When I Met Harry and Sally...
The second I discovered classic movies, I put myself through total immersion -- I had to watch as many as I could and I had to do it as soon as possible. I've been immersing myself in movies pre-1969 for about a decade now, and as such, I'll admit I've developed the opinion that post-1969 films just aren't that great. There are some that I enjoy; I mean, I devoted a post to a few of them. Disney has always been tops, so their films are untouchable, but in general, I'm quick to say that you just can't beat the Golden Era in any aspect. Recent movies have to really, really catch my eye if they want my attention (and my money). So it was with trepidation that two years ago I watched Sleepless in Seattle. Romantic comedies are my sweet spot, and I've been hearing praise for this flick for most of my life. It was set up as part of a series of brilliant, beloved 1990's-early 2000's rom-coms, shining alongside Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually, and Pretty Woman to name a handful. Considering that Sleepless in Seattle was supposed to be a love letter to one of my favorites, An Affair to Remember, my heart was all set to love it.
And it was a letdown. I still can't quite articulate what went wrong for me. It just didn't connect. I was sitting there, excited, waiting to adore it, and... nothing. "So, what did you think?" my mom asked when it was over. "Eh. I'd rather watch An Affair to Remember." I can't decide if I was disappointed in the actual movie, or disappointed that my own reaction wasn't what I thought it would be. Not long after, maybe a month or two, I was looking at the line-up for channel 7, a movie channel on my college's cable that airs a surprising mix of new and old movies, all uninterrupted by commercials. Something I've always envied about older film fans are their memories of staying up late, breathlessly awaiting the late night movie, all huddled in the dark with just the glow of the TV to keep them company. Channel 7 brought some semblance of that when it aired Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally one night.
Knowing that WHMS came from the pen of Nora Ephron, the same writer who created Sleepless in Seattle, I was immediately hesitant. Should I watch it? I shouldn't, right? It'll be awful. I should keep my feelings for Billy Crystal intact and not watch this. Plus, Meg Ryan didn't leave much of an impression the first time around. But so many people love it. But they also love Sleepless in Seattle. It was 5 pm. The movie started at 10:30 pm. For five and a half hours, I debated like this. At 10:29, I made a deal with myself: I'll watch the first 20 minutes or so and if it becomes too discouraging, I'll just switch the channel.
I didn't need 20 minutes. About 10 was enough for me to realize I was watching something special. Every second of the film, I was practically holding my breath, begging it to keep up its magic, to not go downhill as it got closer to the end. Oh boy. Now it was time for what many lists call one of the best romantic endings: Harry's New Year's Eve speech to Sally explaining why he loves her and why they should be together. Surely this part won't be as perfect as they say, I scoff. Surely it doesn't -- OH MY GOD, I LOVE IT. While the credits rolled, I immediately went to Amazon and bought the DVD. And then watched it at least three times in the first week. And then one time the second week. And countless times since then, including once on the big screen. Like a true romantic comedy, I avoided WHMS because I was convinced it wasn't right for me, but once I gave it half a chance, it won me over completely.
For those unaware, WHMS is about the 12-year relationship between Harry Burns and Sally Albright. They meet during a road trip from Chicago to New York, both fresh out of college and ready to take on the big city. Their first impressions of each other aren't great -- Harry is a cynical, somewhat crude guy who believes that men and women can't be friends because "the sex part always gets in the way," while Sally is a practical optimist. They part ways in New York, but over the course of ten years, they have chance encounters until finally, they strike up a friendship. They become each other's best friends, which inevitably goes back to the question from the beginning: can they stay just friends? More importantly, do they really want to?
While the script is at turns sharp and sweet, this film would be nothing without the right actors, so we're lucky they found an excellent cast. Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher are so wonderful as the second bananas, providing a funny subplot and a counterpoint to Harry and Sally. Watching them feels like you're watching a real couple (their argument over an ugly wagon wheel table, for instance). But WHMS wouldn't be what it is without Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, and that's not just because their performances are pitch-perfect -- they both contributed to the film's iconic legacy, Crystal by ad-libbing and giving the movie a fresh spontaneity, Ryan by suggesting the infamous deli scene.
I'll admit a small part of me wasn't ready to believe that Billy Crystal could be a romantic lead, and I'm happy to say that I couldn't have been more idiotic. Harry can be a jerk (and Sally rightfully calls him on it), but he's also the best friend you wish you had, someone who will encourage you to sing "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" in public or will try to hold a conversation with you with a funny accent. He'll debate the ending of Casablanca and you may scoff at his bragging about his days-long ruminations on death, but he's ultimately the first person you call to comfort you when your ex tells you he's getting married.
Sally is no slouch, either. Although Harry describes her as high-maintenance and uptight, all of her idiosyncrasies make her adorable, easy to relate to, and a good contrast to Harry. Her ordering at restaurants cracks me up, mostly because I'm picky about my food too. (People who let their food touch are insane.) While the clothes and the technology may date the film, Sally's independence, intelligence, and humor are timeless. She can be fierce too, particularly towards the end when she and Harry hit a rough patch. Sally just feels so realistic to me, and Meg Ryan is obviously the person to thank for that.
Another person to thank would be the director, Rob Reiner. This is the progression of my knowledge of Reiner: Meathead... director... Carl Reiner's son?! It's been a crazy journey, guys. Reiner is a hilarious man, and he's also a fine director. The Princess Bride is such a classic and after reading Cary Elwes's book about the making of that film, I feel like I appreciate the director so much more. Like Crystal, Reiner added to the script for WHMS by basically just being himself. Nora Ephron made Harry into a conglomeration of Crystal and Reiner, especially Reiner's troubles with dating after his divorce from Penny Marshall. Ironically, he would meet his current wife during production of WHMS. Another funny thing is that both Reiner and Ephron wanted the film to end with Sally and Harry just staying friends, thinking this was more pragmatic, but they changed it because they knew audiences would want the happier ending.
Lastly, the final thing that pushed me into loving this film was the soundtrack. Like Sleepless in Seattle, it's filled with goodies, namely standards like "I Could Write a Book," "But Not for Me," and others. Unlike Sleepless in Seattle, it has Harry Connick, Jr., one of my favorite singers and just in general one of my favorite people. The tricky thing is that Connick, Jr. doesn't sing all of the songs in the actual movie, but he does on the soundtrack that's available on CD and vinyl -- whatever. I'm not going to complain when the film starts with Louis Armstrong's "Our Love is Here to Stay" and ends with Frank Sinatra's "It Had to Be You." (The moment where that song is used, by the way, still gives me goosebumps. So sweet.) You can listen to the album here, which won Connick, Jr. his first Grammy Award for Best Jazz Male Vocal Performance. Skip ahead to 18:50 to hear what I think is the best number, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."
There's plenty I didn't get to, I know. Maybe someday I'll post a more in-depth review, but for now this will have to suffice. If this post even slightly interested you in WHMS, I say take the chance of buying the DVD. On Amazon, the price is very cheap and you get lots of fun bonus materials on the disc. If you're still unsure, you can watch some marvelous clips here. I highly doubt you'll be disappointed, and if you are, well, maybe you'll like Sleepless in Seattle.
This is my contribution to Movie Movie Blog Blog's "In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb" Blogathon, where people get to discuss films they thought they'd hate and ended up enjoying. Click here to see the full roster.