When Harry Met Sally
Director: Rob Reiner / DP: Barry Sonnenfeld / Editor: Robert Leighton / Writer: Nora Ephron / Score: Harry Connick Jr. & others.
Cast: Billy Crystal / Meg Ryan / Carrie Fisher / Bruno Kirby
A Time-Capsule Worth Digging-Up…
Remember those comedies, usually starring Katharine Hepburn and/or Cary Grant, that focussed less on the screwball and more on their quick-fire exchanges? The patter of a simmering relationship ever-threatening to boil-over?
The late, great Nora Ephron did. A writer steeped in New York and its cultural baggage, Ephron was a rare female voice in a male-dominated industry and blessed with an ear for dialogue that lifted her work to the heights; When Harry Met Sally endures because it might be her strongest – and simplest – idea and therefore unimprovable.
The story goes, that Director Rob Reiner had been through a messy divorce and was ‘back on the market’: a time for confronting painful truths, as well as bittersweet grace-notes. Ephron, a friend, would talk with him – and other men in similar positions – about their experiences, so distilling a sketchy tale of love hard-won. It’d be a two-hander, but each lead would need their own ‘Greek chorus’ of singletons, who’d cajole, push and bitch about life, to keep things moving. Ephron knew she had to keep everything dangling in a ‘will they, won’t they’ holding pattern until the fag-end of the last reel, but could see the potential in having the Chorus get it together before the main event. So it proved and, luckily for us, Reiner got it too.
By this point, Rob Reiner was an established Director in his own right, having stepped out of the shadow of father Carl. Reiner Jr’s breakthrough came with This Is Spinal Tap (1984), a comedy great that will outlive us all. He followed this with the equally quotable The Princess Bride (1987) so it was only natural that H&S would complete the hat-trick of critical success. The best comedy revolves around a sober premise, in which funny things happen to sober players, or funny players who have sober business. Or both, as here.
Ephron’s script called for a funny leading man and, given that Reiner was already friends with Billy Crystal, having cast him in both Bride & Tap, he was a shoe-in; his ability at improvising around the script creating standout moments that made the final cut. His smart, self-aware whining, coupled with a capacity for self-mockery turns his Harry into a fully-rounded performance that leaps off the screen.
Sally needed an equally strong player to hold their own against Crystal and at first glance, Meg Ryan doesn’t strike one as a natural fit, but her uptight, prissy and opinionated WASP turned-out fine. Witness her natural reaction to Crystal’s (unexpected) ‘pecan pie’ improv in the art museum and then say she was miscast. Or her complicated order at the diner. Or, for that matter, her story about discovering there’s no ‘Sunday’ in a pack of ‘Days of the Week’ underpants… Ephron might’ve written it, but I can’t think of another comedic actress of the period, who could’ve played it better.
Which brings me to that Greek Chorus, mentioned earlier. In Sally’s corner, there’s Carrie Fisher as Marie… Here is someone who, thanks to George Lucas, had already lived through what must’ve felt like several lifetimes, so who better to cheer you on from the touchline? For Harry, Reiner cast another mutual friend: Bruno Kirby, who played Gus, with a wearied melancholy. Whilst watching a ball game with Harry, Gus relates the story of how his wife left him: his tale punctured with participation in a ‘Mexican Wave’ and the bathos is acute; desperate. I admire Reiner for that alone. He’s not a ‘showy’ director on this picture. Things are framed well and photographed with occasional beauty (by Barry Sonnenfeld), but for the most part, Reiner ‘disappears’, allowing scenes to play out with few cuts or scene changes. Ephron’s script twinkles so brightly, this could almost work as a stage-play, with little adaptation.
Harry meets Sally in a bookstore some years after their initial drive back from college and they lunch together. Already, there’s a hint of something brewing here; each of them has had to have a few sharp edges rounded-off, in order to now see the other’s point-of-view. But it’s working, as we then get a wonderful split-screen in which they’re both in their own beds, watching Casablanca on TV and talking about it over the ‘phone. This was something Reiner and Crystal used to do, back in the day and I can see why Ephron picked up on it. It also works to keep them physically apart. Forty minutes in, she’s keeping their dates chaste, despite a frisson of attraction, thanks to a fog of mutual mistrust that builds an intelligent comedy of manners. Remember them?
Back when this was released in 1989, there were no cellphones and relationships had to grow organically. Slowly. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s an olde-world charm about seeing these two people fall-in-love ‘by accident’. Maybe that’s why it remains a cherished film: because in a world obsessed with fluff and minutiae, it represents something real: an experience we all yearn for ourselves, because no one just ‘falls in love by accident’ any more… Or is that just me?
Ephron’s sense of humour runs through it all: how else to explain the speed with which Gus & Marie dive into a cab at the end of a double-date, intended at the outset, to pair-off the leads? Instead, H&S are left exchanging knowing glances as the cab disappears: they’ve just lost their single friends and are powerless to stop it. Their options for escape are merging with the traffic.
Four months later, Harry’s bitterness over his ex-wife spills out; triggered by Gus & Marie sparring over a novelty coffee table. Until now, Sally’s been the only one shown to be depressed (on seeing a Dad with his kid atop his shoulders) and Harry’s the one who’s used male bravado to bat-away deeper truths, so this late-onset revelation is all the more impactful. Things then ratchet up a notch, as Ephron has them sleep together.
The trigger here, is that Sally’s been dumped and is looking to be validated, but this also gives her character a degree of agency, whereas Harry by contrast, looks terrified as she nuzzles his neck: but of what? The complications that ensure? How his past assertion of the ‘sex thing’ ruining friendships has come true? Or just that he’s feeling it too and it is scary?
Reiner’s masterstroke, lay in how he covers their inevitable debriefs to Gus & Marie. We’ve already seen the two-person split screen, but he now ramps-up to a joyous four-hander, placing the chorus in their own bed, talking on separate phones with their friends, who now border the screen. I LOVE the way in which the script bounces between all four players, each handing-off zingers to the next, like so many hot potatoes…
The inevitable fall before the money-shot, comes from Sally’s inability to take responsibility for the impact her advance has had, as much as Harry feeling bereft at losing a friend. Then it’s New Year’s Eve and Harry’s out window shopping. I’m sure you’ve all seen it before, along with the orgasm-in-the-diner…
Ephron spoke of the differences between a Christian and a Jewish-American approach to Romantic Comedy. In the Christian version, the couple are held back by a physical obstacle but, thanks largely to Woody Allen, the males in Jewish comedy, are checked by their various neuroses; their internal ‘Sturm und Drang’. So, Harry’s moroseness reflects that of Reiner’s and Sally’s defiant cheer mirrors Ephron’s. It’s not going to chime with everyone who watches, but there’s enough here to hold onto if you stay the course; that, and a killer soundtrack courtesy of The Great American Songbook and Harry Connick Jr. Besides, was Crystal any funnier than in this? Did Ryan ever look more endearingly winsome, than in her bubble perm and Eighties suits?
Problems? There aren’t many, but if I’m being picky I’d have to consider their final meeting. After a picture filled with mutual antagonisms, one is forced to conclude they’re only settling for each other out of weariness at being perpetually single… As an audience, we wanted – and got – the Fairy-Tale, but Ephron originally had them apart and struggling to process what had just happened. Bitter-Sweet indeed.
With the current mania for sequels, maybe one day we’ll see how things worked-out. Where would they be, thirty years on? The real tragedy, is that Ephron’s no longer around to sprinkle her magic and films like this just don’t get made any more, at least by mainstream studios who tilt ‘comedies’ at a younger, coarser demographic who know no better…
There’s someone staring at you from personal growth.