Monday, July 21, 2014

When Harry Met Sally Turns 25

 (Warning: If you have not seen When Harry Met Sally before and are entirely unfamiliar with the film, you might not want to read this article. HERE THERE BE SPOILERS)

There was a time when romantic comedy was a respected film genre. Many of the greatest films of all time belong to the genre, including My Man Godfrey (1936), The Lady Eve (1941), Sabrina (1954), and Pillow Talk (1959). Unfortunately the late Twentieth and early Twenty First Centuries would not be kind to the romantic comedy. It has become a genre that is often looked down upon as trite, predictable, and simplistic. Indeed, the films themselves are often referred to derogatorily as "rom-coms".

It is then rare that one finds a romantic comedy made after 1980 that is not only universally loved, but also widely regarded as a classic. One of these few exceptions to the rule is When Harry Met Sally. It was on 12 July 1989 that it went into limited release. It was exactly twenty five years go today that it entered wide release in 775 theatres. This was later increased to 1174 theatres. Not only would When Harry Met Sally prove to be a hit in 1989, but it has since become regarded as a classic. Indeed, to this day it is referenced in TV shows and motion pictures.

When Harry Met Sally was a collaboration between director Rob Reiner (who may have then been best known for the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap) and writer Nora Ephron (who may have then been best known as a journalist and for co-writing the screenplay for Silkwood). Miss Ephron, Mr. Reiner, and producer Andy Scheinman met for lunch in 1984. From that meeting Mr. Reiner and Miss Ephron developed the ideas that would form the basis for the film. Nora Ephron wrote the screenplay while Rob Reiner worked on other projects (including the classics Stand By Me and The Princess Bride).

The lead role of Harry Burns was offered to Albert Brooks, who turned it down because he thought it was too similar to other roles he had played. The part then went to comedian Billy Crystal, a television veteran whose best known film role at the time may have been that of Miracle Maxx in The Princess Bride. Several different actresses were considered for the role of journalist Sally Albright. Both Elizabeth Perkins and Elizabeth McGovern were considered for the part, as Molly Ringwald also reportedly was (she would later play the role in a stage version of the film on London's West End). In the end Meg Ryan was cast as Sally Albright. At the time Miss Ryan had only appeared on television and in supporting roles in movies. When Harry Met Sally would be her first lead role.

When Harry Met Sally would prove to be a hit upon its initial release. The film earned $92,823,546 at the box office, making it the twelfth highest grossing film for 1989. It also received overwhelmingly positive reviews. In fact, perhaps the only real criticism at the time was that a few critics thought it was too similar to the films of Woody Allen. Nora Ephron's screenplay earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Since then When Harry Met Sally has become regarded by many as a classic, something very few romantic comedies made after 1980 have achieved.

If many today regard When Harry Met Sally as a classic, it is perhaps because it benefits from a particularly strong script. Beyond the cleverness of Nora Ephron's dialogue, there is the simple fact that Miss Ephron created two three-dimensional characters in Harry and Sally. Indeed, they seem more like real people than mere characters in some rom-com. Harry is a far cry from the usual one-dimensional, cardboard cut-out pretty boys of most recent rom-coms. He is a man with his own hopes, dreams, and neuroses. By the same token, Sally is not simply Snow White waiting for her Prince Charming, but instead a realistically portrayed, intelligent woman. What is more, the progression of Harry and Sally's relationship from acquaintances who can barely stand each other to best friends to soul mates may well be one of the most realistic portrayals of a relationship on film.

When Harry Met Sally also benefits from a great cast. Indeed, it is hard to believe that anyone else could have been considered for the roles of Harry and Sally than Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. In the hands of Mr. Crystal and Miss Ryan, Harry and Sally are charming, witty, loveable, and more than a bit neurotic. What is more, both Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan can be very subtle in their performances, able to convey a whole set of emotions with a single glance or gesture. As to the film's supporting cast, Bruno Kirby as Harry's friend Jess and Carrie Fisher as Sally's friend Marie perform admirably.

On top of its strong script and excellent cast, it should be little wonder if classic film buffs would love When Harry Met Sally, as it has a number of references to classic films. Indeed, both Harry and Sally are movie buffs themselves. They share a love for Casablanca. When Harry is mourning the loss of Sally, at one point he has It's a Wonderful Life on the telly. And there are references to The Lady Vanishes, Pillow Talk, Planet of the Apes, Annie Hall, and other films. Even the climax, on New Year's Eve, is reminiscent of The Apartment (perhaps the greatest romantic comedy of all time IMHO).

Of course, the central question behind When Harry Met Sally was "Can men and women be friends without sex getting in the way?". Despite this the film never truly answers the question. While Harry and Sally becomes friends,  it seems clear that the two of them are in love nearly from the beginning. Indeed, after seeing Sally at an airport for the first time in five years, Harry goes out of his way to talk to her. Even after their friendship has commenced it seems clear that there is something deeper between Harry and Sally, in everything from the way they look at each other to the way they talk to each other. When Sally gets angry at Harry after they have sex for the first time, I suspect it is not because she thinks he took advantage of her, but rather because she was forced to confront the feelings they had both kept buried for so long. Quite simply, When Harry Met Sally fails to answer the question of whether men and women can be friends simply because Harry and Sally were in love all along. That having been said, When Harry Met Sally would seem to make another point:  at the root of every successful romantic relationship there must be friendship.

As mentioned earlier, When Harry Met Sally proved to be a hit on its initial release and it has since become regarded as something of a classic. Indeed, in much the same way that When Harry Met Sally referenced classic films, When Harry Met Sally itself has been referenced in various films, television shows, and even commercials over the years.  There has even been a loose remake of the film in the form of the 2004 Bollywood comedy Hum Tum. If romantic comedies in the past thirty years have not been regarded highly, When Harry Met Sally is proof that they can be if done properly.

No comments: