Although You’ve Got Mail has arguably become more iconic, Sleepless in Seattle, Nora Ephron’s previous collaboration with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, felt even more omnipresent when it originally came out in 1993. In retrospect, it’s incredible how well these two films work together, since both of them are peculiarly attuned to the central dilemma of the 90s romcom: how to recover the sense of fantasy, distance and impossibility that once drove the romantic comedy in an increasingly permissible, liberal and globalised world. Like You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle addresses that bind through a virtual, networked romance that’s ultimately more about the space between the two romantic leads than the characters themselves. Yet the fact that Sleepless in Seattle never addresses the internet directly makes it – somewhat paradoxically – even more breathless, restless and sleepless than You’ve Got Mail in its yearning for a digital future and a new era of digitally-inflected romantic cinema.
Watching the two films together really clarifies how much Ephron loves characters who are close and distant at the same time, along with her uncanny ability to stack the decks so that romance initially seems impossible. Here, as in You’ve Got Mail, both leads start out physically distant, and romantically attached. Hanks plays Sam Baldwin, an architect who moves his son Jonah, played by Ross Malinger, from Chicago to Seattle, after his wife tragically passes away. Ryan plays Annie Reed, an investigative reporter who lives in New York, and is engaged to Walter Jackson, played by Bill Pullman, who she introduces to her wacky Waspy family in the opening scene. At first, there seems no way these two can ever meet, let alone fall in love, until Jonah rings a late-night radio program to ask for advice about finding love for his father.
This is the first of several critical gestures that Jonah makes to eventually connect Sam with Annie, who hears the broadcast while driving home from her dinner with Walter and her family. Whereas her character falls in love with an email in You’ve Got Mail, she falls in love with a voice here, since Sam eventually comes to the phone, where he explains his situation, prompting a wave of love letters from women across the nation. Annie isn’t exempt, although her obsession seems more pointed, as she finds Sam flitting in and out of her fantasies before she finally screws up the courage to track him down. As with You’ve Got Mail, then, Ryan’s character only falls in love with a persona, the two leads only meet at the end, and there’s no real meet-cute – or, rather, the meet-cute is the ending, since the film has to transform into a fully-fledged fantasy for the two main characters to meet and commune in the same space.
For those of us watching from the present, this radio call occupies the same affective resonance as early chat rooms, exuding a romantic sense of imminent connectivity, driven by the tantalising possibilities of what might exist “out there” in the digital ether. Destiny and serendipity are common tropes in romcoms, but they’re especially mediated in Ephron’s films, where this emergent connectivity produces a new kind of magic, wonder and fate, figured here as the “stray voltage” that leads to all kinds of bizarre and unexpected occurrences in the electrical circuits between Seattle and New York once Sam and Annie start communing. In that sense, the premise of Sleepless is more radical than You’ve Got Mail, insofar as there is virtually no interaction between the two leads, just as a sense of synergy and presence, just as there is no internet yet, just a space that the internet will quickly occupy.
As a result, Sleepless in Seattle takes place in a proto-digital space, a space that has been prepared for the internet, but not entirely occupied by it yet. Watching it, I realised how much this space percolates through 90s romcoms as a whole, which were preoccupied with the cusp of connectivity, and prescient that the possibility of connection was often more romantic than connection itself. No film occupies that cusp quite like Sleepless, and no space in the film enacts that cusp quite like Sam’s home in Seattle – a houseboat on the fringes of the city that is nearly always shot at night, floating above a dark, fluid and connective medium that links him in some ineffable way to Annie on the other side of the country. This houseboat already feels virtual, a docked point of connection that means Sam and Annie nearly always commune with each other – or the possibility of each other – across water, despite having the American landmass between them, circumventing “real” physical space in their more fluid synergizing.
This is especially clear in three tremulous scenes, each of which draws Annie closer to the dark expanse of water that extends away from and beneath Sam’s house. In the first, Ephron cuts between Annie gazing at the Hudson, and Sam gazing at Puget Sound, as both characters yearn for something so ineffable and ethereal it can barely be articulated. In the second scene, Annie and Sam both watch the ball drop over Times Square on New Year’s Eve – Annie in person, and Sam on television. For a moment, it seems like Annie is more present and Sam more distant from the New York celebrations, especially when Sam wanders outside to watch real fireworks exploding over Puget Sound. However, Ephron times his return to the television so that the “real” Seattle fireworks segue seamlessly into the “mediated” New York fireworks, converging him and Annie on a new media space where real and mediated life has dovetailed.
Finally, Ephron uses the space around and beneath Sam’s house to chart out the first time that the two characters see each other – and the last time they see each other before meeting at the top of the Empire State Building in the film’s closing scene. After making up her mind to seek out Sam for an interview, Annie flies to Seattle, where she walks past him, and notices him, at the airport, without knowing who he is. From there, she makes his way to his houseboat, only to arrive a second too late, as he and Jonah head off in their speedboat to the expanse of Puget Sound beyond. A gorgeous chase scene now ensues, as Annie follows their boat by car and by foot, eventually catching sight of them at a beach, and then again the next morning, as this connective trajectory, and this expansion of the connective tissue of Sam’s house, culminates with him catching a glimpse of her across a busy oceanside highway.
All three of these scenes turn the watery expanse of Puget Sound into a connective possibility that fascinates Annie and Sam as much as – even more than – romance itself, especially since both of their partners at this point are too connected, too present, too immanent, and too “plugged in” to the world. On the one hand, Water is allergic to everything, and always snoring, so connected to his immediate environment that he can hardly enter a new space without coughing, sneezing or breaking out in hives. Similarly, Sam’s first real romantic partner in Seattle, Victoria, played by Barbara Garrick, laughs at everything and anything, and can barely enter a conversation without evincing the same grating (for Sam) delight in it. By contrast, Annie and Sam are transcendent in their sensibility, yearning for a simulated world that Ephron evokes through all the little infographics that expand out from the opening credits, detailing their movements like the dial-up montage that commences You’ve Got Mail.
Much of the film takes its palette from these dark infographics, which perhaps explains why all the action seems to take place during the early hours of the morning – the sleepless hours when the early internet and nascent social media really boomed. In one of the key tipping-points, Annie gets up one night and listens to a repeat of Sam’s broadcast, while Frank Sinatra’s “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” plays on the soundtrack. Virtually all the daytime scenes are set in shade or inside, taking full advantage of the gloomy palette of Seattle, and most of the scenes are not only set at night, but set in dim and poorly lit spaces, as Ephron reserves brightly lit nocturnal expanses for the final sequence on the Empire State.
Here, as in You’ve Got Mail, Ephron uses “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” from The Wizard of Oz, to capture this cusp between fantasy and reality, isolation and connection. In You’ve Got Mail, the song plays in the final scene, when Hanks and Ryan first recognise each other, but here it occurs at the other end of the spectrum, in the first scene, when Ryan first hears Hanks’ voice. In both cases, however, this citation of The Wizard of Oz indicates that Ephron is especially interested in the distance and impediments that drove classical Hollywood romance, although it’s another film that ultimately drives Sleepless – An Affair to Remember, directed by Leo McCarey, and written by McCarey, Delmer Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart.
In many ways, An Affair to Remember is the very pinnacle of the classical romantic drama, and its dependence upon distance and impediment, that Ephron is so keen to recapture. The plot focuses on a pair of characters, Nickie and Terry, played by Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, who meet and fall in love on a cruise ship. Their romance is already limited by its abstraction from their everyday lives, but they set a further impediment when they decide to wait a year to see if their love blooms in isolation, and then meet at the top of the Empire State Building. After a year passes, a further impediment ensues, as Nickie is hit by a car and paralysed at the foot of the skyscraper, meaning she never meets Terry, who only finds out what happened, and learns she still love him, by accident, six months later, although it seems a lifetime later.
By about midway through Sleepless, An Affair to Remember has become a pretty continuous point of reference, and a common thread between Annie and Sam’s romantic lives. Annie tears up while watching the film with her best friend Becky, played by Rosie O’Donnell, and Sam discusses the appeal of the film with his best friend Jay, played by Rob Reiner (it’s notable that Jay likes the film for its suaveness, while Sam prefers its mystical sense of fate). Most dramatically, however, Jonah writes a letter to Annie suggesting that she meet up with Sam the top of the Empire State Building, and so directly mirror the end of An Affair to Remember.
For all that Ephron longs to revive the classical Hollywood past, then, she can only do it with the narrative aid of a younger generation who are more au fait with an emerging digital lexicon. In order to craft this letter to Annie, Jonah recruits his best friend Jessica, played by Gaby Hoffman, who turns out to be the most critical figure in bringing the two romantic leads together. Jessica already speaks in digital lingo, using wacky acronyms that anticipate text speak – H&B for “Hi and Bye,” YOH for “Your Only Hope,” MFEO for “Made for Each Other” – to write the letter to Annie. While these acronyms don’t all make their way into the letter, they nevertheless create a space of digitally connective possibility that permits Jonah and Jessica to revive the breathless conclusion of An Affair to Remember without ever having seen the film. They also use their hacking skills to buy a ticket for Jonah, who travels to New York, and to the top of the Empire State, to drag the two leads, and the narrative, along with him.
The observation deck of the Empire State Building thus turns into the confluence of classical Hollywood romanticism and a new digital romanticism, as the film ends with three gorgeous trajectories that converge from a distance on the top of the tower. In the first, a helicopter shot pans back from Jonah as he asks around to see if Annie has arrived yet; in the second, Annie looks over at the tower from the Top of the Rock, and breaks up with Walter on the spot; in the third, Sam touches down at LaGuardia, and then catches a taxi over the Queensboro Bridge, as a helicopter shot lifts us back up to the Empire State once again. Finally, all three meet, as night falls, and the city is cloaked in the same luminous connectivity as Sam’s houseboat, setting them adrift on a world of mysterious synergies. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” recurs, Annie and Sam meet and take the elevator back down into this digital ether, and we cut to the credits – a computer-generated globe, and a network of computer-generated stars, that could easily segue straight into the opening credits of You’ve Got Mail, the other half, and the more comic half, of Ephron’s superb digital romance dyad.