Modern classics: When Harry Met Sally
Paula Fleri Soler pays tribute to screenwriter Nora Ephron.
My choice of modern classic this week is the seminal romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. It was released in July 1989 – 23 years ago. Not a ‘special’ anniversary, but I felt it is the perfect tribute to its screenwriter Nora Ephron who died aged 71 last month from pneumonia, a complication resulting from acute myeloid leukaemia.
Ephron had a successful writing career since the early 1970s, and she is best known for her forays in the film industry, where she wrote, produced and/or directed a number of popular films including Silkwood (1983), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998) and Julie and Julia (2009).
When Harry Met Sally, starring a perfectly droll Billy Crystal and a sparkling Meg Ryan, and directed superbly by Rob Reiner, was probably Ephron’s greatest success.
The seeds of the film were sown in the mid-1980s when Reiner got divorced and found himself on the dating scene once more. At the same time, he and producing partner Andrew Scheinman met with Ephron to discuss the possibility of working on a movie project together.
During the meeting, the two men started talking about their lives as single men, anecdotes which Ephron found funny and interesting and which she used as the foundation for her screenplay. In a 2000 interview about the film, Reiner commented that Ephron “is able to capture those very delicate observational things that are very funny.”
The film opens with a young Harry bumming a lift to New York with college acquaintance Sally. They don’t really hit it off; and part ways with relief as soon as they reach the city.
They bump into each other on various occasions in the ensuing years, and the relationship goes from one of tolerance to mutual respect and, finally, deep friendship. Can it last? Not according to Harry.
As he says when he and Sally first meet: “Men and women can’t be friends. The sex part always gets in the way.” It does; and the friendship is ruined... or is it?
Harry’s character was based in no small way on Reiner himself; while Ephron says a lot of herself can be found in Sally.
They are two very contrasting characters, both extremely well-named – Harry Burns, the depressive, pessimistic man, fearful of being burned in any given situation; and Sally Albright, a woman with an eternally optimistic and sunny nature.
The film offered an interesting twist to the norm, in that the main obstacle to the two protagonists falling in love is themselves.
So fearful are they of ruining their beautiful friendship, they are oblivious to what is blindingly clear to those around them – that they can’t stay away from one another because of their glowing chemistry.
In an interview, Ephron says that the film is not necessarily about whether men and women can be friends, rather about the differences between them, and “this is something that never stops being mysterious and fascinating to all of us”. The Reiner/Ephron partnership also led to the film’s – if not cinema history’s – most indelible scene; the ‘orgasm’ scene in a New York restaurant.
One of the film’s many strong points is its penchant of stating blatant but hilarious truths about what men think of women and vice-versa, and the smashing of various myths.
Ephron’s casual observation to Reiner that women sometimes fake it was greeted with utter disbelief by the director, who recalls actually polling the women in his office about the issue. He was shocked by the results; and determined to include it in the movie, leading to Meg Ryan’s most climactic moment on screen. It may be initially shocking, but it is certainly one of the funniest moments.
When Harry met Sally grossed $93 million at the US Box Office on a $16 million budget. Ephron deservedly received an Oscar nomination and a Writers Guild of America Award nomination for her screenplay. She won the British Academy Film Award for Best Original Screenplay.