Film Discussion

When Harry Met Sally (1989) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

There are some movies in the romantic comedy genre that are such an important part of its history that to imagine that they didn’t exist at one time is almost unthinkable. When Harry Met Sally is such an iconic, popular and highly regarded classic that it almost feels as if it has been around forever, and yet it didn’t come into our lives until 1989.

The combination of star Meg Ryan and writer Nora Ephron would have a knock-on effect for the genre, and the two would collaborate on two future movies, Ephron moving into the director’s chair for not one but two of the most popular rom-com of the 90s, bringing Tom Hanks along with them.

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Like What’s Up Doc? there is a pleasing sense that Ephron’s screenplay and the film as a whole is unafraid to acknowledge the genre it’s playing in. Where Bogdonovich’s film tipped its hat to the tropes and set-pieces of so many screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, When Harry Met Sally features split-screen telephone conversations that are a throwback to Pillow Talk while also having its characters talk at length about Casablanca at one stage.  Its something that would also be utilised by Ephron in Sleepless in Seattle and its references to An Affair to Remember, right through to its Empire State Building conclusion.

One of Hollywood’s greatest writers, there was nobody that could play with these tropes and clichés in the way that Ephron did. Her films had a knack for being funny, witty but also incredibly insightful and yet also maintaining a touch of emotion that has made them constant favourites for years and decades after. That her films are referred to in the manner that she herself referenced other Hollywood films within her own scripts is perhaps the greatest example of how impactful her screenplays were.

That When Harry Met Sally also features one of the most famous scenes in modern-day Hollywood is just the icing on the cake. Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm scene in a crowded restaurant would be funny enough on its own, but it’s punctuated with one of the all-time greatest punchlines in movie history, delivered by the director’s own mother no less. It’s been spoofed many times, but it never loses its own sense of comedy or humour within the context of its own film.

That Ryan wasn’t the first choice for Sally feels strange and the idea of anyone else in the role practically feels like romantic comedy heresy of sorts. Elizabeth McGovern, Elizabeth Perkins and Molly Ringwald were under consideration at various points, Ringwald nearly signing on the dotted line at one point, but one gets the impression that the film would have been very different if it hadn’t had been Ryan. She had previously appeared in Top Gun and in Joe Dante’s dazzlingly imaginative Innerspace, but it was here she made her mark and as such would become one the biggest movie stars of the 90s.

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If the film cemented Ephron’s talent, and Ryan as a major star, it also confirmed Rob Reiner as one of Hollywood’s best directors of the era. His work is famous and highly acclaimed, and yet it sometimes feels as if the hit-after-hit-after-hit run he delivered in the 80s and early 90s isn’t acknowledged in the manner that it should be. To go from This is Spinal Tap to Stand by Me to The Princess Bride to When Harry Met Sally to Misery and subsequently to A Few Good Men is perhaps one of the best runs of any director. It was somewhat marred by the choice of directing the disastrous North, but then he rebounded with (future Rom-Com Rewind piece) The American President.

The fact of the matter is that Reiner was a director who could deliver the comedic goods but could then go on to darker, more serious fare such as the entertainingly nasty Stephen King thriller Misery and to the slicker Aaron Sorkin worlds of A Few Good Men and The American President and yet his comedy work is amongst the most iconic of the 80s. Just mention The Princess Bride and there are about ten scenes that will jostle for attention in the mind.

In many respects, both Reiner and Ephron were a perfect combination as writer and director. Both had a knack for delivering great humour and comedy, but they were unafraid to combine the laughs with moments of poignancy and dramatic observation which gave Sally and Harry’s story considerable emotional weight.

Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are perfect, their chemistry fun and believable, their scenes crackling with lovely comedic energy, the angst emanating from the inevitable fall-out after they sleep together, which fuels a lot of the film’s conversations over whether or not men and women can ever truly be friends, and the lovely charm that comes from the inevitable happy ending means that they carry the film and the audience in a brilliant fashion throughout its running time.

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While Ryan would become more famous for her collaborations with Hanks (starting only two years later with the slightly more forgotten Joe Versus the Volcano), her chemistry with Crystal here works wonders and there is a surprising amount of believability to watching them age throughout the film’s timeline.

There’s a sprightly epic scope to the film given its expansive timeline, the film following the characters from their college years to fully grown adulthood, and that just adds to the fun. The film amounts mostly to long conversation scenes between the pair (it has since been adapted for the stage), but it never feels anything less than cinematic, and its depiction of New York is once again an example of the genre’s ability to take one of the most crime-riddled cities of the US at the time and turn into an autumnal fairytale setting where love is always possible.

A perfect movie in every way.

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