I have a friend who has seen "When Harry Met Sally . . ." so many times she can quote entire monologues from the movie. Another buddy is an absolute pain to see the film with because he will recite each line of every scene--as it's being said. And then there's the friend who slips the movie into her VCR whenever she's had a bad day at work or an argument with her boyfriend.
As for me, I've probably seen the movie, oh, a mere 40 times since it hit the big screen in 1989. For my friends and many other twentysomethings I've met, writer Nora Ephron's romantic comedy is the quintessential contemporary feel-good relationship movie that somehow still rings true--which is interesting, considering it was written 15 years ago, in the mid-'80s.
"I keep getting letters from kids in college totally obsessed with the movie," Ephron said in a recent phone interview. "And I still have people who say to me all the time, 'I was having a Harry-and-Sally relationship with him or her.' "
Of all the great romantic comedies, Ephron's film, which explores the notion of whether men and women can be friends, tops my list, especially around Valentine's Day. And with its recent release on DVD, fans now can see funny deleted scenes from the movie and learn more about the making of the film through a documentary featuring recollections by Ephron and director Rob Reiner.
Over the years, "When Harry Met Sally. . ." has been many things to its fans: an uplifting salve for horrendous days, an affirmation that men (and women) indeed are difficult beasts to understand, a source of hope in the increasingly murky world of dating and male-female relationships.
But in the broader perspective, within the genre of romantic comedy, "When Harry Met Sally . . ." is among the best and most popular for one simple reason: It speaks the truth about men and women. And it was groundbreaking in doing it with a hilariously brutal honesty that was rare in previous romantic comedies.
It highlighted how some men loathe cuddling--Harry: "You go back to her place, you have sex and the minute you're finished, you know what goes through your mind? How long do I have to lie here and hold her before I can get up and go home? Is 30 seconds enough?"
It explored whether men and women can't be friends because, as Harry famously said, "The sex part always gets in the way." And of course, who could forget how the film revealed that most women fake orgasms, in the deli scene where Meg Ryan moans her way into a table-thumping climax?
These truths about men and women continue to resonate with a new generation of viewers more than a decade later.
"My daughter is a freshman at Columbia, and this movie is as relevant for her as it is for me," said Jim Hart, a Columbia guest professor who wrote the screenplays for "Hook" and "Bram Stoker's Dracula." "Everybody in their life, it doesn't matter what generation or era you're from, had that relationship or is in the middle of that relationship or wishes they still had that relationship in their lives."
The film's resonance may be due in part to its genesis: honest discussions Ephron and Reiner began having over lunches, trading stories about their experiences as single people. Ephron said they both discovered several things about the opposite sex that shocked them during these lunches and eventually decided to put them in the script.
"We knew the only way we could make this work was if we really exposed what men and women really felt and really thought about," Reiner says in the director's narrative on the DVD version of the movie.
Ephron said she based the Harry character on Reiner and Sally on herself. Even Sally's convoluted ordering habits--"I'd like the pie heated, and I don't want the ice cream on the top, I want it on the side. And I'd like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it's real. If it's out of a can, then nothing"--are an echo of Ephron's.
"Rob always said it's the kind of movie that has a very high degree of difficulty in that it has no safety net," said Ephron, who co-wrote "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail." "It entirely depends on your caring about those two people. There's no real plot." We were so lucky because Billy [Crystal] was so great, and then Meg was a movie star waiting to happen, and we were there for it."
But beyond sharp dialogue and a pair of likable stars, "When Harry Met Sally . . ." is appealing because the characters' quirkiness makes them real.
Harry isn't a dashing Clark Gable or Robert Redford. He's the short anti-hero with a receding hairline who complains about almost everything. Harry is a jerk a lot of the time, but still lovable because he's sweet and caring underneath it all--and he gets his act together just in time for a happy ending.
As for Sally, she's pretty, but not Cindy Crawford or some other unreachable paradigm of beauty. And she's neurotic, insecure and vulnerable: things many women easily can identify with.
The movie works because so many of us know Harrys and Sallys in our own lives, people we've dated or considered dating. And when we see such a coupling played out on screen--complete with a happy ending--all the better.
Ephron and Reiner clearly were onto something with "When Harry Met Sally . . . ." Screenwriter Hart says he sees the movie's influence on television sitcoms such as "Friends" and "Seinfeld."
"It was a precursor of where television was headed in terms of relationships between men and women," Hart said. "I do think that television writing is the better for 'When Harry Met Sally . . . .' "
But maybe the real secret to the enduring success of the movie lies in a song associated with another great romantic film, "Casablanca," Ephron suggested. "Perhaps," she said, "the fundamental things apply, as time goes by."