All movies are about movies, but Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993) is about movies more than most. The characters habitually measure their own lives against what they’ve seen onscreen. Sam (Tom Hanks), a recently widowed architect, thinks about inviting a potential date over to look at swatches, but then muses that Cary Grant wouldn’t be caught dead looking at swatches with a woman. His ten-year-old son, Jonah, asks whether Sam will have sex with the swatch-woman; Sam, in a rookie move, says yes. Jonah tells him to be careful: “In movies, women are always scratching up the man’s back and screaming.”
All told, the words “movie” or “movies” appear fifteen times in Ephron’s screenplay.
The most movie-obsessed character, by far, is Annie (Meg Ryan), whom we see in an early scene watching An Affair To Remember (1957), starring the aforementioned Grant, on TV with her best friend, Becky (Rosie O’Donnell). After some portentous dialogue between the impossibly handsome and tanned Grant and Deborah Kerr, Annie laments, “Those were the days when people knew how to be in love…. It was right. It was real. It was …”
Becky breaks in: “… a movie. That’s your problem. You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.”
In a clever conceit, all females in this film are obsessed with An Affair to Remember, including an Empire State Building Security guard’s wife and Sam’s sister, Suzy (Rita Wilson), who can’t even summarize the plot without breaking into tears. Her husband, Greg (Victor Garber) teams up with Sam for a very funny response.
(In a piece of dialogue that apparently was cut from the shooting script, a detective Annie has hired to stalk Sam says she reminds him of “Glenn Close in that movie,” i.e., Fatal Attraction.)
Ephron has movies on her mind too: Sleepless is a love letter not so much to the ’50s women’s picture weepy An Affair to Remember as to the classic screwball comedies of the ’30s and early ’40s, the best of which, like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, featured Grant. Bill Pullman plays the Ralph Bellamy role–the well-meaning but terminally dull fiancee Walter. Ryan’s a reporter, like Rosalind Russell in Friday and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe. And Hanks and Ryan are the impossibly good-looking (though not tanned) leads, whose love has a supernatural sway over the actions and intentions of mere mortals. Just like in the movies.
(The clip below starts with the movie-on-movie scene, which ends at about the 2:30 mark. Because of technical difficulties, I was unable to trim the rest of the clip. It doesn’t have any movie-watching stuff, but it’s pretty good. In fact, I recommend watching the whole movie if you haven’t seen it recently. As of last week it was streaming for free on Verizon Fios On Demand.)