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Sarah Kathryn Cleaver: The Killing of Meg Ryan’s Career

Ahead of their #ReviveTheDark supported screening of IN THE CUT, Sarah Kathryn Cleaver of Zodiac Film Club considers the various likely suspects in the death of Meg Ryan’s career.

By Sarah Kathryn Cleaver // Twitter @sarahkcleaver / Instagram @zodiacfilmclub

If you’re reading this article, it’s frankly a miracle, because we are currently at a place of peak content. There are millions and millions of things to read, listen to, watch and scroll through. We are drowning in content, and much of it centres around mysteries, the solving of crimes and the bringing to light of injustice. A variety of technological and societal advancements – DNA databases, interconnectivity, mass media, internet sleuths and a growing awareness of structural inequalities and discrimination – all contribute to a climate in which law enforcement, scientists, historians, activists, journalists and even podcasters cannot only solve sometimes decades long mysteries, but also identify cases that no-one has really been trying to solve until now.

There’s the heavy hitters (Golden State Killer unmasked as ex-cop Joseph DeAngelo), the viral successes (Serial), the ode to the Reddit detectives (Don’t F**k With Cats), the just plain silly (The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel). Unsatiated with a seemingly infinite amount of crimes, we also lap up cultural mysteries and hidden stories, with podcasts like You’re Wrong About, Decoder Ring and You Must Remember This dealing exclusively with new, extremely informed and well researched ways of looking at the past. Sometimes a crime spawns an answer to a cultural mystery.

In the wake of the Me Too Movement, the world found a group of missing women it hadn’t been looking for, the actresses whose careers were derailed by Harvey Weinstein and other men who exploited their positions of power to control and punish women. What happened to Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan? Now we know! The cultural effects of this movement are vast, with an entire genre of journalism and entertainment dedicated to the reconsideration of famous women (Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Megan Fox) and their treatment by various individuals and institutions. The listenership of the aforementioned podcasts are niche, but for mass appeal these cultural crimes must have a villain, whether it’s a director or producer, family member, lover, the media or even us, the public. Mysteries get better ratings when they are neatly wrapped in a narrative, and their retellings aligned with contemporary morals, with lots of apologies flying back and forth.

Strangely enough, a cultural crime that I feel tenuously linked to is currently being discussed in the press. Retired broadcaster Michael Parkinson recently apologised (not really though) for the trainwreck of an interview he conducted with Meg Ryan to promote the release of her 2003 film IN THE CUT. The news event has reawakened an old mystery, who killed Meg Ryan’s career?

In a fortuitous turn of events, IN THE CUT has returned to the zeitgeist just as my film club, Zodiac, is about to put on a screening. IN THE CUT has a similar reception story to a lot of the films we screen: terrible reviews upon release, followed by a gradual reappraisal in its favour. It’s also the film that many identify as the dual suspect (along with Parky) in Ryan’s career death.

Some background on IN THE CUT and the Parky interview: the film was a Jane Campion adaptation of Susanna Moore’s book of the same name, a nihilistic, erotic exploration of the inner world of an Engish teacher who gets involved with a detective investigating a series of murders and dismemberments of women in her neighbourhood. Initially a vehicle for Nicole Kidman, who had starred previously in Campion’s PORTRAIT OF A LADY, the role went to Ryan after scheduling conflicts caused Kidman to pull out. Ryan, who hoped to depart from her ‘America’s Sweetheart’ image and attract more dramatic roles, was optimistic about working with Campion, but the film received mainly negative reviews, with much of the criticism directed at Ryan’s change of image and on screen nudity. Ryan had been receiving negative press for a while before the film, linked to her divorce, her overlapping relationship with the actor Russell Crowe, and her alleged lip augmentation – a perceived flaw that some critics managed to work into their criticism of her acting, like Sukhdev Sandhu at the Telegraph, who described Ryan as ‘clenched and trout-pouting her way through’ IN THE CUT. Then came Parkinson.

Suspect 1: Parkinson

18 years on, it’s difficult to get the full picture of what went on in that interview. The version uploaded to the BBC Youtube is incomplete, and its cutting serves to make Ryan seem frosty and uncommunicative, while Parkinson makes the best of a bad interview subject. I couldn’t get anywhere near the archive, but evidently Anthony Brett at the Telegraph could, as his article contains a comprehensive summary of events. Parkinson described the film as ‘bleak’ and cynical and questioned Ryan about her sex scenes, asking her how well she knew Ruffalo before she filmed them, as if mistaking her acting for real life casual sex. When she suggested that neither of them had to be right about their interpretations of the film, he took up a new aggressive line of questioning.

“There’s a difference between when you were doing those romantic comedies and now,” he says. “You seem to be a much more wary person, and a slightly bruised person – and that would be due to your divorce, and that sort of thing? Do you imagine that you might, in the future – when you fully recover from all you’ve been through – that you might actually revert back to the person you were?”

Ryan glanced to her fellow guests as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Hopefully I’ll never revert,” she replied. “I’m sure I’ll become different again in some way. Hopefully I’ll evolve.”

Anthony Brett, Telegraph

Sexist and weirdly personal as it was, the Parkinson interview wasn’t the only attack of its kind on Ryan. Across the media, she was getting a reputation as someone who refused to play the game and be nice. Appearing at the London Film Festival as part of the same trip to the UK, the actress underwhelmed the press by… not doing much of anything. Empire reported, ‘Ryan alighted from her car, gave one half-hearted wave to the crowd then turned her back on screaming fans and stomped inside the cinema,’ and contrasted her behaviour with her co-star Mark Ruffalo’s, ‘doing more than his fair share of crowd-pleasing, Ruffalo signed autographs and took his time with the crowd before popping inside to assure Empire Online that at least one IN THE CUT star knows how to show some love.’

Unlike Ryan, IN THE CUT has enjoyed a renaissance years after its release. Some of the criticisms of IN THE CUT are fair, its central mystery is frustratingly obvious, and the film shows too little interest in its non-white characters (it’s actually been difficult to continue to write this essay, when what I really want is to write a love letter to the character of Cornelius, murderino pioneer and the philosophical heart of the movie). Bad reviews don’t always have malevolent intent, and sometimes it can take a while to see a film for what it is, as opposed to what we want it to be, or what its marketing campaign promised. What various writers love about IN THE CUT are the way it communicates the interior lives and relationships of its female characters, its incredibly feminist sex scenes (verbal consent, condoms, female pleasure), its complex and morally ambiguous depiction of desire, and its portrayal of a woman who remains in control through her mastery of language and disinterest in politeness.

Suspect 2: Method Acting

What’s a little strange about Ryan’s repeated clashes with the press is how similar her off screen persona was at this time to Frannie, her character in IN THE CUT. Those murder mysteries where the crimes mirror a book written years before are an excellent sub-genre, and The Case of Rude Meg Ryan seems to fit into it nicely. Frannie is seemingly beset on all sides by danger, stalked by an ex-boyfriend and in the sights of a serial killer. Several years before, Ryan had filed a restraining order against a stalker who broke into the house of Andrea and Tomas Ryan (no relations) assuming it to be the home of the actress. Frannie is wary of romance due to what she perceived as her father’s psychological murder of her mother, ‘she couldn’t understand it when he left, it killed her’, while Ryan was recovering not just from her divorce from Dennis Quaid, but her rebound Russell Crowe leaving her for a BBC researcher. Lucy Bolton writes in her book Film and Female Consciousness that:

‘Frannie has no time for pleasantries. Perhaps the most striking aspects of Frannie’s character are her control and restraint. It is these qualities that enable her to deal so calmly with the excesses of the men in the film.’

Lucy Bolton, Film and Female Consciousness.

Calm though Frannie is, her monosyllabic communication style provokes a gamut of responses from the men in the film, from babbling, to hurt, to angry outbursts. Similarly, Ryan’s caused Parkinson to lose his cool. During filming, Campion reportedly instructed her ‘don’t try to be liked’. Did it occur to anyone to think that perhaps Ryan was performing the greatest piece of method acting since Nicholas Cage pulled out 12 of his own teeth to prepare for his role in BIRDY (1984). That perhaps she’s been stuck as Frannie, ignoring men when they say dumb things, and receiving amazing head for the last 18 years?

Suspect 3: Ageism

A lot has been said, rightly, about the role misogyny played in the media portrayals of women like Hilton, Spears and Fox, but while these women were in their teens and early twenties at the time, Ryan was over 40 when she embarked on a dramatic change of image. The idea that America’s sweetheart was not only playing a taciturn, middle-aged nympho, but might actually be becoming one in real life? Unacceptable.

Suspect 4: Choice

Many of the reviews of the time mention that Nicole Kidman was tapped to play the part of Frannie before Ryan, and suggest that Ryan was attempting to follow the path that her fellow actress took into ‘serious roles’ after EYES WIDE SHUT in 1999. Keen cinephile sleuths will know Kidman has been taking off-beat roles since playing Suzanne in 1995’s TO DIE FOR, which Ryan was offered first and turned down. Kidman receives her fair share of bad reviews and personal criticism, like the persistent tabloid story that she’s bald, and she also previously appeared in a not-so-successful Campion film. Why can her career withstand the things that Ryan’s couldn’t? Maybe it’s down to choice. Unlike Kidman, who appears to be something of a workaholic, Ryan had long been expressing ambivalence about her chosen career, an emotion unsuited to the cutthroat world of Hollywood. ‘I think the feeling with Hollywood was mutual. I felt done when they felt done, probably,’ she said in a 2019 interview with Australian news. While her performance in IN THE CUT is rightfully receiving the recognition it deserves, and it’s a shame for us that there might not be others, perhaps a ‘career’ is no great loss to Ryan, who says she feels free now that she’s no longer an actor.

True crime narratives often make unwitting angels out of women, a trope that IN THE CUT resisted. We are so obsessed with the gory details of the crime, that we forget to see its victims as multifaceted people, with desires and decisions of their own. Maybe Ryan was the killer all along, and perhaps her career death finally allowed her to have a life.

Sarah Kathryn Cleaver is co-founder of Zodiac Film Club, dedicated to “good looking films, complex female characters and our faves in rarely screened cult, contemporary and classic cinema.”

This is a film still from IN THE CUT, our featured attraction of the week at RADIANT CIRCUS.

IN THE CUT screens at Mama Shelter (07 SEP 18:30+) with support from RADIANT CIRCUS / Revive The Dark. Tickets here.

This is a film still from IN THE CUT (2003), presented by Zodiac Film Club with the support of RADIANT CIRCUS (07 SEP 19:30).

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