On Nov. 19, rom-com queen Meg Ryan turns the big 6-Oh. Since her career-making turn on the CBS soap opera As the World Turns, Ryan has stolen hearts as a series of plucky heroines searching for love, with an approachable charisma and an everygirl charm that earned her the nickname “America’s Sweetheart.” (Is it any wonder she has such great chemistry with Tom Hanks, 65?) But beyond the genre that made her a superstar, her filmography is filled with unique choices and daring roles that display her impressive range. Here are 10 of our favorite Meg Ryan performances — ranked even! — including the “sweetheart” moments in each that made her so instantly endearing.
10. Kate & Leopold (2001)
The plot: Let’s do the time warp again with this whimsical romantic comedy that’s set in motion when a New York inventor named Stuart (Liev Schreiber, now 54) discovers a portal to the past. Unfortunately for our unsuspecting scientist, the very dashing nobleman Leopold, the third Duke of Albany (Hugh Jackman, now 53), finds himself transported from 1876 to the 21st century, where he catches the eye of Stuart’s ex, the cynical market research executive Kate McKay (Ryan). Sorry, Stu: When you’re competing against Victorian chivalry and a Mr. Darcy accent, you don’t stand a chance.
The sweetheart moment: Kate shows off her business skills when she casts Leopold (whom she at first thinks is an actor) to star in a margarine commercial. He says the fat-free butter substitute tastes like pond scum, to which she replies, “I've been paying dues all of my life, and I'm tired, and I need a rest. And if I have to sell a little pond scum to get it, then so be it!”
9. City of Angels (1998)
The plot: In this swooning melodramatic remake of the 1987 German film Wings of Desire, Nicolas Cage (now 57), stars as an angel named Seth who lives in Los Angeles (get it?) and helps guide humans to the afterlife. As he assists a man who’s about to die in heart surgery, he’s struck by the compassion of surgeon Maggie Rice (Ryan) and decides to give up immortality to pursue a relationship with her. What could go wrong? You might also remember the film for its blockbuster soundtrack, which included hits like Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited” and the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris.”
The sweetheart moment: When you see the heart with which Maggie approaches her lifesaving job, you can understand why an angel would fall for her. Pun intended.
8. Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
The plot: Ryan and Tom Hanks, kicked off their decades-long cinematic collaboration with this goofy box office flop–turned–cult classic by Moonstruck writer John Patrick Shanley (now 71). After he learns that he will die of something called a “brain cloud,” hypochondriac factory worker Joe (Hanks) is convinced by a mysterious industrialist named Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) to throw himself into a volcano as a human sacrifice to appease the tribe living on his island. Ryan gets to have all the fun in three very different roles: as factory coworker DeDe and as Graynamore’s two daughters, socialite Angelica and yacht skipper Patricia — or, as Roger Ebert described them in his 3.5-star review, “grungy, waspish and delectable.”
The sweetheart moment: Patricia displays a winning heroism as she tries to steer their ship out of a typhoon, though it doesn’t exactly go as planned.
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7. Innerspace (1987)
The plot: Ryan and her future husband Dennis Quaid (now 67) met on the set of this wacky sci-fi comedy — which somehow manages to make Joe Versus the Volcano look grounded. Navy pilot Tuck Pendleton (Quaid) volunteers to be shrunk down to the size of a cell, but when rivals break into the lab, a scientist escapes with the teeny-tiny aviator and injects him into the first thing he comes in contact with: grocery store clerk Jack (Martin Short, now 71). Tuck soon figures out how to communicate with Jack and enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend, a reporter named Lydia (Ryan), who he hopes can help get him out of his, ahem, little predicament.
The sweetheart moment: Ryan brings a delightfully screwball vibe to scenes in which she’s running around with a gun, playing an unwitting action hero.
6. Courage Under Fire (1996)
The plot: Ryan haunts the periphery of this twisty Gulf War drama as Capt. Karen Walden, a medevac pilot who was killed in action during a failed rescue mission. When Lt. Col. Nathaniel Sterling (Denzel Washington, now 66) is tasked with investigating her case to see if she deserves a posthumous Medal of Honor, he begins to uncover conflicting narratives about her final battle: Did she die a hero or a coward? In a series of Rashomon-like flashbacks, we see all the different possibilities of what may have happened that day, each rendered believable by Ryan’s honest and nuanced performance. “Indeed, Ms. Ryan is a veritable recruiting poster, whether she is looking dashing in uniform or doing push-ups in the presence of a pretty young daughter,” wrote New York Times critic Janet Maslin (now 72).
The sweetheart moment: Even though you know Walden’s fate from the start, you can’t help but find yourself rooting for a different outcome every time you see Ryan in danger.
5. Promised Land (1987)
The plot: After appearing as Goose’s wife Carole in Top Gun and before her string of Nora Ephron hits, Ryan earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for this gritty drama, the first film commissioned by the Sundance Film Festival. A tale of dreams deferred in small-town Utah, the movie follows two classmates a few years after they graduate. Hancock (Jason Gedrick, now 56) was a basketball star who loses his athletic scholarship and becomes a cop; Danny (Kiefer Sutherland, now 54) was a nerd who returns to town as a drifter with a pink-haired, wild-child wife named Bev (Ryan). Troubled and troublemaking, Bev is a refreshing departure from the “good girls” that would later come to define Ryan’s career.
The sweetheart moment: Ryan brings such a crackling magnetism to the wedding chapel scene, in which she giggles drunkenly through the whole ceremony, that you can almost understand why Danny decides to marry Bev after only knowing her for three days. Almost.
4. When a Man Loves a Woman (1994)
The plot: Ryan was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for her touching performance as Alice Green, a mother of two and school guidance counselor who battles alcoholism with the support of her husband, Michael (Andy Garcia, now 65). The role was uncharacteristically gritty for an actress known for her fizzy rom-coms, and Ryan was praised for her realistic portrayal of a woman rebuilding her life in rehab. Roger Ebert, who got sober in 1979, wrote, “I couldn’t find a false note in Ryan’s performance.”
The sweetheart moment: It’s impossible not to be moved by her intimate and soul-baring sobriety speech at the film’s end.
3. You’ve Got Mail (1998)
The plot: This story of bitter business rivals who accidentally fall in love is a tale as old as time: The 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie was adapted into the 1940 romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner, the 1949 musical In the Good Old Summertime and then the 1963 Broadway musical She Loves Me, before being reimagined for the AOL Age. Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) runs an indie bookstore called The Shop Around the Corner; Joe Fox (Hanks) is part of a family that owns a mega bookstore chain that's encroaching on her territory. They bicker, they squabble, but they don’t yet realize that they’re also engaged in a whirlwind, anonymous online romance.
The sweetheart moment: “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.” If you know, you know.
2. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
The plot: Four years after the success of When Harry Met Sally…, Nora Ephron teamed back up with Ryan for this heartwarming romantic-comedy, in which she stars as Baltimore newspaper reporter Annie Reed. Across the country, 8-year-old Jonah (Ross Malinger) calls into a radio show to find love for his recently widowed dad, Seattle architect Sam Baldwin (Hanks). Just how charming is Hanks? When he gets on the call and begins to pour his heart out, Annie — who is already engaged to another man — almost immediately swoons over him, after only hearing his voice, and she writes him a letter suggesting that they meet on the rooftop of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day, just like in her favorite film, An Affair to Remember. (Spoiler alert: It goes much more smoothly than in that 1957 weepie!)
The sweetheart moment: Even though it takes nearly an hour and 45 minutes to get there, the meet-cute at the film’s end is one of the best in cinematic history.
1. When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
The plot: In his genre-redefining romantic comedy, director Rob Reiner (now 74) and screenwriter Nora Ephron ask the question: Can a man and a woman just be friends without sex getting in the way? After both had graduated from the University of Chicago, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal, now 73) and Sally Albright (Ryan) are introduced by a mutual friend and decide to share a long car ride to New York, sparking the beginning of a 12-year friendship. Or is it something more? Through a series of chance encounters, they speak in weird accents at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sing karaoke at the Sharper Image store, debate about coffee tables — and start to slowly fall head over heels — even if they don’t realize it at first.
The sweetheart moment: Ryan received a Golden Globe nomination for the role, but Sally deserved a full EGOT for her, um, ecstatic performance in Katz’s Delicatessen. ... We’ll have what she’s having.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.