Ryan Gosling has reigned as one of Hollywood’s lead hunks for nearly two decades now. As much as Gosling might try to take off-kilter roles in Nicolas Winding Refn movies or the occasional Shane Black neo-noir, he can never escape the shadow of 10,000 Hey Girl memes. To be fair, it does not seem like it bothers him that much. If Ryan Gosling did not want to be typecast as one of the preeminent cinematic heartthrobs of the 21st century, he would probably not take roles in movies like Crazy, Stupid, Love and La La Land. But all things have a beginning and he would likely be just another talented actor in indies and the occasional blockbusters, except for one landmark movie: 2004’s The Notebook. The iconic Ryan Gosling romantic drama is currently dominating HBO Max, where it is in the top ten most-streamed movies in its entire catalog.
The Notebook stars Ryan Gosling as Noah “Duke” Calhoun, a working-class beefcake in 1940s North Carolina. It also stars James Garner as Noah “Duke” Calhoun, an elderly man voluntarily living in an assisted living facility. The movie shifts between two time-frame, with James Garner reading aloud the life of his younger self from the titular notebook to another resident, Allie (played by director Nick Cassavettes’ real-life mother Gena Rowlands). It turns out that the two are actually married, but Allie has a very cinematic form of dementia that has caused her to forget her own life but not appear to be impaired in any other way. She wrote the notebook herself as a way to attempt to retain the memory of her younger life (in which she is played by Rachel McAdams) with Ryan Gosling. James Garner repeatedly reads her their own decades-long love story to try to get her to remember him, even though everyone tells him she will never remember. Spoiler: she remembers. Then they die.
That is a very flip way of summing up the ending of The Notebook, which is actually heartfelt and touching. While James Garner and Ryan Gosling look nothing alike and do not seem to particularly share any traits (the same could be said for Rachel McAdams and Gena Rowlands), both pairings do share genuine chemistry. The Notebook was adapted from a book by romance novelist Nicholas Sparks, and the nestled story-within-a-story does seem more like a literary device than a cinematic one. It was Sparks’ first published book and kicked off a massively successful career, and was the third of his books to be adapted for the screen (after 1999’s Message in a Bottle and 2002’s A Walk to Remember). Despite that, it was the film that kicked off the entire subgenre of Nicholas Sparks romance films, which now are in the double digits.
Although Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams became one of modern cinema’s most recognized romantic couples (and for a while, in real life as well), they reportedly frequently clashed on set. Interestingly, Gosling was not the first choice for the role. Back in 1998, Steven Spielberg became involved with the adaptation and planned to cast Tom Cruise. Martin Campbell eventually took over directorial duties and was replaced by Nick Cassavettes, who planned to have George Clooney and Paul Newman star. After Clooney dropped out (apparently because he was cognizant of the fact that two humans playing the same character should look remotely alike), Cassavettes wanted to cast an actor who was neither handsome nor “cool.” Somehow, he settled on famously handsome and cool actor Ryan Gosling.
Despite their combativeness on set, Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling do sterling work. They are helped in part by the sheer toxicity of the relationship of young Noah and Allie, who go on their first date after Noah threatens to kill himself by falling off a Ferris wheel until she agrees to go out with him. The rest of their relationship swings wildly from delirious highs to high volume public fights, but the perspective of the film seems to be all of this is proof of their passion and love for each other.
At 53%, The Notebook has the highest Rotten Tomatoes score of any Nicholas Sparks adaptation. Ryan Gosling’s career as a romantic leading man was begun, while Rachel McAdams had two hits that year with The Notebook and Mean Girls both being released. But more than what it did for the central pair (and the wildly overqualified supporting cast of James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Joan Allen, and Sam Shepard), it launched a whole genre of slumber parties and Notebook-themed weddings. It’s probably while it is still as popular as it is.