MOTW: When Romantic Movies Met Reality

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures
December 30th, 2013

MOTW: When Romantic Movies Met Reality

"When Harry Met Sally..." redefined romantic comedies in a number of different ways. The genre had languished throughout the 1980s, and the decade's films were often overly stilted, unrealistic stories filled with clichés and lackluster chemistry between leads. Director Rob Reiner's 1989 film changed the formula and became one of the most loved romantic films in decades.

The primary reason "When Harry Met Sally..." has endured is a brilliant script from writer Nora Ephron. Ephron interviewed Reiner and producer Andy Scheinman extensively when they began working on the project, looking for male perspectives to balance out her own romantic experiences. She wanted to give the story an authenticity so many romantic comedies lacked, and she drew on many different real-world experiences from all three of the creators to imbue the title characters with life and believability. The language is realistic and sounds more like the things people would actually say to each other than lines being read. In addition, Ephron interviewed many couples throughout production, converting their stories into the interview segments seen throughout the film. This frank honesty about the dialogue between the sexes was unfamiliar to many audiences, and their enthusiastic response inspired later filmmakers' attempts to capture the same magic.

The chemistry between the two leads, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, played an enormous part in the success of the film. All too often, romantic comedies are star vehicles, pairing up a male and female lead who might each be remarkable in his or her own right, but together had a poor connection on screen. From the start, the filmmakers here knew that the movie depended on the chemistry between Harry and Sally. For the movie to earn an emotional investment from the viewers, the two actors would have to sell the relationship to the audience. Crystal and Ryan had a natural rapport that was obvious from the start, making their evolution from friends to lovers completely believable. It showed just how important that chemistry was to a romantic comedy, and many of the more successful romantic comedies that followed built upon a similar foundation.

The well-paced, believable story is another important aspect of the film. Gone is the traditional "love at first sight" cliche, as Harry and Sally frankly aren't all that impressed with one another at the film's opening. The second act is about the two becoming friends, developing an intimacy that occurs naturally as the story unfolds. When they finally do spend the night together, instead of fireworks and rainbows, everything falls apart as they have difficulty coming to terms with sex's impact to their friendship. The story highlights the characters' imperfections , with the understanding that those imperfections are the key to falling in love. It's also a tacit acknowledgement that in the real world, relationships are often chaotic things that don't make any sense, but they somehow manage to work out anyway. This realism was a breath of fresh air for the romantic comedy genre, and one that inspired many of the films that followed.

No discussion of "When Harry Met Sally..." is complete without mentioning the infamous scene in which Sally imitates the sounds of climax while the two are eating in a diner. This scene illustrates another reason why the movie changed the genre forever. The theme exhibits the same frank honesty about sex that permeates the film, with Sally letting Harry (and by extension, the male members of the audience) in on the secret that maybe men aren't always as good at sex as they like to believe. The scene speaks to men and women simultaneously, but in very different ways. Often, the filmmakers saw test audiences where the women were all laughing hysterically while the men, one by one, fell quiet with pensive looks. No doubt that scene inspired countless flustered post-film conversations and a little more awareness about gender differences than any romantic comedy before it.

Ultimately, the film exemplifies the saying, "the sum is greater than the parts." Crystal and Ryan obviously weren't the first romantic duo to have good chemistry on film, Ephron's script wasn't the first witty and honest story about love, and this certainly wasn't the first movie to attempt to speak to both sexes at once. However, it was the first film to do all of those things and do them all stunningly well, and that is the reason why it remains in so many viewers' hearts more than 20 years after its release.