Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous.
The incomparable Nora Ephron passed away this week after a battle with leukemia. The voice behind numerous hit films, plays, novels, essays and opinion pieces, Ephron is arguably best know for her work in the field of romantic comedies. While she is notable for the later Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and to a lesser extent the by-the-numbers You’ve Got Mail (1998), her collaboration with Rob Reiner on When Harry Met Sally… is her masterpiece. The film began life, appropriately enough, with a conversation between Reiner and Ephron, as they developed a collaborative relationship that explored the lives of singles living in New York.
Framed with elderly couples telling stories of how they first met, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) first meet at the University of Chicago, where they need each other to share a ride to New York. Just like Reiner’s earlier The Sure Thing (1985), which shares a similar setup, they don’t get along at first. Harry maintains that men and women can’t be “just friends”, and they go their separate ways. Years later, they meet up again by chance, just as they are both entering serious relationships. They won’t cross paths again for another five years, as both of those couplings end. Soon they find themselves confiding in each other more and more, slowly becoming friends and not realising that their feelings run much deeper than that.
If we can draw a straight line from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), which undoubtedly inspired the film, through to television sitcoms like Seinfeld (1989 – 1998), then When Harry Met Sally… must also be part of that equation. Although The Seinfeld Chronicles would air its first few pilot episodes in the same weeks that Reiner’s film hit cinemas, the success of When Harry Met Sally… paved the way for it and other “comedies about nothing” to dominate the airwaves for the next decade and beyond. At its heart, Ephron’s Oscar nominated script is about a couple who don’t realise they are in love yet, but stylistically this is a conversation piece. Ordering food, relationships, sex and films are all discussed in their minutiae, engendering an instant connection between the characters in the film and the everyday lives of the audience.
Set against one of the most filmed cities in the world, Reiner intentionally placed Harry and Sally against beautiful backdrops (including autumn in Central Park) without acknowledging them to emphasise the cluelessness of these two characters who seem to be the only two who don’t know they are going to get together. Unlike the carbon copies that have come since, their coupling isn’t an inevitability so much as hope. Taking in other great New York locations like Katz’s Delicatessen, one of the most memorable scenes in film history was born, as the mild-mannered Ryan fakes an orgasm and the neighbouring customer orders “I’ll have what she’s having”.
Albert Brooks and Molly Ringwald may have been considered for the leads, but it is impossible to imagine anybody other that Crystal and Ryan in this pairing. Ryan was not yet a star at this stage, with The Washington Post referring to her as the “summer’s Melanie Griffith”. Yet she is everything we want her to be: ditzy/smart, charming and beautiful. She’s the counterpoint to the cynical Crystal, who ad-libs and cracks out one-liners at a rate of knots. Carrie Fisher and the late Bruno Kirby play the “normal” couple, perfectly complimenting the titular leads.
A perfect romantic comedy that went on to “inspire” virtual remakes A Lot Like Love (2005) and Bollywood’s Hum Tum (2004), not to mention a stage musical with original runner-up Molly Ringwald finally bagging the lead, When Harry Met Sally… still feels vibrant and original even after all the comers that tried to steal its crown. The fashions may be dated, and the ultimate resolution may defy logic, but the tightly edited film, backed by Harry Connick Jr tunes, is an unmatched timeless classic.