Lisa Schwarzbaum looks forward to the day when Meg Ryan trades in her cutie-pie image and depicts full-bodied females

By Josh Wolk
Updated January 20, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
Richard Reinsdorf

Ryan’s Hope

Some years ago, when she was first starring in the great British TV police drama “Prime Suspect,” I interviewed Helen Mirren in a swanky New York restaurant. She looked grand and elegant, did Mirren, and only the indelible blue tattoo visible in the fleshy arc between thumb and forefinger hinted at her long career as a sexy tamale willing to remove her clothes in every role. Mirren spoke coolly and smartly about her decision to take the role of Jane Tennison, a somewhat haggard, often lonely middle-aged detective: She wanted to pave a road to characters that would suit her in the next phase in her professional life, a time when she wouldn’t be cast in naked, sexy-tamale roles.

I thought of Mirren last week as I read about Meg Ryan’s speech at a Women in Film luncheon in Los Angeles, an extended photo op, really, at which Ryan was one of the headline-catching honorees. I thought of Mirren because when Ryan is in full fuzzy-wuzz mode — little feet pattering, little nose twitching, little curly head bobbing with Tinkerbell energy — she makes me grind my teeth and reach for my Simone de Beauvoir. But this Ryan was different.

This Ryan, canny and composed, acknowledged, “I am known to cause diabetes.”

This self-aware cookie said tartly that she was sick of her “nauseatingly adorable” image. That when cute-girl actresses get old, all that’s left for them is pet activism and commercials for Depends. And that “Cute girls don’t go through menopause. They get hysterectomies that are secretly funded by the government.”

Ryan made her audience laugh with pleasure and nod in recognition of the truth, Hollywood style. I’m only hoping she’ll seize that truth and run with it — all the way to roles that let the sophisticated 37-year-old wife and mother trade in pixie mannerisms for more full-bodied characters. Cute-girl characters who hide their womanly sexuality under flannel nightgowns and funky knitted winter hats have always been adored by male moviemakers. But by the time an actress is 30 — let’s say 35, for stragglers — she’d do well to think about a different line of dramatic interpretation than nose-scrunching and pulling long sleeves over her hands (today’s universal Ally McBealicious symbol, by the way, of girlish vulnerability).

Mirren went from naked seductress to complicated cop without dimming her power. Ryan, I’m betting, will only gain admirers when she trades in Christmas-bulb twinkle for full-spectrum feminine visibility.