I was quite surprised to find out that Sleepless in Seattle was celebrating its 25th year of release, a perfect match as my 25th year comes closer into view. A film that I’ve seen just as many times over the years, unlike Nora Ephron staples such as You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally, this is one where there are gaps left between the most iconic moments. While there have been countless romantic comedies over the years, this one stands out due to the trinity of quality filmmaking: strong leading performances, a tight, cohesive screenplay, and superb, steady direction.
Those who grew up with Sleepless or fell in love with it at its first release all remember the big moments: Jonah calling into the radio show for the first time, Annie scrambling in her kitchen to grab both the telephone and the radio and hide in the closet to listen to Jonah once again, and of course up on the Empire State Building, seeing Sam and Jonah board to go down, and Annie just arriving up at the top feeling like hope is lost before she picks up Jonah’s bag and father and son return to retrieve it. And while I have returned to watch my favourite moments play out again and again, I am always rewarded by the subtlety and beauty in the scenes I don’t remember: Sam at the airport with Jonah, seeing Annie for the first time without knowing that it is her. Sam and Jonah at home visiting with their friends Greg and Suzy, their friends from New York, and Suzy reminiscing about the movie An Affair to Remember and Rita Wilson having an incredible acting moment as she just lays her heart out thinking about the magic in the end of that movie. Annie, standing in traffic on a busy Seattle road just to get a good look at Sam in person, trying to see if he is someone truly special. Sam asking his son on the Empire State Building if he had screwed up as a father, if he had bungled the relationship they share.
Ephron wrote the screenplay from Jeff Arch’s story, and what she delivers is not a full-blown romance, but rather a more nuanced story about how a father and son have decided to grieve the loss of the woman who was wife and mother to them respectively. Jonah has a good relationship with his father, but as he says to the host of the radio show, he wants him to open up more. Jonah wants his father to be more present in the grieving process. And while Sam had every opportunity to rebuke his son’s late night Christmas season request, he doesn’t and plays along for his son’s benefit, thus setting off the story’s chain of events.
Tom Hanks brings stability to the role of Sam, a trademark of his throughout his career, a solid presence that could command a room if necessary or back off to allow other performers to play off him. To this point in his career, Philadelphia had yet to release, and while we had been entertained by his performances in Big and A League of Their Own, we had yet to understand the true capacity of his range and in Sleepless he uses that range a bit more than in his more comedic efforts. We know the idea of Sam confessing his feelings to a radio show host is corny, he himself rolls his eyes to Jonah before giving in, but that expectation of corniness allows Sam to be caught off guard by the questions he is asked and ultimately allows him to open up and simply be honest on how the death of his wife has affected him. Ephron knows that if we are to accept Sam’s arc, we need to believe where is emotionally and this moment, like for Meg Ryan’s character, grabs our hearts and does not let go.
Ephron’s great film legacy lies in the strength of the female characters she had written throughout her career and Ryan’s Annie Reed is not different. Annie is a leading reporter at the Baltimore Sun, is engaged to a successful man, and has her entire future waiting to be simply lived, at least until she hears Sam or “Sleepless in Seattle” unveil his heart over the radio. She doesn’t believe in the magic of romance or signs of fate, as she tells her mother while trying on her grandmother’s wedding dress, and yet as she further investigates who “Sleepless in Seattle”, her feelings begin to change. She doesn’t give up everything in her life right away to go chase this mystery man across the country, but rather asks herself one question: what if? What if she was the one that is supposed to be this man’s next partner? What if she could be the one to help him through his grief and teach him to love again? And her action is to just investigate, to use her skills as a reporter to learn more about the situation. Yes, she does fly to Seattle to find Sam once she knows his identity, but she can’t commit to introducing herself. The letter she writes to Sam suggesting they meet on the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day is a test against her disbelief in fate and magic of random encounters, a test that her instincts are driving her to fulfill even when she has everything to lose.
What is truly amazing about the performances by Ryan and Hanks is that they barely share five minutes of screen time together. Most of the movie they are kept apart and yet we can feel throughout the growing sense that when these two meet, something is going to happen, and it goes beyond just knowing that these are the leading stars. They are both searching for some to invest heavily in. For Sam, that is for someone he can fall in love with again. For Annie, it is for someone who is deserving of her love, someone she can give her love full too. What allows that growing intimacy to build is Ephron’s steady direction and her decision to tell both Annie and Sam’s stories individually.
Before the two characters meet she decides in their respective scenes to find camera angles to hold on for several seconds. These static shots rely heavily on the performer’s strength and knowing that she has Hanks and Ryan, Ephron trusts them to hold the frame and the scene together. For Sam, towards the end of the first phone call with the radio show host, Ephron repeatedly goes to a shot of Sam sitting on a bench with Jonah sleeping on him, his head resting on Sam’s leg. For Annie it is on her face while she is driving to Washington, tears coming down her face as she hears the pain and emotion behind Sam’s story. Same for when Annie is sitting on her bed with her legs crossed while talking to her Baltimore Sun co-worker, Becky (Rosie O’Donnell). These shots help set up the connection we have to these characters, it becomes personal. That enhanced personal connection then allows us to feel the importance of the scene when Sam sees Annie for the first time at the airport. He doesn’t know who she is or that she was the woman from Baltimore who wrote him a letter, and yet he senses something about her. This scene builds off the earlier scenes as well so that when we reach the Empire State Building, we feel the stakes of what it means to see Sam and Annie almost miss each other. And once we realize that Jonah’s bag is still up there, our hope is renewed and rewarded immediately when the two come together for the true first time.
Some other directors or writers may have been tempted in this final scene to have Annie run into Sam’s arms, have him pick her up over his head before bringing her down for their passionate first kiss. They would break apart and say, “I love you” and ride down the elevator before the credits rolled. But Nora Ephron knows her story and that her characters would recognize, without saying, how much fate or magic played into them meeting each other. When the two of them go back down the elevator with Jonah at their side, they aren’t going down as a big happy family ready to live happily ever after, but rather going down knowing that something magical has happened to bring them together and that there is hope that they found what they truly needed in each other.
The 25th Anniversary edition of Sleepless in Seattle released on Blu-ray and DVD today.