Whenever great movies come into conversation, When Harry Met Sally hits the tongue. I’ve been happily surprised that younger generations continue to be not just aware but big fans of the movie. So, what exactly made this movie insanely successful, universal and timeless? With at least 4 wins from 16 nominations (IMDB), from 9 different categories, the answer is craftsmanship in every aspect of film making.
Nearly all great films start from the same seed – a great script. Born into a family of writers and with earnest efforts in journalism early on, Nora Ephron had many great works, however it is this script that earned her an award. Germinated in a conversation with Rob Reiner, Andrew Scheiman and Ephron, the study of relationships was inspired by life experiences and the “he said-she said” nature of the conversation (TCM).
She took classic gender roles all-in, from expectations from first-dates and after sex, to concerns when the break-up may come, be it why and when the breakup was decided (and when Mr. Zero knows before you do), or which furniture makes the cut in the shared abode (so, not the ROY ROGERS GARAGE SALE COFFEE TABLE) or how to best plan for an eventual break-up (put your names in your books).
Ephron’s writing itself is brilliant, from the immensely quotable one-liners to the zooming in and out of the moments in Harry’s and Sally’s lives as they grow and mature. “Ephron’s dialogue represents the way people would like to be able to talk. It’s witty and epigrammatic…” (Ebert’s 1989 review) Life events, like their respective break-ups, force our protagonists to grow and develop a space for them to have more than an acquaintance’s level of interest (like on that drive from Chicago to New York). But it is more than simple narrative stops through a lifetime, it’s looking in and around these moments from different perspectives. As Steve Axelrod shared in a writing group conversation (Go Into the Story), several years ago, Ephron was skilled at using multiple contexts of a single scene to add depth.
Ephron goes beyond simple typical gender roles, though, and includes two souls of different ages with wildly different perspectives on life – Sally with her optimistic even if a little passive even in her pragmatic approach to happiness, and Harry with his war-worn pessimistic view in waiting for death. We see the evolution of Sally through her change in comfort of sex topics, moving from the first café embarrassed comment about having great sex, to the full display of orgasm. Not to be left unmentioned is her change in position on Casablanca, the romance given the nod and strength of foundation for timelessness – which at first was that Ingrid Bergman was very practical and made the right choice, to later denying this position. We see Harry soften over the years and expose more and more vulnerability (I mean, he didn’t just sing on the karaoke machine in the Sharper Image, but bought one to serenade Sally over voicemail).
The story is a fine blend of three different buddy films – that of Harry and Sally, of course, but also between each of them and their best friends of the same sex. Each member of the three pairs, with their own endearing quirks and mannerisms, isn’t as good alone as with the buddy. Since Harry and Sally are also our dual protagonists, Jess and Marie are the more stereotypical buddies; each have even lesser skill than Harry or Sally, but are forever supportive (OK, minus ignoring the request to wait to call the other after the blind date gone sideways! But, at least they asked first and hey, it was love.).
But is the main story a buddy film? After all, the question is posed – can men and women even be buddies? Writer and actress Rebecca Gethings agrees it is fitting as a buddy story. and she along with relationship expert Judy James, agree that where men and women friendships exist, a majority of them include one who harbors romantic feelings for the other (BBC).
One of Ephron’s genius skills was the ability to take simple human nature and incorporate in scenes. The transition of a fun karaoke scene to one of embarrassment when the audience changes, acting appalled when someone can’t remember a name that we ourselves strained for, saying I love you in reaction to a feeling of jealousy.
The use of the holidays again is effective in helping the story have a familiar and timeless feel. As does watching characters try to get over someone, deal with aging and realizing that familiarity breeds affection.
I’ve heard it said that the best films include a line of dialogue that tell the story in one line, and this meets the mark:
“You realize of course that we could never be friends… men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way” – Harry
It’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone besides Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in the lead roles, isn’t it? Receiving many nominations for acting, I’m not alone in knowing these were great performances; from their comedic timing and vulnerability, to key additions to the dialogue (most notable the “I’ll have what she’s having,” suggested by Crystal) and the palpable chemistry. But they weren’t the first choices; can you imagine if Albert Brooks and Susan Dey (Mental Floss)? We’ll never really know if they would have crashed or sored in these roles, but I do believe the casting turned out exactly as it was meant to be.
A classic choice in New York City, a town where we expect Harry will fit right in with his disposition and career ambitions, but we aren’t initially sure about Sally. As we see Sally change throughout the film, it makes sense that the city was part of that influence. She’s a little tougher and even funny as the story progresses. The airport as a logical run-in location, for two career folks in a big city, and a book store for two educated people to collide – it all resonates. And the real stories from couples? Delivered in a classical environment with traditional furniture and romantic wallpaper.
Perhaps most immediately evident is the use of the screen space to add a layer to the story. As Jesse David Fox makes most clear, the physical distance between the characters tells us how connected the pair are at the given point of the story (Vulture). They get closer over time, until the major conflict which drives them back apart. There is also effective use of the split screen, used multiple times, pitting them together or apart in parallel time.
Perhaps one of the more interesting tidbits in Director choice is the fact that in the first script, Harry and Sally did not end up together, but Reiner insisted (Mental Floss).
He also switched from using the real couples of the married tales to actors relaying those true stories. These stories were dynamic, ranging from simple to complex. The actors even stayed true to the various ways couples talk – finishing sentences, talking over each other, one chatty and one quiet.
A fine director also pushes scenes to their full potential – Reiner acted out the orgasm scene to demonstrate to Ryan how dramatic the display needed to be for it to work.
The Director choice to use standards, but with a fresh musician who brought is own style, reinforced the film’s timeless quality without making it feel immediately dated (TCM).
Lest you think there aren’t wardrobe choices for an modern-day movie (as opposed to a historical or mythical context), review Elle’s excellent explanation on the explicit choices around Sally’s hair, clothing and accessories for every scene; the most dramatic effect in the buttoned-up prudish outfit warn in the orgasm scene. Harry’s wardrobe, too, reinforces his place in the relationship and ties to the city.
Is nothing wrong?
I would be remiss in writing a piece on this movie to not take the change to talk about one, if not the only, thing that drives me crazy about the film. It’s this scene at Jess and Marie’s wedding:
Why can’t we get past this? I mean, are we gonna carry this thing around forever?
Forever? It just happened!
It happened three weeks ago. You know how a year to a person is like seven years to a dog?
Yes. Is one of us supposed to be a dog in this scenario?
Who is the dog?
I am? I am the dog? I am the dog?
In my opinion, it seems like Harry should be the dog, not just for the typical men-are-dogs commentary, but because for him the time seems longer. So three weeks in human time is like 21 weeks in dog time. So clearly Sally was right, Harry was the dog!
Have you ever thought how different this film would be today? Well fear not, someone has already considered this (ABC News).
What do you think? Is there another reason to love this movie? Let me know in the comments.
This article covers a great point or two about forging a different path for the romcom: