In 1989, two wide-eyed, likeable young actresses appeared on the Hollywood radar. Meg Ryan (real name: Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra) was the ingenue: blonde and blue-eyed with an impossibly pert nose. Julia Roberts, on the other hand, was more the gamine, with a coltish figure and a famously wide smile. During the 90s, they vied for the title of America’s Sweetheart. There can be only one!
Breakout Role: While 1989’s Steel Magnolias earned Julia her first Golden Globe, she didn’t truly become a star until Pretty Woman (1990). The classic "Hooker with a Heart of Gold" meets "Cinderella" story featured her best qualities—the slightly awkward charisma, easy-going humor, and megawatt smile. Meg Ryan’s debut as a leading lady in Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally (1989) played up her wide-eyed looks and type-A personality, contrasting them with Billy Crystal’s darker, more acerbic charm. She also gave us the famous "I’ll have what she’s having" diner scene. Ultimately, Meg’s is the better film, weathering the years better than Julia’s Los Angeles fairytale. Winner: Meg
Best Costar Chemistry: Julia made two films with Richard Gere, but while both Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride (1999) were box office successes, their long-awaited reunion was a critical disaster and a dud with audiences. In the words of Vivian Ward: "Big mistake. Huge." Meg made three films with Tom Hanks: the criminally underrated Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), in which she played three different women, the smash hit Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and the disappointing follow-up You’ve Got Mail (1998). Winner: Meg
Best Tearjerker: Meg Ryan generally stuck to contemporary romantic comedies, but she did occasionally dip her toe into more dramatic waters. City of Angels (1998), a mawkish remake of Wim Wender’s superior Wings of Desire costarring Nicholas Cage, gave us the most manipulative soundtrack ever, including Sarah McLachlan’s "Angel." However, Meg has nothing on Julia, who made audiences weep with Steel Magnolias and Dying Young (1991). Winner: Julia
Biggest Box Office: Julia scored $178,406,268 with Pretty Woman, while Meg had a hit with $126,680,884 for Sleepless in Seattle. Overall, Julia had four times as many $100 million dollar films between 1989 and 2000 than Meg (8 vs. 2). Winner: Julia
Dishiest Personal Life: Meg spent the decade happily married to Dennis Quaid, or so it seemed. The gritty details of their marriage wouldn’t become public until 2000, when Meg had an affair with Russell Crowe. Julia, on the other hand, kept the tabloids in business during the 90s, reportedly dating many of her costars including Jason Patric, Liam Neeson, Dylan McDermott, and Matthew Perry. She was engaged to her Flatliners (1990) costar Kiefer Sutherland but broke up with him three days before their wedding in 1991. Two years later, she confused the hell out of everyone by marrying Lyle Lovett. They divorced in 1995, and she spent the rest of the decade in a relationship with Benjamin Bratt. Winner: Julia
And the winner is: Julia!
Although Meg had better reviewed films throughout the decade, she also took fewer risks. Julia mixed it up with dramas, thrillers, and ensemble comedies, while Meg stuck closer to her romcom roots. While she wasn’t always successful she also garnered more critical acclaim for her work, earning Oscar nominations and winning Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actress (Steel Magnolias) and Best Actress (Pretty Woman). (She also managed to earn two Razzie nominations, for Hook (1991) and for her turn as the beleaguered housekeeper for Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde in 1998’s Mary Reilly.)
Of course, Julia would go on to win all the acting awards ever for Erin Brockovich (2000) while Meg Ryan, whose public persona never really recovered after her affair was made public, would go on to do…whatever it was she did to her face. Any way you look at it, Julia reigns as the more popular, more acclaimed, and more successful actress. All hail America’s Sweetheart! (But don’t actually watch 2001’s America’s Sweethearts, because seriously, that movie was awful.)