Meg Ryan's always been more Gap than Gucci, the heroine of fluster films about befuddled love, those with a beginning, muddle and hopeful ending, and consequently her image is of an old-style Hollywood dizzy dame.
Her severe, square, black reading glasses do nothing to deflate that bubbly blonde image. Rather, they add to it. She's even cuter.
Almost as alluring is her movie balance sheet.
At 36, she has made 22 films and her comedies have made magical box office arithmetic of more than $850 million dollars in America alone. Surprisingly, she is changing the rules.
Her uniform of sun-bleached jeans, white T-shirts, trademark round sunglasses, cowboy boots and crazy cropped blonde hair that matched her naughty, lopsided grin is now stashed irrevocably in her off-duty wardrobe. She is now Miss Capability Ryan.
Previously she was content to simply sell her services to the movies but she's now a working mother and having triumphed domestically -- much to her surprise -- she want more control of her professional life.
Her new, more mature attitude is visible at breakfast time in the penthouse suite of a Beverly Hills hotel. Previously with Meg Ryan it was casual wear, coffee, cookies, giggles and throaty laughs. She was always serious about her work and her life but a remarkable metamorphis is clear. Ironically, by her reservation.
Her hands and arms don't jump around the place. Mostly she sits with them clasped as she makes her points. The hair is expensively cut but casually worn. The charcoal Armani suit over a beige Donna Karan blouse spells power lady. As do the dark suede heels. She grins:
'When I wear high heels I have a great vocabulary and I speak in paragraphs. I'm more eloquent. I plan to wear them more often.'
There's a hint less confidence when she admits: 'It's scary to change a formula which has worked but it was time at work -- and at home.'
She says her new look reflects not just a spicier view of life but her need to be in control. Privately, she has always been tough and helped actor Dennis Quaid conquer cocaine addiction before she agreed to marry him eight years ago. Ryan, who made her screen debut at age 15 , a funky adolescent with a wistful, faraway, safe smile, has grown up. But not, as many thought, to become just another Doris Day, a fluff in a lithe, dancer's body, the perennial girl-next-door star.
Nora Ephron who wrote Ryan's breakthrough film 'When Harry Met Sally...' (1989) and directed her landmark movie 'Sleepless in Seattle' (1993) believes she knows what has made Ryan a major power player today.
She is liked by both men and women on and off screen. It helps her box office and her present production arrangements. Ephron said:' She has no vanity. The women that women love are women who don't walk around full of their own self-love. You absolutely know when you see Meg onscreen that if you found yourself next to her you might become friends.'
Cinemagoers are at present watching the new Ryan in 'City of Angels' which is based on Wim Wenders' already critical classic 'Wings of Desire' which was made a decade ago. In this version she plays a heart surgeon who cracks up after a patient dies. Unlikely angel Nicolas Cage appears to comfort her and it's confused and difficult love rather than heavenly choirs. Her secular boyfriend is played by Colm Fiore who said:' Meg knows that tousled hair sells tickets but she's done that. Now she's trying to redirect the focus to other facets of her talent.'
Ryan is pragmatic. 'A l lot of films I've done are essentially about women who are finding their voice, women who don't know themselves well. In romantic comedies it takes the form of:”Who should I marry?”. But I can't do that anymore. I've kid of gone as far as I can go with that one.'
Well, not quite the whole way. This summer (June/July) Ephron and Ryan are completing their hat-trick making 'You Have Mail' in which she and Tom Hanks (who else?) fall in love on t he Internet. Of this 21st Century romance the director laughed:' Meg understands that writing a funny line is only the beginning of what has to be done to get a laugh.I'm embarrassed at how often I write scripts hoping that Meg will be in them.'
Ryan is certainly box office friendly -- for Ephron. Last year she severely changed her image in the dark move 'Addicted to Love' in which she played a leather-clad, motorcycle riding New Yorker intent on destroying the life of the man who loved her and left her.It was riskier but didn't click with audiences but she still maintains stronger stuff was necessary. Unlike her orgasm ('I'll have what she's having') in 'When Harry Met...' you can't fake it anymore:
'The whole genre has to get reinvigorated every few years. You can't rely on just romantic comedy rhythm. That was a mistake many movies made for a long time -- they just got into a bapada-bapada that Carole Lombard or whoever else had. It's gotten beyond that. You've got to make it new all the time.
'It's like marriage. I've found it much better -- and happier -- if you just suddenly get away from the routine. I'm not talking about romance or sex or any of that -- I mean, all your life. We all get in a way of doing things, organising our days -- and working mothers do have to be organised -- but you have to indulge in breakouts. Just be silly at times. I just love it that we can still drive around in the car and just crack up about stuff.
'Dennis and I can still do that which is terrific.It means a lot to our being together. And the happier we are the better off our son is. What brings people down is the same thing over and over. It's dull and downbeat..
'There's always a place for change and I needed it in the my work and in my life. It's working for me.'
The change was dramatic on screen last year for audiences who know her as sexy Sally or sleepless Annie not this rather threatening woman'Addicted To Love.' Ryan looks the part in a black leather motocross jacket and brown suede bellbottoms with leopard print baby T-shirts ( bra straps showing). Her hair -- done by Sally Hirschberger who has done the famous hair on all Ryan's recent movies -- was cut ' one piece a time, from day to day' to give it a 'wrecked' look. 'It was a change from the all-America look.It was getting boring.We decided to really push it up.'
With pale lipstick and sooty eyes Ryan appeared like Andy Warhol's favourite model Edie Sedgewick. 'It was really extravagant, flamboyant -- a real change. I'd never been anybody like that before. I really liked the black eyes.'
The screen look this year is more conventional but she says there is no confusion about her professional roles , 'the difference between what you're supposed to do and what you really feel like doing.'
There is certainly no confusion in her life.
She married Dennis Quaid on St Valentine's Nearly 14 months later their son Jack Henry was born. And a year later she created her own company Prufrock Pictures named for one of her favourite poems, T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.'
'Meg's dedication to the company is very pragmatic,' said her business partner Kathryn Galan adding:' It has to do with her wanting to control her destiny. She hears her instincts very clearly about what and doesn't work.'
The busy hyphenate -- like Jodie Foster her future is all wrapped around being an actress-producer-director -- explains:' Becoming a mother helped give me the confidence to move into other areas. I felt so capable as a mother which is something I never thought I would be. And that invaded other parts of my life. I felt like: Listen I can do this.
'Motherhood change me because it is so fundamental what you're doing for another person. And you are able to do even though it takes a lot. I wouldn't have thought of myself as a person who could guide anybody and then it turned out that I can. Not that I'm perfect but it turns out I have answers to some of the questions. I guess I did feel I was a little bit over my head but I finally feel like I have experience I can call on, that I can be a voice of experience in the room.
'Why shouldn't I be able to do that thing -- and how come people are underestimating that part of me? Personality changes? Well, I can be very relentless when I'm making a point and sort of alienate people. I really have to catch that. ' She applies much pressure on herself and, apart from 'Sleepless in Seattle' which she says she was 'forced' to see, she has avoided her other films. ' I always think I could have done things better or won't like how I look.'
The vanity, of course, is professional. Although she admits to being somewhat intimidated once when filming in Paris :' I felt a little out of my league. The average women on the street dress and look like catwalk models. Before I had just accepted that fashion wasn't my forte in any way. But French women are just confident in themselves and that gives them that ''look''.'
She is well aware that a 'look' matters before and behind the cameras. And this has helped her turn out films like a popcorn machine. Her company has a string of projects in development including 'Antonia and Jane' which charts the friendship of two women and 'Best Friends' which is about what the title says.There is also 'Sirens' about a mother and daughter who devise a seductive plan to gain a large divorce settlement. And 'Jump' which is about two people who agree to meet on a bridge and...
Whether Meg Ryan appears in all films, directs them or just produces she will be The Boss. And that is the reason she is playing-- and dressing -- by the mogul Method and leaving Brando types to the white T-shirts.
'In “You Have Mail” my character is living a small life and she wonders whether she likes it small or if she just hasn't been brave enough to be big about it. And I wonder that about me.
'I think there's an ongoing effort involved in trying to get a bigger perspective , trying to let go of things that limit your capacity to love and be loved or your capacity to hear and to really speak.
'I used to beat myself up because I wasn't a good celebrity. Other people, like Madonna or Demi Moore or Roseanne Barr, are great celebrities. They know what to wear and how to present themselves. They're aware of the absurdity of celebrity and they play with it. I am concentrating on not being my usual raggedy-assed self. I got advice from my sister-in-law who is a great shopper.
' She said:'' Stick with black and you can't go wrong.''
That is easier than understanding Hollywood:' I've been in this business for years and I'm still befuddled by the ways of this town. Sometimes a studio will send me a script and say would I like to produce with them. Or would I like to be ''attached'' to the project. Or can they ''sneak'' me a script. I know that as soon as I put down the 'phone they'll be trying to '' sneak'' it to someone else.
'I like to understand the logical progression of things but this business is just too convoluted.'
So is the situation with her mother Susan who got the daughter she calls 'Peggy' her first role in 1981's 'Rich and Famous' in which -- in director George Cukor's last film --she played Candice Bergen's daughter. Soon after her mother left the family home in Connecticut. She remarried a journalist called Pat Jordan who wrote attacking articles about the family relationship. American tabloid television took up the emotional tale of a Family at War.
Meg Ryan has stayed mostly silent about it ('I don't want it to be my story, it's done') other than to say:' I'm just really happy to be away from them. It's the only peaceful way for me to be. I just want to make clear it has nothing to do with something that happened when I was 15. I'm over it. It's a long-running personality, character thing.'
Quaid calls his wife 'positive' but quickly qualifies:' She doesn't come from a shallow place. She's vibrant and positive in spite of having gone through a lot of hard things in life.'
Her own difficult childhood is reflected in her family.Pop couch jockeys would tell us she is providing for her son what she didn't get growing up. All she says is:' I still look at Jack and can't believe he's so happy and well adjusted and respectful of people. I know that's not all me -- it's Dennis too -- but it's really helped the other parts of my life too.'
Ryan, Quaid and Jack live in an 1917-built bungalow in Santa Monica, California, or on their 200-acre Montana ranch. Her life revolves around the men and places in her life. And, of course, Prufrock.
'My family responsibilities don't conflict with my career. Not at all. I'm not tired. I like the fact that, finally, I have a home where I can stay for a long time. And I like that Jack has a routine, which I never had, and now because I have one -- because of him -- I realise I thrive on it.'
As she does in her marriage with Quaid. They met making the film 'Innerspace' in 1987. For a long time Quaid was the bigger star
'Dennis and I have a theory about success. It comes in waves. Sometimes your famous, sometimes your not. I never felt that had any bearing on was going on between him and me. It's easy to be in a marriage with someone who does what you do if you respect him a great deal and Dennis is an amazing actor. I don't think it will ever be a problem for us. Acting is what I do. It's not what I solely define myself as. It's not something to die for. I like my job. I love my son.
'After Jack was born I'd think about how when I was younger I used to wonder if I was living life the way I should be. I used to worry that I was off on the wrong tangent, that the road I should be on was over there.
'Now I look at myself, at my life, my marriage, our child and I say with some disbelief:'' You are doing OK.'' '