The low-budget film turned out to be a tremendous hit at the box office and made Sandra Bullock into a leading lady — 20 years ago today.
In 1995 Friends was the hot new sitcom, e-mail was the hot new technology and Sandra Bullock was the hot new movie star, thanks to her role in the romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping. Bullock previously played supporting roles in Speed and Demolition Man, but the low-budget film was the first time she was the star. The plot was improbable; a woman pretends to be the fiancée of a comatose man then falls in love with his brother. While You Were Sleeping was a surprise hit, earning over $180 million dollars at the box office. Suddenly, Bullock was competing with Julia Roberts, who turned down the part, for the title of America’s Sweetheart. The movie is the cinematic equivalent of hot chocolate; it’s sweet, it’s comforting, and it always makes you smile. Here are seven reasons why we still love While You Were Sleeping.
It’s the Rare Comedy That Also Could Have Been a Thriller
The premise of While You Were Sleeping would work equally well as a stalker story in the vein of 1990s gems Single White Female and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Think about it: Bullock portrays Lucy, an unhappy loner who is obsessed with a man she sees at the train station where she works. Though she does not even know his name, she is convinced that he is the man of her dreams. That’s insane.
When she saves his life after he falls on the subway tracks, she accompanies him to the hospital, learns his name is Peter, then says out loud, “I’m going to marry him.” That’s nuts. A nurse overhears and tells his extended family that Lucy is his fiancée. She uses the misunderstanding to ingratiate herself with the family. That’s psychotic. However, due to Bullock’s performance and director Jon Turteltaub’s decision to treat the material as a screwball farce, Lucy’s behavior seems completely rational.
Lucy Is a Frumpy Character Who Never Gets A Makeover — And Still Gets Two Guys
Lucy has one of the worst wardrobes in cinematic history. She wears grey sweaters that are five sizes too big for her, mom jeans, work boots and knit caps. Her clothes are so bad that the gorgeous Sandra Bullock actually looks like a wallflower. Usually when the female protagonist of a romantic comedy is a fashion disaster, it’s so she can have a transformational makeover that will turn the ugly duckling into a swan. It doesn’t happen in While You Were Sleeping.
Lucy wins the hearts of both Jack (Bill Pullman) and Peter (Peter Gallagher) while looking like a dowdy “before” picture. She’s at her most hideous during the climactic wedding scene, in which she wears an ugly, informal off-white dress and a barrette with a giant bow attached to it. It’s refreshing and rare for a woman to get the guy without having to change anything about herself.
It’s a Mid-1990s Time Capsule
While You Were Sleeping accurately portrays the way uncool white people over the age of 25 lived during the Clinton administration. The clothes are baggy and blah. Instead of the grunge and hip hop that we now associate with the era, the soundtrack is full of dull remakes of standards by artists like Natalie Cole. Lucy’s working-class Chicago neighborhood has not been gentrified. There are no computers or cellphones in evidence. This movie could not have been made five years later. Once the internet became mainstream and everyone had access to search engines, Lucy’s lies would have been uncovered in about an hour. Today, she would stalk Peter via social media and end up on an episode of Catfish. Hopefully, the 90s-centric plot will prevent producers from attempting a lame remake.
Bill Pullman and Sandra Bullock Have Great Chemistry
Lucy’s relationship with Jack, Peter’s younger brother, follows the standard romantic comedy arc. They start off as enemies, since he rightly thinks Lucy is lying about being engaged to Peter, but end up falling for each other. Unlike most rom-coms, though, they don’t connect via contrived situations like being forced to share a hotel room. While You Were Sleeping also avoids the cliché of an argument that ends with a passionate kiss. The characters actually get to know each other, like real people. They have conversations about their goals and their childhoods, and their witty banter seems improvised because it has the pauses and digressions of real conversations. But what makes Bullock and Pullman’s roles especially impressive is their off-the-charts chemistry, considering they barely touch until the end of the film.
Lucy Falls as Deeply in Love with the Callaghan Family as She Does With Jack
Lucy’s ostensible excuse for not telling Peter’s family that she isn’t his fiancée is that the shock might give his grandmother a heart attack. But the real reason is that Lucy instantly falls in love with the Callaghan family. It’s hard to blame her. They are a large, close-knit, hilarious group that welcomes her with open arms. They buy her Christmas presents and invite her to dinner even though she is a complete stranger. As far as they are concerned, if Peter loves her, then so do they. For the lonely Lucy, who has no family of her own, it’s a dream come true. The movie devotes as much time to Lucy’s interactions with her potential in-laws as it does to her love life and her connections with Peter’s parents, nieces and eccentric grandmother.
Lucy Is a Working Class Character Who Actually Lives Like Someone on a Budget
The film also tells a subtler story about class differences. Lucy is a working class woman who lives paycheck to paycheck and dreams of having enough money to visit another country so she can get a stamp on her never-used passport. In contrast to a lot of ostensibly poor movie characters who live in 2000 square foot lofts, her apartment is cramped and her furniture is cheap. Peter is a wealthy lawyer, who has spurned the family’s successful blue collar estate sale business. The other characters’ unspoken question is why Peter would date someone of a lower socioeconomic class. Though Peter ends up falling for Lucy after he wakes up from his coma, it’s clear that the reason he never noticed her before is because she was someone he would have considered beneath him.
Peter Has A Framed Glamour Shot of Himself in His Apartment
The first time Lucy visits Peter’s empty penthouse apartment, she looks around, in awe of how big and luxurious it is. Sitting on a table is a framed black-and-white headshot of Peter, alone, that is seemingly there to establish that this is his apartment. Why would anyone have a solo framed photo of himself in his living room, especially given that it was a good 15 years before the rise of the selfie? Why didn’t the prop department mock-up a photo of Peter with his family that could plausibly be on display instead of using what appears to be the headshot Peter Gallagher submitted when he auditioned for the movie? It’s a mystery for the ages, and the film’s biggest unintentional laugh.