The real reason Meg Ryan's career was ruined

Meg Ryan first appeared on most people's radars with a two-year stint on As the World Turns, followed by a memorable turn in Top Gun. From there, Ryan was off and running, and it didn't take long for her to become the queen of the romantic comedy. Ryan starred in several classics of this movie genre, including When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail. She kept making dramatic movies, too, including When a Man Loves a Woman and City of Angels, but, over the years, her presence in Hollywood has become pretty much nonexistent. 

So, what went wrong? Can a few negative reviews tank a career just like that? Or did her pivot away from rom-coms make room for up-and-comers like Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston to permanently replace her? Of course, there's also Ryan's notable aversion to fame, her unwillingness to adapt to the necessary evil of social media, and her desire to retreat from the Hollywood scene. If it sounds complicated, that's because it is. Let's take a deep dive into the real reason Meg Ryan's career was ruined. 

Bad luck at the box office

While she's best and most fondly remembered for genre- and era-defining romantic comedies of the '80s and '90s, by the time the 2000s rolled around, Ryan's movies weren't quite the warm and magical masterpieces they once were, nor did they pull in blockbuster numbers at the box office.

Looking back, the glorious year of 1998 was the end of the Golden Age of Meg Ryan, and we didn't even know it, what with her lead roles in two of the years biggest hits: City of Angels and You've Got Mail. After that, Ryan got stuck in one flop after another. First there was Hanging Up, in which Ryan re-teamed with Sleepless in Seattle writer Nora Ephron for her semi-autobiographical family dramedy. Despite the pedigree (and co-stars Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow), it made a surprisingly low $32 million at the box office. The kidnapping drama Proof of Life came later that year and then promptly left theaters. The years after brought Kate and Leopold, which at $47 million was a Black Panther-level mega-hit when compared to In the Cut ($4 million), Against the Ropes ($5.8 million), and In the Land of Women ($11 million)

Everybody got extremely critical

Not only did Meg Ryan's Y2K-era movies strike out with audiences, major movie critics were ambivalent or downright hateful of those films, too. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the scores of this cinematic dark period from around 2000 to 2007, which included forgettable titles like Hanging up, Against the Ropes, and Kate & Leopold, topped out at a dismal 50%. 

And yet in 2008, it looked like Ryan was putting this phase of her career behind her, signing on to co-star in the high-profile ensemble The Women, a remake of a classic 1939 movie which itself was based on a hit play. While very much in Ryan's rom-com wheelhouse, it was also notable in that it didn't have a single man in the cast. Ryan starred alongside Bette Midler, Jada Pinkett Smith, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, and Debra Messing, who all shared the experience of being in one of the worst-reviewed films of the decade. In fact, Richard Schickel of Time called it "one of the worst movies I've ever seen." That would certainly hurt one's pride … not to mention their prospects.

Her movies could only be found at Blockbuster Video

Meg Ryan suffered a string of flops, but at least they were released to movie theaters. But after all those stinkersRyan's next two movies were ingloriously released straight to DVD. In spite of all the new media channels that have changed the way we consume entertainment, it's still preferable for an actor to star in movies that hit the multiplex first. To have those films unceremoniously dumped on DVD where they will toil in obscurity at a Redbox is not a place where one would expect or want the career of Meg Ryan to head, but here we are. 

Shortly after the release of The Women in 2008, Ryan starred in two consecutive didn't-come-to-a-theater-near-you films: My Mom's New Boyfriend and The Deal. The first pairs Ryan with Hanks — Colin, not Tom — in a story about a federal agent who can't handle his slightly middle-aged mother having an active and healthy sex life. The latter is a Hollywood satire full of movie industry jokes co-starring and written by William H. Macy. Neither is necessarily a bad movie, but their lack of theatrical runs certainly gives pause.

She got knocked off of her perch

For most of her career, Ryan always seemed to be in high demand, gracing an endless parade of audience-pleasing, lovey-dovey, feel-good romps and romantic comedies in which she inevitably wound up with a dude played by Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal who seemed almost good enough for her Ryan or her character. But it's no secret that the competition is fierce for those "girl-next-door" or object-of-affection roles. Because she's an actress who wanted to stretch her creative muscles, Ryan tried to distance herself from those kinds of movies almost as soon as she started landing them. While she turned down the lead part in Pretty Woman, she tried out grittier roles like In the Cut, Proof of Life, and Against the Ropes. While Ryan was doing that, plenty of actresses gladly stepped in to pick up the slack, such as Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock, all of whom mastered the genre that Ryan basically created.

She had some major relationship drama

During the early 2000s, rumors surfaced that the star allegedly cheated on her then-husband of nine years, movie star Dennis Quaid, with her Proof of Life co-star Russell Crowe. Ryan didn't really address the situation at the time, leaving herself open to bitter tabloid rumors. Subsequently, there was something of a backlash against Ryan — a tawdry affair with a co-star was not something a true America's Sweetheart would do.

But there's more to the story. Not until 2008 did Ryan explain the situation. "What wasn't in the story was the reality of my marriage," she told InStyle. "Dennis was not faithful to me for a long time, and that was very painful." Ryan and Quaid did divorce, but the media attention surrounding it, while career-harming, was personally freeing for the actress. "I didn't have to care about what people thought," Ryan elaborated in that InStyle interview. "I have gotten to do what I guess I secretly wanted to do. I could … be totally under the radar and live my life." In other words, America's Sweetheart was done being America's Sweetheart.

As a positive footnote to Ryan's rough road of romance, as of this writing, she's engaged to longtime on-again-off-again beau John Mellencamp. 

Let's face the facts

What's the one thing tabloids love to do more than report on celebrities getting divorced? Call out celebrities that allegedly went under the knife. For whatever reason, Meg Ryan's appearance has undeniably changed since her '80s/'90s career peak, and the gossip industry has circulated rumors that the blonde, blue-eyed beauty has made more than a few trips to the cosmetic surgery clinic, suggesting, in particular, that the star has had both Botox and lip injections. Some believe that the apparent change in her appearance was one of the biggest reasons why her career has taken such a hit — it might be hard for a performer to find work if they no longer have their familiar, bankable face. 

It's all sadly ironic — Hollywood demands an impossible standard of beauty and perpetual youthfulness from its actresses … who get publicly mocked for altering their appearances with expensive surgeries just so they can keep getting considered for employment in their field … and then they don't because they don't look like "themselves" anymore. (It's a fate that's plagued many actresses, such as Dirty Dancing's Jennifer Grey.)

Her big comeback was a TV show that never got made

In 2013, Meg Ryan went through the unique-to-Hollywood experience of having her promising TV show pilot rejected by a major network. The Hollywood Reporter announced that Ryan planned to both produce and star in a then-untitled project written by Family Ties veteran Marc Lawrence. The premise: An eternally optimistic but constantly failing single mom returns to work at the big New York City book publisher where she was a star editor years earlier. The twist: She's an underling for the new boss, who just so happens to be her former intern. (She also has to juggle her teenage kids, her meddlesome ex-husband, and her meddlesome in-laws.)

It would have marked Ryan's return to television (she hadn't starred in a TV show since the short-lived 1985 Western Wildside), but NBC didn't pick up the show to series, and it died on the vine.

She never got to meet your dad

In 2014, CBS's How I Met Your Mother ended its nine-season run. Losing that show was hard on fans, but those harsh feelings were assuaged a bit by the news that CBS had a spinoff of the show in the works called How I Met Your Dad. It was actually more of a re-imagining, or a reboot, in that, instead of having a guy tell a very long story to his kids about how he met their mom (and all the adventures he had with his friends along the way), this one would be from the female perspective and explore how a woman met her kids' father. 

The element of narration would be repeated, with Bob Saget on Mother switched out on Dad for somebody who knew a thing or two about how to sell a screen romance: Meg Ryan. (It also starred future Oscar darling Greta Gerwig as the main character/younger version of Ryan's narrator.) Though it was seen as a lock for the fall schedule, CBS ultimately and surprisingly passed on the show, thus ending Ryan's attempt at a TV-based comeback … again.

Who needs acting when you can direct?

Lots of successful actors have become directors, including Ron Howard, Warren Beatty, and, yes, Meg Ryan. While most directors either seek out that track from early on, others are actors who got "promoted" to the job. Ryan falls into the latter category, and it doesn't seem to be the career pivot she may have expected. 

In 2015, Ryan released her directorial debut Ithaca, a World War II homefront drama based on William Saroyan's 1943 novel The Human Comedy. It's about a widowed mother of four whose oldest son gets drafted, leaving the next-oldest son to find work as a messenger. That son then delivers telegrams to the residents of Ithaca, N.Y., giving many of them notices that their relatives died in the war. Ryan also starred as the mother in this movie.

Ryan chose to direct the movie for very personal reasons — "As a mom, I could really relate to the material," she told Vanity Fair. — but audiences and critics didn't share her enthusiasm. With a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a grand total of $19,692 from straight-to-video sales, it's going to be tough for Ryan to find herself in the director's chair ever again.  

She got burned out on the Hollywood scene, man

Meg Ryan has starred in countless movies after getting her start as a principal in the popular soap opera As the World Turns. In fact, Ryan has been working in show business for nearly 40 years now. Maybe she just needed a break. In any other profession, she'd be looking at retirement and pricing homes in Florida. Unfortunately, taking time off is dangerous in Hollywood, and Tinseltown's cameras don't stop rolling for any actor. 

However, Ryan made the choice to take a breather from Hollywood — both the movie industry and the location — for a good reason: She wanted some time to raise her kids, and to raise them in New York. She's often been spotted in Manhattan with her daughter, Daisy. "Meg is as dedicated a parent as you'd ever want to see — keeping Daisy's best interests in mind, having fun with her, taking her to school events and dance lessons really keeps her grounded," a "friend" told Closer Weekly. Okay, fine, Meg Ryan.