Which is the greatest Western? High Noon? The Searchers? The Unforgiven? Young Guns? Back to the Future 3? It is an impossible question to answer.
What about the greatest Sci-Fi film? Alien? Star Wars? Silent Running? 2001? Batteries Not Included? Back to the Future 3? There is no way of deciding.
On the other hand if you ask me what the best Romantic Comedy is then there simply isn’t any competition. An Affair to Remember and then Breakfast at Tiffany’s set the template early on but the genre reached it’s peak of evolution in 1989 with When Harry Met Sally and every film featuring love and laughs made since has pathetically struggled to match up (Even Back to the Future 3).
Part of the reason that When Harry Met Sally is so brilliant is that its genius seems so effortless. There is nothing outlandish or unrealistic in the story and there aren’t really any contrivances to move events along. (No seriously, in a city of eight million people you are bound to run into the girl you drove from Chicago to New York after graduation with sooner or later.) The film gives us normal people we can identify with, they have normal jobs and normal apartments and the things that happen to them are normal with only the slightest refraction to make it all really (effortlessly) funny. Even Billy Crystal’s Harry, who provides many of the broadest laughs, isn’t a caricature. He is just an ordinary, if very witty, guy.
With When Harry Met Sally, Rob Reiner was at the end of an incredible run of films. He started with This is Spinal Tap in 1984 and followed it with The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and then When Harry Met Sally. His next two films; Misery and A Few Good Men were also excellent. Most Hollywood film makers would give up their Malibu beach front mansions to have just one of those on their filmography but it is this work with the brilliant writer Nora Ephron that eclipses everything else. (Only just though because his film of William Goldman’s screenplay for The Princess Bride is an almost equal treasure.) It really is this teaming of director and writer that brought such success because Ephron was similarly never quite as strong again; her Sleepless in Seattle is good but its no When Harry Met Sally. The magic of this collaboration is evident in Sally’s method of ordering food which is apparently a Reiner interpretation of how Ephron really behaved in a restaurant.
Nora Ephron’s script for this film is a total joy to behold. The emotion and commitment expressed in Harry’s declaration of love to Sally at the end of the film (see below) are probably the nicest words anyone has ever said to anyone else in a hundred and twenty years of moving pictures. This man is describing his wonderful infatuation to this woman, his joy in having finally surrendered to his love for her bursting out of every syllable but it is real and honest and you can actually believe it is off the cuff. There is none of the corny ‘I’m just a girl standing in front of a guy asking him to love her’ guff that may flow out of a writer’s pen but would never genuinely come out of a human’s mouth. Incidentally, the fact that Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are both attractive but neither of them are Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant also helps us mortals invest in them.
Clearly this is Billy Crystal’s finest hour but for a long time I maintained that Meg Ryan was one of many actors who would have worked just as well in the role. This was exacerbated by the London stage version that cast Buffy alumni Alyson Hannigan and
Luke Perry in the title roles. It was certainly Perry that suffered most by comparison with the original film but Hannigan only faired better because she was channelling Ryan. To dismiss Meg Ryan’s contribution to this film is to almost akin to accusing Oliver Hardy of being the straight man or Ginger Rogers of standing still in the dance numbers. It isn’t easy playing foil and Ryan is a gifted comedy performer in her own right. Ultimately of course she has proven to be a more versatile actor too. In retrospect I now think that the only person who has been better opposite Billy Crystal is Debra Winger in Forget Paris but she’d have been totally wrong in this film. Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher are also superb in this film and the fact that the latter of these will always be remembered for her role in a certain space trilogy really doesn’t do her justice.
There is one final part of this film that I would like to mention and it isn’t the masterful tunes of Mr Connick Junior. New York City is a very important part of this film. Clearly hundreds of movies have been set in Manhattan (is crossing the Brooklyn Bridge really the only way to get into the city) but rarely is it just background. In the same way that Harry, Sally, Marie and Jess are normal people so New York comes across here as a place that you really believe people would live. The portrayal of the city isn’t self conscious like it is in so many other films. There is no montage of key landmarks, The Statue of Liberty does not feature at all and The Empire State Building is just glimpsed once in the background, this is a non tourists picture of the city and that is the kind of way we all pretend we want to see a city like this.
Interestingly for such a simple film with no special effects and no grandstanding I think this might be my desert island movie. Sometimes I’m in the mood for incredible action, sometimes I want raw emotion, often I want to be moved or exhilarated but I’m always in the mood for When Harry Met Sally. It’s the best kind of film; it’s low maintenance.
“I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.