a moment in time this film marks. Meg Ryan’s first “Meg Ryan” role (as
in the cute-as-a-button, cheery, romantic sweetheart role she played
again and again in the 90s, not that there’s anything wrong with that),
and arguably Billy Crystal’s only successful “leading man” role. Billy
Crystal as a cinematic romantic lead? It’s impossible to understand,
even while watching this 1989 film, and yet, he pulls it off. Admirably.
The premise of this Nora Ephron/Rob
Reiner film was ultimately
to answer the question it posed: can a man and a woman ever just be
friends, or does sex always have to be part of the relationship?
Interestingly, the answer it gave was “actually, no, they can’t,” as
Harry and Sally ended up together. So there’s no new ground broken
there. And if
you’ve ever seen a Woody Allen film you’ll know there’s
not much ground broken in the lightning-fast dialog and neurotic
leading-man character, either. No matter. This film is beloved because
it’s a wonderful, and very realistic, romance.
The thrill lies in the fact that the audience can see that Harry and
Sally, two friends who take years to realize they are meant to be
together, are made for one another. That’s a thrill because we really,
truly, believe that Harry and Sally themselves don’t see it. Movies
about boy-girl best friends who realize that their soul mate has been
right in front of their nose all along are a dime a dozen. But usually,
the plot arc is painfully obvious and the main characters just seem
clueless and dopey in their failure to see their destiny coming at them
from a mile away.
Harry and Sally are different. They are
both sensible, worldly people who really and truly don’t see one another
as romantic fodder for awhile. Maybe it’s because, as a couple, they
don’t look like they are Hollywood-made for each other (is he taller
than she is? Maybe, but if she really teased her hair 80s style he
wouldn’t be). In short, they look
like a real couple. As do their
friends, Marie and Jess (Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby).
Their problems and situations seem real, too—take the scene in which
Sally realizes that her ex-boyfriend does want to get married; just not
to her. Ouch. Or the scene in which Harry bumps into his ex, who has
happily moved on. Ouch again. And then there’s the pop-culture
touchstone scene in the diner—right, that one. So much of this film
Another reason to love
Harry Met Sally is the soundtrack. The music is so old-school in its use
of standards like “I Could Write a Book,” “Mr. Saturday Night,” and of
course “It Had to be You” (which many a Gen-Xer used as her wedding
dance only to discover that it was one of the most common wedding songs
of the late 90s, when girls who had been in high school when the film
came out were getting to wedding age. Not that I’d know anything about
The title alone brings a smile to many a
movie-fan’s eye. Followed up by a sigh, perhaps, and comment about what
a “great movie” it is. Mention it in a conversation and you’ll see what
I mean. And then get ready for some mischievous person to bring up the
“I’ll-have-what-she’s-having” scene and everyone else to nod
indulgently. The fact that that particular scene has become such a
cliché just proves how influential this film was.
About the only thing that seems outdated
in this film is Meg Ryan’s hair, or of course the use of corded phones
and absence of computers. But the rest of When Harry Met Sally—the
dialog, the soundtrack, and certainly the characters and their
relationship—is as fresh for Valentine’s Day 2011 as it was for
Valentine’s Day 1989.
Watch the When Harry Met Sally trailer.