good in Housesitter, but the age difference between her and Steve Martin would not have been ideal to me.
    Otherwise, the roles as cast seem like better choices. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the talent of the person cast, but more to do with “type” and cast matching. Maybe Ryan could have been good in “The Sure Thing,” but Zuniga was more clearly the opposite of Sheridan, in a movie that was trading on those sorts of distinctions.


    • I’m inclined to agree with you. I’m trying to look at things through the prism of what would have benefited the subject’s career. Almost across the board, I feel like things turned out the way they should have. Of course, we’ll never really know. It’s possible Ryan had range that we never got to see because of the movies she made.

      Hindsight being 20/20, Ryan’s career probably would have been better off if she had made Double Jeopardy instead of Proof of Life. But really, I can understand opting for Proof of Life over Double Jeopardy. Proof of Life was the more prestigious project. Also, it wasn’t necessarily an either/or situation. She could have made both movies in which case, I think history remains more or less unchanged other than the harm done to Ashley Judd’s career for missing one of the career defining roles.

      I’m a little embarrassed to admit that the age difference between Martin and Ryan never crossed my mind. That is how conditioned I have been to accept the older actor/younger actress standard.

      You raise a good point about Zuniga. While I would typically opt for Ryan > almost anyone in a romantic comedy, Zuniga was a better fit for that specific movie.

      Steel Magnolias, I’d rather not. Groan.


    • I agree with you with the exception of her (Meg Ryan) being a better fit in Pretty Woman.
      Housesitter and To die For would have been great fits, although- as you point out- there is a 16 year age difference in the former which would have been an obstacle to overcome.

      No, the time for Meg Ryan to shed the “Americas sweetheart” or 1990’s Doris Day label would have been to find a dramatic vehicle right after When Harry Met Sally.

      With regard to the movies listed herein, she might have taken the secondary role in Officer and Gentleman. You know, the blonde girl who faked being pregnant. Not the lead, but a chance to should some – non rom com – chops.

      Go ahead and argue that ego wouldn’t permit it (taking a secondary role), but it would have been a good set up move for branching out and slowing down the typecasting.

      In a way that Dustin Hoffman did successfully.
      That is, going from The Graduate, to Midnight Cowboy.

      For Meg Ryan, her place in the movies was pretty much cemented following Sleepless in Seattle and set in concrete following You’ve Got Mail.

      At that point, I’m sorry, but no one really wanted to see her in dramatic roles.


  4. “The Sure Thing” had excellent casting, I thought, and I’ve rewatched it often back in the day. Agreed that Daphne Zuniga was supposed to be the opposite of California girl Nicolette Sheridan. Loved that movie so much for how it captured the slice of college life. Speaking of Zuniga, there’s a WTH……
    “Pretty Woman” was iconic and I never knew a Ryan/Pacino pairing was considered. Would have been, as Lebeau said, a different movie.


    • Zuniga definitely needs a WTHH entry. She was, after all, Princess Vespa.


      • Are people really wondering why Princess Vespa wasn’t as successful as John Cusack? That’s not an apples to apples comparison in my mind.


      • Really, an entry on Daphne Zuniga? I still can’t get over how she looks like Tracey Gold from Growing pains!


        • Daphne Zuniga? Not to be mean, but I guess you could call her an almost-was — not quite an “It Girl” (which is often a kiss of death, really) but someone that could’ve transitioned to bigger/better roles but didn’t quite.

          Another “suggestion” though she never really became an “A-lister”: Parker Posey. She was – along with Lili Taylor – a Queen of the Indie Films for a decade or so, then…what? I guess Greta Gerwig is getting their action now-a-days.


        • My big concern with the WMHB series is that all the actresses were up for the same parts. I always knew the competition was fierce, but starting to research this series has made me realize just how fierce it was. Practically every role Ryan went out for, Kim Basinger, Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfieffer were also in the running. So was Jennifer Jason Leigh and other actresses I never would have considered to be competitors for Ryan’s roles. Zuniga shows up in the mix a lot more than you would think. Early on, she had a leg up on even Meg Ryan. But that faded very fast.


        • See, this is one of the reasons why I love reading these WTTH articles. I consider myself a movie buff, yet I often learn something new here. I consider Silence Of The Lambs one of the greatest horror films ever made, yet I never knew that Gene Hackman was so close to playing Hannibal Lecter. That’s one that really makes me think. Gene Hackman is a great actor in his own right, and if he had played Hannibal I’m sure he would’ve been great in the role. I can actually picture him in the role, how he would’ve played it, etc, and I’m sure it would’ve been a great performance. But, let’s be honest, Anthony Hopkins is so perfect, it seems like he was born to play the role. Nobody else can compare. It also works to the films’ benefit that most mainstream audiences weren’t yet aware of Anthony Hopkins, so they instantly bought him as Hannibal Lecter.


        • Agreed. I have no doubt Hackman would have been great because Hackman is always great. All he has to do is show up. But it would have been a very different movie. And probably not better. I imagine Hackman’s take as an actor and director would have been more based in reality. Demme gave the entire movie a nightmarish quality. Prisons don’t really look like dungeons. But the direction, performances and set design all worked together in unison so the audience could buy it. Hopkins played Lecter as a seductive personality. I doubt Hackman would have gone that route. He probably would have been more overtly menacing.


        • Hackman is one of those actors that surprises me with what he can do. I was skeptical of his being cast as the law firm partner in Grisham’s “The Firm” (Tom Cruise was the lead young lawyer) but then again, I think the author was involved in the casting and had people in mind when he was writing. Not sure, just my hazy recollection. In the role of Tolar, Hackman introduced an element to the character that wasn’t an impression I had from reading the book. And it worked.
          I think Daphne Zuniga is an excellent actress but would have not done as well as Meg Ryan in the roles Ryan became famous for. Then again who knows. Zuniga is interesting and watchable, why she didn’t go on to more movie success, I wonder if going to TV too early on was a kiss of death. Melrose Place was a hit while it was on, many of the actors went on to do other TV projects, just can’t think of any movie careers it spawned.


  5. Just out of curiosity Lebeau can you clarify a bit why you called The Accused a draw but SotL a missed opportunity?

    Is it just because Ryan was a bit more established by the time SotL was released?


    • Basically. I’m making an assumption that if Ryan had starred in a controversial film like The Accused at that point in her career, she would not have had the same level of success as the queen of rom coms. Her career might have been more interesting. But I’m not sure she would have had the same acclaim and success Foster had after The Accused either. It’s also possible she wouldn’t have delivered as memorable of a performance as Foster and The Accused would have been just another movie. I think things turned out as well as they could with The Accused, but I can’t call it a dodged bullet either.

      By SotL, Ryan had made her best rom coms. She could have benefited from shifting gears to more edgy material. Again, it’s possible Ryan would not have been as memorable as Foster. In fact I would bet against it. But even so, I think Silence probably would have helped her career in the long run.


      • True, Ryan made her “best” rom-coms, and maybe got typecast a bit…then when she got older and her cute ‘n’ perky appearance/shtick started to wane, then she was, should you pardon the expression, screwed: No more rom-coms.


  6. It’s ironic she tried out for The Sure Thing and didn’t get it seeing as there was a rumor that went around 10 years ago that she and Cusack were dating


  7. 10 Actors Who Must Regret Turning Down Major Film Roles:

    1. Meg Ryan – Vivian Ward (Pretty Woman)

    Meg Ryan was a big star in the late 1980s and early 1990s, starring in great romantic comedies such as When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless In Seattle. Her decision to turn down the role of Vivian Ward, a Hollywood prostitute hired by a rich businessman played by Richard Gere, is one that she surely rues to this day though.

    Garry Marshall, Pretty Woman’s director, had Ryan as his first-choice for the role, but she declined the offer, with Julia Roberts taking it instead. Ryan was still looking for an Academy Award nomination at that point, and little did she know, had she accepted the role of Ward, there is every chance she would have broken her duck. Roberts was the recipient of an Oscar nomination and it proved to be a catalyst in making her a huge star.

    The film took almost $500m worldwide, and is seen as one of the finest romantic comedies of the last 25 years. Ryan’s career, meanwhile, has stalled since that point, and she appears to be drifting more and more out of the public eye by the year.


  8. Yeah, I really like “Joe vs. the Volcano” myself, and don’t understand why it was panned. He he, “brain cloud”.


    • The movie has a very unusual tone. It’s character driven. It’s existential. It’s filled with whimsy. I don’t think a lot of critics or audiences knew how to take that stuff. The humor walks a line between clever and stupid. I think a lot of folks missed the clever and just wrote off the movie as stupid. A lot of people just don’t appreciate the inherent humor in a word like “boobaroo”. Then again, I crack up every time I hear Leelee Sobioeski.


  9. I actually don’t think Ryan had the sex appeal to pull off Lana in Risky Business. She’s very pretty- or was- but always had this cute apple pie quality. I don’t think she does a very good of stretching herself outside what she’s known for- I thought she was terribly miscast as Pamela Courson in ‘The Doors’. These castings, to me, mostly worked out for the best.


  10. What I mostly took away from this is that Heather Graham was considered for To Die For. If there’s any movie I’d call underrated, it’s that one. Between that and Heathers, Graham seems to turn up often as ‘almost in a movie I like’. And she’s still cute, even if she’s a year older than my mum (whoops, outed my age there). As mentioned in her article, she played a lot of sexually charged roles not unlike Suzanne…That’d be an interesting alternate universe version.


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