What Makes When Harry Met Sally… A Classic?

What Makes When Harry Met Sally… A Classic?

The accounts both gave of their collaborative process agree that the genesis of the film was shared lunches and the conversations at them about contemporary romance and dating rituals

It was a film I’d liked but not studied, but the BFI asked me to write the Classic on it to tie in to the LOVE season it had in 2015. I really came to appreciate the film once I sat down to analyse it.

Hmm! I would say that, narratively, this is a comedy about a woman and a man who meet at various times in their lives, and eventually get to the right point to be friends. For a while their individual neuroses balance each other out but then their increasing intimacy starts to cause more problems… From the point of view of form, I’d say it was one of the most cleverly and elegantly structured films I’ve seen.

Part of what is so great about When Harry Met Sally… is that it embraces its genre forebears. Like Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover, Come Back (1961), the central characters start out disliking each other – or rather she dislikes him and he dislikes her but not enough not to make a pass at her! Then, like a good screwball comedy, such as It Happened One Night (1934), the two start to get along together and become a unit. It’s important for audience enjoyment that we can see they belong together before they do, or at least before this has become a conscious realisation and desire. There are lots of moments in When Harry Met Sally… where they reveal their longing to be together without knowing it.

Critics at the time were very certain that it was the Woody Allen films of the 1970s, such as Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), but I think When Harry Met Sally… acts more like an antidote to those films. It has some of the same elements, including, most obviously, New York, and the kvetchy, wise-cracking, self-obsessed central male character, but it makes much more of the heroine and, perhaps because it was written by a woman, shows how annoying the man’s insistence on jokes and schtick is. Sally has to get him to stop deflecting emotions, since his usual trick is to bat them away along with the vulnerability he feels when he senses his feelings. In this way the third act breakup, which is now inevitable in the romcom actually feels earned, because Sally can’t be with him if he’s going to be so immature joingy giriÅŸ, and he has to realise it’s okay to feel deeply before he deserves her.

So we have the Battle-Of-The-Sexes energy between them

I think because the original idea that had brought them together for lunch – along with Reiner’s producing partner Andy Scheinman – swiftly revealed itself to be a non-starter, they could all relax and concentrate on the food and chat. Over time and other lunches this then became a project they could work on when not employed on other jobs; the relaxed development process seems to have resulted in a very organic, unforced end product. With the men enjoying telling Ephron about their bad boy dating behaviours, and her acute ear for the vernacular, the result was that much of the script came just from lunch sessions. Ephron’s genius for comic writing and ability to find humour in any and everything makes this a rare romcom that is both genuinely romantic and actually comedic too.

“Ephron’s genius for comic writing and ability to find humour in any and everything makes this a rare romcom that is both genuinely romantic and actually comedic too.”

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