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Sliding Doors is turning 21 and is still as relevant as ever - here's why

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Hanna Flint
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Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors waiting for the Underground

Sliding Doors is being rereleased to celebrate its 21st anniversary, Hanna Flint looks back at its pop culture legacy

A couple of months ago there was a news story doing the rounds about a particular Manchester United and England player. The headline read “How Marcus Rashford and Man Utd benefited from Sliding Doors moment…without it he’d be playing for Ipswich,” and I had to smile. Not only am a Man United fan (sorry) but Sliding Doors is one of my favourite romantic comedies and this year it’s actually getting a re-release to mark its 21st anniversary.

I’m not the only one to be tickled to see the film feature on the sports page; Peter Howitt, the movie’s writer and director, has the accompanying picture - a mock-up of Rashford in the Sliding Doors poster - hanging on his wall. 

“I am a massive Manchester United fan and my friend told me about it,” Peter tells me over the phone. “I printed it out and now its up on my wall next to the original one!”

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You might be wondering why Howitt’s nineties rom-com was used to describe a moment in this football player’s career. (If you’ve seen the film you get it, high five!) But for the benefit of those who haven’t, let me break it down. 

Sliding Doors stars Gwyneth Paltrow as a British woman called Helen who, after getting fired from her PR job, jumps on a tube home to find her struggling writer boyfriend Jerry (John Lynch) in bed with his mistress Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). 

However, there’s an alternative timeline that plays out, concurrently, where Helen misses the train, the eponymous sliding doors close in her face, and she doesn’t get back in time to witness the romantic betrayal.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeanne Tripplehorn at Sliding Doors Premiere
Sliding Doors: Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeanne Tripplehorn at the film’s premiere 21 years ago 

For the next 99 minutes we see how different each one of Helen’s lives pans out. 

In the first scenario, she ditches her cheating boyfriend, gets a wicked blonde haircut, sets up her own PR firm and falls in love with a gorgeous Scot called James, played by John Hannah - arguably, one of the most underrated rom-com love interests ever. 

In the latter, she can’t find a new job in PR, finds work as a sandwich delivery girl and stays with the philandering Jerry but grows increasingly suspicious of him. 

The film ponders the idea of the near-misses and what-ifs that occur in our lives and how easily it can change the course, for better or for worse, of your own. Since then the “Sliding Doors” moment has taken on a life of its own. 

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There’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to the concept and it details various events in history that could have had a vastly different trajectory had a slight change occurred. 

From Princess Diana choosing to make that fateful trip to Paris in 1997 to, even more on the nose, the train carriage Brian Eno decided to enter that would lead him to join Roxy Music in the early ‘70s. 

As Peter says, “we have millions of Sliding Doors moments in our everyday,” but some make more of an impact than others. 

It’s no wonder the concept has expanded into pop culture too as several sitcoms and series have created their own versions. You might have seen them. Frasier adopted the idea for the episode “Sliding Frasiers” and more recently the brilliant Broad City’s season four premiere episode “Sliding Doors” used the alternating storyline structure to show the origin story of Abi and Ilana’s friendship, on the NYC subway, and how bad their day might have been if they hadn’t sat with each other.

Marcus Rashford playing for Manchester United
Sliding Doors: Marcus Rashford, the footballer who's sliding door moment could have changed his career

Of course, the concept has been around since before the movie was released, and Peter is well aware of that. 

“Sliding Doors just became the new way of saying ‘what if?’” he explains. “It’s focused the sort of romantic collective mind on specific major events that people feel have had a distinct effect on their path going forward.”

That doesn’t negate the film’s cultural impact, which over the last twenty years has expanded into the psychology of our lives. It’s why so many psychologists and life coaches use the movie as a reference point when looking at relationships and careers - the “Sliding Doors” moment proves that we cannot control everything, but we can control how we react to them when they occur. 

“Helen seems to have this plan that she will have this boyfriend, live with him and marry him despite how miserable she is because she had hit the target of being in the relationship,” Karen Kwong, Organisational Psychologist and owner of RenOC Consulting, tells me. 

“To some people that is important. Most people are very goal oriented; they have very specific timelines to make partner or have a baby but what value does that hold?”

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“There are lots of people in life who think if they plan their lives it will work out the way they want it to but actually there are lots of things you can’t control,” she adds. 

“So if you want your life to be more interesting and lead to more opportunities you need to be more open-minded.”

Blonde Helen responds to her sacking and break-up with an open-mind that leads to more positive things, both in her romantic and professional life, but Brunette Helen is stuck in a rut. 

In both timelines, Helen is sacked from her job but only in one does she decide to set up her own PR firm. In the other she settles for a job at a sandwich shop to support her penniless boyfriend. This Helen seems to be less open to new possibilities even though she was clearly unhappy in her job and knows something is up in her relationship, namely that she’s living with a cheating parasite. 

It’s only at the end, when life forces her to see Jerry for the gaslighting idiot he is, that there is hope for her future and her eyes open to the possibilities - including a cute Scotsman asking about Monty Python.

Frasier on a date in the episode "Sliding Frasiers"
Sliding Doors: Frasier took inspiration from the film for the Valentine’s Day episode “Sliding Frasiers”

“Sliding Doors has a really strong positive message that you need to see perceived failures as areas to grow rather than allow yourself to become a victim of your life,” Kwong says. 

“We teach people resilience so that, instead of sitting there and thinking of themselves as a loser, they can think: what went wrong? What can I improve, is that something that I want to do? It helps you to close that door and open a new one.”

So, how does it feel to have written and directed a movie that has cemented its place in our cultural consciousness? 

“You know I had never written anything before and even Sydney Pollack said he couldn’t believe this was my first screenplay,” Peter says. “So I can’t begin to tell you how much pride it makes me feel that I’m leaving something behind.

“You know, you can leave a piece of work behind, a book or a film or a play and maybe people will continue to enjoy that after you’re gone,” the director explains, “but to have actually brought a term into the vernacular, that gives me so much pleasure.”

Icon Film Distribution presents Sliding Doors on collector’s edition Blu-Ray and DVD from 13 May

Image: Miramax/Alex Bailey/Getty

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