Tamar Jeffers McDonald discusses one of the most beloved romantic comedies ever made
Why led you to write about When Harry Met Sally…?
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.
How would you describe When Harry Met Sally… to someone who has never seen 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.
How does the film rework the traditions of the boy-meets-girl romantic comedy?
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! So we have the Battle-Of-The-Sexes energy between them. 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.
What do you think are the biggest cinematic influences on the film?
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, and he has to realise it’s okay to feel deeply before he deserves her.
What do you think makes the collaboration between screenwriter Nora Ephron and director Rob Reiner so successful?
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. 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.”
Could you say a little bit about the casting for the film?
Personally I think everyone in it is on career-best form. I know that surprises and appals fans of Princess Leia, but I don’t see Carrie Fisher ever being funnier than here, as Sally’s friend Marie. To begin with she’s so needy and blinkered about her own hopeless relationship with a married man that we can’t imagine she could judge other relationships, but she works out that Sally and Harry are interested in each other before they do. And then it’s lovely to see Marie find real happiness with Harry’s friend Jess (Bruno Kirby, also hilarious). Again it’s difficult to believe that contemporary critics didn’t all hail this film as genius on its first release; lots of them said they didn’t think Billy Crystal was handsome enough to be the leading man, when part of the film’s all-round excellence is to cast a man who can believably play a guy without leading man good looks who has developed comedic shtick to get the girls…. And Meg Ryan as Sally is a more well-rounded, slightly melancholic, determined and definitely less cloying character than she plays in other similar romantic comedies, including those from Ephron.
When Harry Met Sally… deploys several inventive cinematic techniques in order to tell the story. Could you talk a little bit about the way the film experiments with its form?
Although I’d never particularly noticed the inventiveness before, this was the primary aspect of the film I came to love when working on it for the book. It’s so clever! The couch couple interludes interrupt but also forecast the next scenes between the main characters on their route to becoming a couple themselves. Then events echo and balance each other (journeys; interrupted kisses; food) so that there’s a very pleasing balance and symmetry to the whole thing, and then the film also borrows other elements like split screen techniques (I’d argue this is again from Pillow Talk) to show its allegiance to the genre.
How can the film help us to rethink our ideas about traditional gender roles and relationships?
After they get to know each other well enough to become Harry and Sally, rather than Man and Woman, involved in initial Battle-Of-The-Sexes skirmishings, the characters show that people are people and love matters more than gender assumptions. Harry takes longer to catch on to this, which is why he has to wander around on his own in the cold on New Year’s Eve…
The famous diner scene where Sally simulates an orgasm in public is an iconic moment in the history of cinema. Could you say something about the scene’s importance within the film, and its place in pop culture?
It was the bit I was least looking forward to writing about at first, because it’s so well known, even to people who’ve never seen the whole film. That was daunting, and then it’s been so copied and parodied – as I detail in the book – that I had to search to find something new to say. I think what saved it for me, and made it fresh again, was reading in Ephron and Reiner’s separate writings that this was another product of collaboration. Scheinman and Reiner had regaled Ephron with stories about what men meant when they said…, what they were really thinking when they did this or that, and lots more on how they conducted their affairs. They wanted to know something about women’s secrets from men so Ephron told them the obvious one: women fake orgasm. It’s hilarious to think now that they didn’t at first believe her! So the idea developed to put this in the script and apparently it was Ryan who suggested she act it out rather than just confide it, Crystal who came up with the film’s famous one-liner, and then of course Reiner’s own mother who got to deliver it. At a deeper level too, the diner is the perfect place for this to take place, because so much has already been made of their attitudes to food being character indicators for Harry and Sally. He knows what he wants, orders quickly and eats because his body needs fuel; she needs to impose order on the chaos around her by being extremely specific and controlling about what she eats and how it’s served. As Sally goes into her routine, Harry continues at first to shovel food in his mouth, and this is indicative of his attitude to sex too: it’s a need, he straightforwardly arranges to have this need serviced. Sally meanwhile works herself up to feigned heights to teach him a lesson and then, in her coup de grâce, smiles and calmly eats a mouthful of coleslaw. Nothing could better underline how much her performance of the orgasm has been just that, a performance, a simulation.
In what ways do you think When Harry Met Sally… is a product of a specific cultural moment?
Well, very much in some ways. It certainly has a very specific 80s feel to it and references lots of zeitgeisty elements – the self-help books in the bookstore that Marie and Sally browse were the actual self-help bestsellers of that year, for example. And then there are the 80s fashions… On the other hand, the story of two people coming together is timeless, so it maintains its relevance beyond its originating context.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a book about movie fan magazines, telling the story of their development from the first publication, in 1914, to their golden age when there were over 20 different titles on news-stands monthly in the States alone, with others all over the globe, and then their decline and eventual absorption by the celebrity gossip mags in the 1970s. I love the movie magazines because they look at stars and films and are also repositories for contemporaneous ideas and assumptions which emerge through the editorials and gossip columns, but also the advertising and promotional pieces.
When Harry Met Sally… is available from Bloomsbury’s BFI Film Classics series.
Tamar Jeffers McDonald is Reader in Film Studies at the University of Kent, UK. She is the author of Hollywood Catwalk: Reading Costume and Transformation in American Film (2010) and Doris Day Confidential: Hollywood Sex and Stardom (2013).