When Nora Ephron passed away in June 2012, director Rob Reiner penned a wonderful tribute to the late screenwriter, with whom he partnered for the 1989 romantic-comedy When Harry Met Sally… “She had an incredible capacity for observation…” he recalled, “there were truths underneath there; it was all based on very funny, truthful observations on how men and women treat each other.” Along with Reiner’s direction, Ephron’s screenplay – filled with those wonderfully sketched observations – helped create one of the most enduringly popular romance stories of the last 25 years.
Much of success of When Harry Met Sally… stems from its realness. The semi-autobiographical film was loosely based on both Reiner and Ephron; the characters of Harry and Sally were inspired by real-life events and experiences. According to Reiner, Ephron approached the writing process in her usual journalistic style, interviewing both him and his friend Andy Scheinman about ‘what men think and what goes on inside our heads’. Reiner had recently divorced after 10 years of marriage, and was easing himself back into ‘the dating game’. The resultant screenplay was a culmination of Ephron’s thoughts about being a woman and his ruminations on being a man. Could either of them have known that a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue (‘Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way’) would open up a whole new lens and discussion on to male and female relationships?
Harry and Sally’s ability to speak to both male and female filmgoers is surely one of the reasons that made the movie a box-office success, grossing more than $92 million and become the 11th-highest grossing movie of the year. Although it’s a lightweight glossy comedy with a blissfully predictable conclusion, it speaks to preoccupations that have plagued both gender for years: not only the sex vs. friendship question, but also what it means to love, to be in love, to know someone better than you know yourself. But in spite of the cliché potential, When Harry Met Sally remains engaging and entertaining, thanks in part to Ephron’s sparkling Academy award-nominated screenplay and Reiner’s direction, but also the sense of collaboration that’s embedded into the film.
It’s a small cast – the plot centres around Harry and Sally, his ex-wife Helen, her ex-boyfriend Joe and a couple of friends. It’s intimate, as the best films often are – drawing you in to the characters and making you feel them, rather than simply observe them. By all accounts, Billy Crystal (Harry) and Meg Ryan (Sally) were involved in developing their characters and suggesting improvements – that famous fake orgasm scene was suggested by Ryan, who was keen to film it in a crowded public place for maximum effect. Bonus fun fact: the woman who wants ‘what she’s having’ was actually Reiner’s mother.
Of course, there’s something nostalgic there too – this is a romance story that borrowed directly from the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, the decades when the genre was at its peak. Harry and Sally’s detailed, recurring discussions about Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) are probably the most obvious connection, but they’re also there in the split screen phone calls, the ‘hate-at-first-sight’ relationship and the opinion differences. When Sally drives Harry to New York in the film’s opening scenes,
But there are several crucial differences between When Harry Met Sally… and those earlier films. Firstly, the somewhat earnest and emotional ending; secondly the emphasis on the link between finding (and accepting) love and personal happiness that seems to have become the sole preoccupation of contemporary individuals (that’s both on and off-screen). Perhaps the early screwball audiences were less preoccupied with navel-gazing… or maybe they just favoured the silly over the sentimental, and were looking for a good time movie, rather than a feel-good one. And it’s somewhat disheartening to look back over the screwball genre as a whole and realise that strong female characters were so often the driver and instigator of romance and relationships – fast forward some 50-odd years, and it’s back to the ‘natural’ patriarchy order as Sally waits for Harry to make the first move (but only after he has undergone some personal maturing of course. Sally might be a successful career woman (or so we’re led to believe), but that doesn’t correspond to ‘success’ until she finds a man. That’s not too say Ephron wasn’t a feminist (her Crazy Salad essays definitively prove that she was), it’s more that she was realistic enough to understand when and where the battle began and stopped.
The other comparison that is often drawn is with Woody Allen – notably Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters and Another Woman. Upon the release of When Harry Met Sally…, the New York Times’ film critic Caryn James observed that it was the ‘most blatant bow from one director to another since Mr Allen imitated Ingmar Bergman in ”Interiors.”’ Of course, Allen had been focusing on quirky romantic comedy-type stories (often set in New York) years before Reiner and Ephron came along, but he didn’t have the monopoly on the genre and none of his films had ever really achieved the same level of box-office success.
Moviegoers just didn’t respond to his jaded realism in the way they did Reiner’s more outré humour and Ephron’s happy ending. Perhaps it’s the undercurrent of ‘male-ness’ that dominates Allen films – the knowledge that he’s a man, ruminating on male/female relationships and their complexities. Or maybe it’s just that we don’t always want to watch a movie that tells us so much about real life. Harry and Sally (or Reiner and Ephron) feel authentic; this isn’t a story that’s so fantastical it requires a suspension of belief. And although screwball homages and clichés abound, When Harry Met Sally… is a film about love that was born out of friendship and admiration – the way all the best relationships are.
This post was originally posted as part of MovieRob’s Meathead March. Thanks for having me Rob!
Further reading: When Harry Met Sally… the script / Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference by Wes D. Gehring
9 thoughts on “When Harry Met Sally, or… When Reiner Met Ephron”
Great commentary and analysis of the relationship between Reiner and Ephron. The message, as you say, of the film is that with a little patience and friendship, a mature, long-lasting relationship blossoms. Meg Ryan is too cute and Billy Crystal is the normal guy whose witticisms inflate his attractiveness. I especially enjoy the prologue and epilogue with couples who “made it” and give hope to many of us out there disillusioned and disappointed with love.
Yes, I like that Crystal isn’t too good looking. This feels like a relationship that’s much more tied to real-life, and I think the couple shots really help to make that point. At first I wasn’t sure they worked, but now I can’t imagine the film without them!
Thanks for a great review of one of my favorite late 80s films. I never thought much before about the elements it draws from the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. No wonder I love this movie. Interesting as well is how it differs from those precedents and what that says about how women’s roles progressed in 50 years–or, more accurately, didn’t progress–as well as how audiences changed from the first half of the century to the second.
I’d always though the split screens seemed very ‘classic’, but I too had never thought much about the screwball elements until I started researching this post. Ephron’s parents (Henry and Phoebe) were both screenwriters, I like to imagine that Nora grew up watching these kind of classics and that they had a lasting impression. I could be totally wrong!
I’ve always thought this film was a love letter, of sorts, to classic cinema. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it yet, like many people, I can almost quote entire scenes.
It’s VERY quotable, right? To the point that other people can’t bear to watch it with me as I insist on repeating all the dialogue for them. Just in case, you know, they couldn’t hear it 😉
I love this film and agree it’s endlessly quotable. For years after it came out I kept hoping that every romantic comedy I saw would be as good as ‘When Harry Met Sally’, but none of them ever were, quite! Though having said that I do like Ephron’s ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and ‘You’ve Got Mail’, which both pay tribute to classic films too – I think you must be right about the young Nora growing up on those classics. Really enjoyed your piece.
Thanks for taking part Vicki. Love the review!
I don’t know why but I’ve never taken the time to sit down and watch this film. I really enjoy your writing style, very clear to read and a compelling analysis. Definitely know how i’m spending my evening tonight! Thank you