The Underrated Brilliance of Nora Ephron’s Meta-Romantic Comedy ‘Sleepless in Seattle’

It’s been over two decades since Nora Ephron made the move from screenwriter to film director, the third of her creative roles (she began her career as a journalist). After writing scripts for well-received films like Silkwood, Heartburn, and When Harry Met Sally…, she stepped behind the lens for her directorial debut, the little-seen and mostly forgotten This Is My Life. It was her second feature, however, that solidified her cinematic eye as well as her ear for sharp dialogue. Sleepless in Seattle, released in June 1993, proved to be Ephron’s biggest hit. It wasn’t just a commercial success, as she received an Academy Award nomination (shared with her co-writers, David S. Ward and Jeff Arch) for Best Original Screenplay. Two decades later, Sleepless in Seattle still stands as a cinematic achievement and perhaps the last great American romantic comedy.

What sets Sleepless in Seattle apart immediately is that its romantic leads, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan — who became synonymous with romantic-comedy coupledom, despite only starring together two other times (in John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano and Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail) — hardly share any screen time. They are in just two brief scenes together, which allows for Ephron to take this movie all on her own. The center of the film isn’t the couple’s chemistry; rather, it’s Ephron’s sensibility at building the romance by calling out the cinematic joys that predated her own films, particularly the sobfest An Affair to Remember, which makes at least four female characters weep throughout the course of the movie.

The film harkens back to the simple romances of Old Hollywood, and avoids any of the vulgarities and complications of recent submissions to the romantic comedy genre. There is typical commentary about gender — An Affair to Remember is a running gag, with Tom Hanks’ Sam character calling it “a chick movie” — but there’s also the subtle deviations from the usual gender depictions. Take, for example, Meg Ryan’s Annie’s engagement to the perpetually dull and awkward Walter (played by Bill Pullman); she’s uncertain about their future, worried that their relationship is one of convenience rather than the result of passion. At the same time, she refuses the sentiments of fate and soul mates, saying, “Destiny is something we’ve invented because we can’t stand the fact that everything that happens is accidental.” Meanwhile, it’s Sam, grieving over the loss of his deceased wife, who emotionally professes his belief that their attraction was magic.

Of course, the meta nature of Sleepless in Seattle is what forces Annie to embark on a philosophical journey of sorts to find out whether attraction is something otherworldly after all. After hearing Sam’s appearance on a call-in radio show in which he shares the difficulty of getting over his wife’s death, she (as well as thousands of other women in America) makes a move: she sends him a letter, which is intercepted by his son, Jonah, in which she proposes they meet on the top of the Empire State Building in a recreation of the classic scene in An Affair to Remember. (Her best friend Becky, played by Rosie O’Donnell, responds to her melodramatic plot: “That’s your problem! You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.”)

Sleepless in Seattle’s brilliance comes from its commentary on how cinema plays a role in shaping our ideals, goals, and decisions. Annie hasn’t known the overwhelming nature of true love — at least not in the way it has been depicted on screen for years (and certainly not with Walter). Sam has, but the cinematic notion that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence has impacted his grieving period. The point, however, that Sleepless in Seattle underlines is that art imitates life, not the other way around. Annie may try to recreate the emotions she has seen on film because she hasn’t yet experienced them herself, but the cinema’s depiction of humanity is just an extension of the emotional strife people have experienced for millennia.

Cinema, like all other forms of artistic creativity, holds a mirror up to the human experience and allows the viewer to identify and relate to the emotional experience depicted on screen. Sleepless in Seattle not only does that effectively, but it’s also a subtle, serious employment of a genre usually dismissed as frivolous, lighthearted entertainment marketed solely to women. In Ephron’s worldview, emotional growth and catharsis are as important as the seemingly more solemn topics at play in the films of her male peers. Considering the pursuit of love and happiness has perhaps been depicted in art more often than any other subject, it’s worth acknowledging Ephron’s film not as crowd-pleasing entertainment but rather a serious contribution of artistic merit.