It’s hard to pick the best scene in Sleepless in Seattle, a jewel of a film co-written and directed by Nora Ephron. But if pressed, we’d all likely come up with the same answer. However, it requires some context: Just prior to the scene, Sam (Tom Hanks), a father who lost his wife a year and a half earlier, has just come back from the airport. Twice in passing, he sees Annie (Meg Ryan), who has just arrived in Seattle on a semi-quixotic journey to meet Sam. Except Sam doesn’t know this, or her. Unbeknownst to Sam, his son Jonah (Ross Malinger) has provided a radio psychologist with Sam’s address, after Jonah and Sam called into the show to talk about love, grief, and magic. Annie heard the show and wrote to Sam, and Jonah wrote back posing as his father and asking Annie to meet him at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day.
Let’s pause here to say that in terms of rom-com hijinks and poor decisions that turn out great, nothing beats Sleepless in Seattle. Annie takes PTO from her job as a journalist, flies across the country, and shows up at a stranger’s house! No ma’am. But also, it’s so romantic, so yes ma’am, with caveats. Anyway, when Sam finds out about Jonah’s plan, Sam is vehemently in the “no ma’am” camp. He tells his sister Becky (the divine Rita Wilson) and her husband (Victor Garber) about it over dinner. And this is where the scene starts.
“Oh! It’s like An Affair to Remember!” Becky declares. Met with blank stares, she launches into an emotional retelling of the film that, 27 years after Sleepless in Seattle‘s release, will make you happy-cry every time you watch it. I say this with absolutely no hyperbole: Wilson deserved and still deserves an Oscar for this scene. Justice for Rita Wilson!
Talking about this scene plays out like emotional inception: You start by describing a masterful comedic performance of a character being overwhelmed by the memory of a movie she loved and, in the telling, you get overwhelmed by the memory of a movie you loved. The feelings of the teller and the feelings of the character intertwine and suddenly it’s one joyful, tearful mess. One of the things Ephron explores so masterfully in Sleepless in Seattle is how thin the line is between memory and the present. Film is the perfect vehicle for this concept, as it transforms us at the moment of viewing and pulls us back to that transformation every time we remember it.
“It was like a déjà vu thing.” That’s how Victor Garber’s character describes the feeling Sam experienced when he saw Annie at the airport, and then, briefly, across the street from his house. (Problematic!) What a beautiful way to talk about love, like it’s the recognition in the present of something you once experienced some time in past. It’s the opposite of love at first sight: The idea that love is pre-existing and just waiting to be perceived. In Sleepless in Seattle, love is a nostalgia, not for nostalgia’s sake, but as a guide for where to go next.
In the years since its release, even the experience of watching the 1993 film has become a journey into nostalgia. The plot hinges on landlines and live radio shows, letters and, late in the film, a computer at a travel agency that’s not password-protected. Though we’ve moved on to new forms of connection, there’s something sweet and appealing about the relative simplicity—even simplicity in a film with a plot as complex as this one’s. And who amongst us isn’t rediscovering the telephone during this time, when even small distances seem yawning? Or the simple pleasure of a mailed letter? (Thank you to all the Post Office employees!) After a grueling three years during which the dark underbelly of nostalgia was used to prop up the worst aspects of this country’s history and present, it’s particularly heartening to be reminded that sometimes, the hallmarks of the past can continue to help us.
To wit, my husband is a pastor, and last week his church switched to virtual worship, which posed a logistical challenge in educating a congregation that spans many demographics on the ins and outs of Zoom and Facebook Live. But it worked, and everyone stepped into the future together. However, it’s become clear it won’t be safe to worship together in person for months, past Palm Sunday and Easter. It’s possible to do both virtually, of course, but he wanted a stronger connection. And so he reached back into the past, ordering an FM broadcaster online and announcing that on two of the most joyful days in the church’s year, the congregation will come together, ensconced in cars, for drive-in church. Will I, after Easter, commandeer the FM broadcaster so I can host my own radio call-in show connecting Sams and Annies across the nation? Absolutely. I have to believe it’s what Rita Wilson would want.
As much as I love Wilson’s extraordinary scene in the middle of Sleepless in Seattle, I must admit my favorite comes at the very end. Annie has waited at the top of the Empire State Building for Sam all day, not realizing it’s Jonah who set up the plan. Jonah, meanwhile, has flown across the country unaccompanied to meet her himself, with Sam fast on his tail. The three of them finally gather just as the observatory is closing; Sam and Annie gaze at each other, nostalgia and newness overwhelming them.
I always think there’s a line here, sometimes confusing Meg Ryan’s “I wanted it to be you” from You’ve Got Mail. But there’s nothing as iconic, which is somehow better. All the ways the characters have described love throughout the film coalesce into magical silence between Annie and Sam. In the rewatching, I realized I’d filled in words where there are only facial expressions from phenomenal performances by Hanks and especially Ryan. The recollection fuses with my feelings and the character’s feelings and creates something new and transformative. In the final moments of the movie, Annie can’t believe this moment is real; she can’t believe they’ve both come all this way; she can’t believe this déjà vu thing is pulling her forward as they walk out of the building and into the future.