Ocean’s 8 is just around the corner and the rumor is that Anne Hathaway steals the show. While some critics are taken aback by this show of comic talent, for many of us, Anne Hathaway has long been one of the most reliable comic actors in Hollywood. Ever since she won our hearts in the Princess Diaries over a decade ago, Hathaway has ascended to the modern rom-com queen. Sure she’s also an Oscar-winning actress, but we stan for Hathaway’s deftness for breezy love stories and neurotic romantic leads. This ultimately leads to the question, is Anne Hathaway the new Meg Ryan?
There is always a danger in striking up the comparison between two women, especially in the entertainment world. There can be hundreds of male rappers, but we pit Nicki Minaj against Cardi B as if there can only be one lady to fill those shoes. The purpose of talking about Anne Hathaway and Meg Ryan within the same breath serves as a mutual appreciation for their talents but also a deeper sense of regret in how we treat our greatest female stars.
At the height of her career, Meg Ryan has been deemed “America’s Sweetheart,” following in the legacy of Mary Pickford and Sally Field. She made her debut in the early 1980s but earned her star with When Harry Met Sally, where, in one scene, she famously simulated orgasm in a crowded diner. From that moment until the early 2000s, she was among the biggest box-office draws and the star of all your favorite romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail.
In the earliest stages of their comedy careers, both Ryan and Hathaway succeeded in part due to a prudish innocence. Even in regards to the scene of Ryan going “at it” in the diner, the laughs come from how unexpected her brazenness is, as well as the fantastic pantomime of a mind-blowing sexual experience. Hathaway, too, lingered in this zone as she made her name in chaste films like The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted, which all but demanded an almost Disney-Eque level purity.
When Ryan tried to break away from that image though, her career took a downturn. There are a lot of reasons why this might have happened: Some speculate it is the affair she had with Russell Crowe that ended her marriage with Dennis Quaid; some argue it was her move towards more risqué material like In the Cut, and others say she was just getting “old.” In reality, it was that she no longer fit into the image that audiences built up of her. It doesn’t matter that she was inscrutably fantastic in In the Cut, what mattered was that she was no longer the cute twenty-five-year-old giggling at Tom Hanks.
Somehow, where Meg Ryan was expected to remain the same, Hathaway was allowed to flourish in a diversity of roles. In some ways, this is a reflection of a changing industry in which romantic comedies no longer demanded the same tropes. Judd Apatow redefined the genre with The Forty-Year Old Virgin in 2005, launching a new brand of rom-com geared toward men. Increasingly, the box-office was dominated by mega-blockbusters and franchises, edging romantic comedies toward more niche audiences.
Anne Hathaway’s biggest success as a comedienne (in terms of box office receipts) was The Devil Wears Prada, which grossed over 325 million dollars. If there was a defining role in her career as a romantic lead, this was it. In the film, she plays Andrea, a recent college grad who earns an entry-level position at Runway magazine. With a low opinion of fashion and a huge ego, she struggles to find her place under the precise direction of the magazine’s legendary editor, Miranda Priestley.
The Devil Wears Prada feels like a natural companion to You’ve Got Mail, in terms of butting heads workplace comedies. Both Hathaway and Ryan are torn between their career and their love life. Even the style of their performances—a mix of stubborn outrage and steadfast perfectionism—share similarities. Both actresses have a way of softening anger into comedy without undercutting the power of their convictions.
After The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway lingered in the rom-com arena for a while. She starred in a string of not particularly memorable films like Becoming Jane, Bride Wars, and Get Smart. Meanwhile, though, she was demonstrating herself as one of the best actors of her generation with a heartbreaking starring role in Jonathan Demme’s underrated Rachel Getting Married.
Yet, by the time she won her Oscar for Les Misérables, it seemed people were tired of her. Entertainment magazines and even the New York Times speculated, “What is Anne Hathaway doing wrong?” Why didn’t people like her? Is she too perfect? Too eager? Too pretty? It seemed that Anne Hathaway’s bubble was about to burst.
But…it didn’t, at least not so far. Whereas Ryan was punished for her career shift, thus far, Hathaway seems to be balancing it. It is possible that the conditions of the industry allow for more flexibility and are not as punitive as it once was when it comes to reimaging its female stars. While Meg Ryan has only taken on a handful of roles since 2008, it is time we recognize her as one of the foremost actors of a generation, reflecting on why her career turned sour and perhaps our culpability in failing to accept her desire or need to switch gears away from the coy gamine of her youth. Hathaway is only in her mid-thirties, so let’s hope we don’t corner her into the same trap that tore down the greatest comedienne of a generation.