By EW Staff
December 18, 2018 at 10:00 AM EST
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Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of You’ve Got Mail, the late Nora Ephron’s ode to virtual dating. To celebrate, we’re looking back at our cover story — starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan — from the Dec, 18, 1998 issue. 

They’ve been called the Tracy and Hepburn of their time. The cutest couple on the big screen today. The most combustible combination of chemicals to hit Hollywood’s periodic table in decades. And here they are—Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—sitting at a sidewalk cafe on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, sipping ice water and doodling with their silverware as they wait to shoot a scene for You‘ve Got Mail, their latest boy-almost-doesn’t-meet-girl romantic comedy. One hangs on their every word….

“So I read a newspaper story the other day about an old observatory in San Diego,” Hanks is telling Ryan. “They use this oil to lubricate the telescope? But it turns out nobody’s making the oil anymore. They haven’t made it in years.”

“Uh-huh,” Ryan says.

“There’s only, like, 20 gallons of this telescope oil left. So now they have to switch to ordinary motor oil.”

“Uh-huh,” she says.

“It was a really interesting article.”

Uh-huh. Fortunately for them—and us—they’re much more fun to watch on film. At least they were in Sleepless in Seattle, the 1993 hit chick flick that asked the far-fetched question, Is it possible to fall in love with someone you‘ve never actually met? The answer, of course, was a resounding yes—at least at the box office. The movie grossed $126 million domestically, helped establish Nora Ephron as the most formidable female filmmaker in Hollywood, and sealed Hanks and Ryan’s reputation as the can’t-miss combo of the ’90s.

And now, five years later, the rom-com dream team are reuniting to ask pretty much the same question in Mail, only with a digital twist. This time the destined-to-love strangers meet on the Internet one enchanted evening across a crowded chat room, and type their way into each other’s hearts with a montage of poetic—but always anonymous—e-mails. The plot-turning catch: In the non-virtual world, Hanks and Ryan (or NY152 and Shopgirl, as they know each other online) are arch-business rivals. She owns a small neighborhood children’s-book shop; he runs a chain of Borders-style superstores that’s about to put her out of business.

“No, it’s not a sequel,” Ephron insists. “It asks a different question than Sleepless. This time it’s more like, Can Mr. Wrong turn out to be Mr. Right? That’s really what this is.”

Actually, that’s only half of what it is. Mail is also about two movie stars, Hanks and Ryan, and whether Ephron will be able to perform the same alchemy that turned Sleepless into a smash. “You never know if that magic chemistry is going to strike again,” concedes Warner Bros. cochair Terry Semel, who’s betting more than $60 million (not including promotion) that Mail will deliver. “But two people falling in love—especially these two people—has international appeal. If there is such a thing as a perfect couple, Tom and Meg are it. They’re like Mr. and Mrs. World.”

Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

On the one hand, you could look at Mail as a cybernetic breakthrough: the very first film to portray online life as it actually exists in the real world. Rather than the usual Net-movie nudniks—skateboarding spiky-haired superhackers downloading VR vixens with enormous silicon, um, valleys—we get Joe and Kathleen, two grown-up New York professionals who sometimes enjoy knocking back a few lattes while surfing America Online with their laptops. Like a lot of folks in the late 20th century, they’re ambivalent about technology—they can barely program their VCRs—but have found themselves swept away by the instant intimacy and masquerade intrigue of an e-mail affair.

The actors who play them can relate—although don’t expect to find them lurking in any “special interests” chat rooms at three in the morning. “I am not interested in that at all,” Ryan says. “I don’t want to talk to anybody I don’t know.” Hanks is only slightly more gregarious: “I logged into this 2001: A Space Odyssey chat room when I first got my computer,” he recalls, “but nobody else was in there.” Even Ephron tried a chat room once but found the experience depressing. “The spelling was so horrendous,” she says, “I had to leave immediately.”

On the other hand, Mail is also a throwback, an old-style love story resuscitating a fossilized Hollywood formula. In fact, the film is loosely based on The Shop Around the Corner, the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch creaker in which Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan played bickering salesclerks who were unaware that each was the other’s beloved pen pal. “I was watching Shop Around the Corner one day and it hit me—update it with e-mail,” says executive producer Julie Durk, who pitched the idea to Lauren Shuler Donner, her boss at Shuler Donner/Donner Productions and the power player behind Bulworth, Dave, and Volcano. Donner took it to Amy Pascal, then head of Turner Pictures, which owned the rights to the old movie (before Turner merged with Time Warner), and Pascal relayed the pitch to Ephron. Next thing you know, Hanks and Ryan are discussing telescope lubrication on the Upper West Side.

Actually, it wasn’t quite that easy. For one thing, Hanks, 42, was tired of being compared to Jimmy Stewart and wasn’t wild about the idea of stepping into one of his old roles. “But I decided to disregard that concern,” he says. “I mean, you’ll never see me remake Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life. But Shop Around the Corner is very different. This is a very young Jimmy Stewart. This is Jimmy Stewart before Jimmy Stewart was Jimmy Stewart.”

Ryan, 37, had doubts too—although none of them had anything to do with Margaret Sullavan. “I really loved the script and wanted to work with Tom and Nora again,” she says. “But people were starting to get the idea that all I could do was romantic comedies. I’ve done something like 30 movies and only seven have been romantic comedies. But I was getting locked into that. It was starting to get irritating.”

Both actors could have easily passed on Mail—“We’d never slam ourselves into a movie just to cash in on something,” Hanks says—but both could also see that a Sleepless reunion made a lot of sense. For Ryan, locking into an eighth romantic comedy was plain good business; with the surprise success of this year’s romantic drama City of Angels and good advance buzz on Mail, Ryan’s per-picture asking price is now $15 million (on a par with Jodie Foster’s, just behind Julia Roberts’). Her next two pictures are also Ephron projects: Hanging Up, a comedy-drama Diane Keaton will be directing from an Ephron script, and Higgins and Beech, a Korean War love story Ephron has co-written and will direct.

For Hanks, who hasn’t made a bad career move since Turner & Hooch (although his recent hints at political aspirations sound ominous), Mail may be the two-time Oscar winner’s shrewdest maneuver yet—a guaranteed comedy hit after all that extra-crunchy carnage in last summer’s World War II epic Saving Private Ryan. “It was a no-brainer,” he decided in the end.

Ephron felt the same way, but—typical New Yorker—was having trouble fitting the film into her schedule. At the time, she was working on Michael, her 1996 hit about a dirty-winged angel who falls to earth in the form of John Travolta (Ephron had offered the part to Hanks, but “I just didn’t get it,” he says). She told Donner she wouldn’t be able to sit down with her writing partner—sister Delia, who’s helped script all of Ephron’s films—for at least a year. “It was the one fight I had with Nora,” says Donner. “I thought we had to make the movie right away, because who knows how long e-mail will be around. But she was like, ‘Wait in line.’ “

Everett Collection

To be honest, not every movie on that line has been worth waiting for (skip 1994’s Mixed Nuts). But then Ephron, 57, is still a relatively new director. She’s long been one of Hollywood’s hottest writers (Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally), and before that she was one of New York’s most celebrated journalists (her 1973 Esquire piece on the Pillsbury cooking competition, “Baking Off,” is a timeless classic). But Mail is only her fifth directorial effort—and you can’t really count the first one.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” she says of her 1992 Julie Kavner drama, This Is My Life. “About two months after we shot it, I was in the cutting room with the editor and he very gently said to me, ‘You know, next time you make a movie, you should try to move the people around during the scene.’ It was so embarrassing. So when I did Sleepless, I had people popping all over the place, going into different rooms, slamming doors. They’re like jack-in-the-boxes in that movie.”

The learning curve on Sleepless was slightly less steep—although at times just as slippery. Ephron originally came to the project as a script doctor but ended up taking over when director Nick Castle walked away because of creative differences over her rewrites (he went on to make Dennis the Menace). Her relationship with Hanks had some rocky spots too. “I gave her a bunch of grief,” he recalls. “Mostly about my character’s relationship with his son. She had written it more like a mother-son relationship. It got pretty cantankerous. Brutally honest. But she listened.”

By all accounts, the making of Mail went more smoothly. It is, in fact, Ephron’s slickest, most polished film to date—in part, perhaps, because it’s also her first since This Is My Life to be set in her homeland. The script is loaded with picturesque Upper West Side cameos—like H&H Bagels—and every frame of the neighborhood is colored with the sort of sparkling, glowing gorgeousness only out-of-towners (and Woody Allen, maybe) would believe. “I keep saying that Nora is going to make her next movie entirely in her apartment,” cracks Hanks.

Working with her old Sleepless bedfellows helped as well. “We speak in shorthand,” Ryan says. “At one point we were doing a scene and she said to me, ‘Act like you‘ve been turned down for a part in a movie and now you have to go to the movie’s premiere and it’s a big hit.’ She’s intensely articulate and can language anything.” Hanks agrees: “It’s sort of like, ‘I’ll meet you by the thing where we met that time when we did that thing.’ We can all finish each other’s sentences. We didn’t have to learn to trust each other.”

Not that Mail was a totally painless endeavor. According to Hanks, it sometimes made storming Normandy feel like a day at the beach. “It’s movies like Mail that wear you down,” he says. “Going into a dark soundstage every day, stepping over cables and ladders, getting your hair done for three hours, shooting the same shot from so many different angles. And having to be so aggressively fresh for every scene. That’s when it almost feels like you’re working for the post office.”

“There are rules to the romantic-comedy universe,” concurs Ryan, who’s served time in the infantry herself (in the 1996 drama Courage Under Fire). “You’re slave to the rhythm of the comedy. You have to have this repartee. You can’t take your moments. Playing a really dramatic character is much easier. I remember on Courage I would spend an entire week saying, like, five words.”

For Ephron, the hard part—once again—was in the cutting room. “One of the reasons I became a director is that I got tired of people telling me scenes couldn’t be as long as I wanted,” she says. But those long scenes have a price: Michael Palin’s character—a tweedy novelist who gives readings at Kathleen’s bookshop—had to be chopped completely out of the film in the interest of running time. Other actors lost lines as well, like Greg Kinnear, who plays Kathleen’s soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, and Parker Posey, who has a brief turn as Joe’s about-to-be-dumped girlfriend.

The most delicate editing challenges, though, were the scenes of Hanks and Ryan tapping out their e-mails. “I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address,” Joe types in one. Sweet, but hardly the sort of gripping footage that burns up the screen. “Those sections are very carefully short,” Ephron says. “One thing we discovered is that each e-mail had a breaking point. No matter how good they were, if they were one line too long, you found yourself getting bored watching them type it.

“But, you know,” she quickly adds, “Tom and Meg are such good actors, they can make sitting at a computer look interesting. I mean, you can practically see Tom’s brain cells working when he’s typing.

“And,” she says, repeating Mail‘s official mantra, “the chemistry between them is amazing.”

“No, it’s not like we feel any of that chemistry when we’re just sitting there waiting to film a scene,” Hanks says. “We just talk to each other the way we’ve always talked, even back when we did Joe Versus the Volcano. We never talk about the movie or the mechanics of the scene. We just talk about goofy things we’ve read or seen somewhere.”

“Chemistry is a really weird thing,” Ryan says. “Sometimes you feel like you don’t have it, but it ends up on the screen anyway. Other times you feel a really strong connection, and it ends up looking flat and dead. So the thing with Tom—I don’t think it behooves me to examine it too closely. If I started trying to dissect it, it might go away.”

Ephron nods in agreement. “In one of my movies there was this unbelievably charming scene,” she says. “You look at this couple on the screen and you know that they’re absolutely crazy about each other. But the truth is, off camera they weren’t speaking to each other at all.”

That’s not a problem for Mr. and Mrs. World. In fact, back on the Upper West Side, still waiting to shoot their scene, Hanks and Ryan have moved on to a discourse on which soft drinks come in the most interesting containers. Ryan tells Hanks that she saw a really pretty bottle of iced tea at a deli the other day. Hanks mentions a lovely bottle of mineral water.

Scintillating. But at least they’re talking.

—Benjamin Svetkey

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