Being a 24 year old male who is looking forward to The Dark Knight Rises so much that I have already purchased three separate tickets, I think it is safe to say I am not the target market for a rom-com. In fact I detest the abbreviation so much that the mere mention of it brings Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Aniston and Ashton Kutcher type visions into my head. Seriously I can’t shake them, it’s like they’re sickeningly wired into my head (Total Recall?).
However over the years I have discovered a remedy, albeit a temporary one. One which will help to block out 27 Dresses, The Bounty Hunter and even *shudder* This Means War. Yes I watched it, I’m not proud and the fact that Tom Hardy ever touched that script worries me. Deep breath, Nolan…. Nolan….. and I’m back. So what is this magical solution to my Rom-Com woes? Judging by my title to this article you can probably guess it is When Harry Met Sally.
As I’m sure the majority of you are aware this week news broke that Nora Ephron, the screenwriter for When Harry Met Sally, sadly passed away after a battle with Leukaemia. It wouldn’t be wrong of me to inexplicably proclaim When Harry Met Sally as her masterpiece and judging by the amount of articles written around the internet already, I won’t be the only one to make that statement.
For me When Harry Met Sally is a faultless Romantic Comedy which manages to encompass so much within its borders. In a time period where Woody Allen had left the comedy and focused more on drama, Nora Ephron created a ‘Woody Allen romantic comedy’ without the neurotic self-deprecating irony and Allen himself. That is not to say it is a mere imitation of his work, instead it takes what makes Allen great; ignoring the trepidation of discussing sex and relationships and instead tackling it head on. You can see it in the pseudo-documentary scenes where love and relationships are conversed.
Breaking the 4th wall is something which Allen often did for comedy; Ephron instead uses it here to create a sense of genuineness to her script. It isn’t until we reach the end of the film and discover that Harry and Sally are also interviewees that we have permission to question the authenticity of the previous interviews (unless you recognise Donna Hardy from couple #5 who was in The Running Man). Except we don’t because by the end of the film Harry and Sally feel like a real couple. This is a testament to both Ephron’s writing and the performances of the two protagonists.
And when it comes to her characters, again there is a lack of apprehension into the realm of sex. It is discussed, joked about, and its power and emphasis distributed when needed. Sex can be boring (no sex in the kitchen for Sally), Sex can be a lie (The fake orgasm) and sex can be scary (after Harry has sex with Sally), it can be all of those things and more. Yet many Rom-com’s ignore the fun you can have by manipulating the topic of sex, Ephron doesn’t and instead takes pleasure in embracing it. Sex is sex, but to Ephron and Allen it can be so much more. Take for example the Deli scene. We all know it of course; Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm to a shocked Billy Crystal.
On the face of it, it is a purely comedic scene and it is of course extremely funny. Yet go deeper and there is much more to it. Harry whose sexual confidence knows no bounds is left distraught. The majority of the male audience are too. Have we all been tricked? Has this happened to me? The paranoia is real and Harry’s dumbfounded face says it all. And on the other side Sally most probably has many women relating to her fake orgasm. Cheering her along as she puts on her performance. In one scene it has explored sex while encompassing both genders, a hard feat pulled off with aplomb by Ephron. We should not forget that at its end also exists one of the most famous lines of all time. “I’ll have what she’s having”. If rumours are true, than that line was added by Billy Crystal, but either way Ephron’s footprint is all over this scene and it will forever remain a definitive one in romantic comedies, one which chose to tackle sex head on without a second thought.
That scene is also a great example of what is possibly this films greatest strength; the two stellar performances from the comedic legend that is Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan who has done everything in her power to shed the charismatic and charming innocence which made her such a popular leading lady (It’s hard to forget that Parkinson interview and I’m sure Meg feels the same). This is not to take anything away from the supporting characters played by Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher who perhaps put in their best ever performances. But the kind of chemistry displayed by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan is nothing short of perfect, a kind of chemistry which is sadly missing from the majority of contemporary rom-coms. Is it wishful thinking to believe that Hollywood will soon realise that no one can have chemistry with Ashton Kutcher? Ryan and Crystal’s chemistry is not immediate; it is not love at first sight as many rom-coms would have you believe. Instead it develops, rather majestically, throughout the film. What Ephron does brilliantly is to explore four separate stages of their relationship which revolve around one line of dialogue pronounced emphatically by Harry,
“Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” – Harry
The first stage is when they first meet in an awkward drive back from college to Manhattan, the above dialogue becomes the first of many broad and arrogant statements that Harry will make. This one however becomes the hinge of the film. His arrogance leads her to dislike him and even loathe him. And when we witness her order food for the first time, Harry becomes annoyed at his perceived blemishes in her character. The flaws are available for the audience, these are not perfect entities made for love they are human like us, love is not immediate. When they meet up again in the second stage, he stands by the statement many years later but their relationship begins to blossom into a friendship. We begin as do they to look past their flaws and accept that as part of their character, much like in any relationship. The third stage is when the statement becomes fact, Harry and Sally sleep together. His arrogance becomes reality and he does not know how to cope with it. The friendship begins to fall apart because of the realisation of his own obnoxious statement. It isn’t until we reach stage four with Harry’s arrogance being replayed over a montage of their friendship that we realise as well as Harry that it is true, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad thing. And thus we get the feel good ending which doesn’t feel sickly, forced or contrived. Instead, it feels right, it feels real and to be honest with you it feels romantic. With the New Years Eve speech in mind credit should be given to Nora Ephron who has written one of the most romantic speeches in cinema, one which I liken to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. Harry has fallen in love with everything which once annoyed him; he has embraced her imperfections and fallen for them. The character development is a thing of beauty, it is not forced or prodded instead it flows through the stages. That is the sign of a great writer, which is exactly what Nora Ephron will be remembered as.
She was a writer who knew her characters, both female and male, and wasn’t afraid to explore flaws on either side of the gender fence. She will sadly be missed but remembered fondly. I took a trip last year to New York and finally went to Katz’ Deli, the food was absolutely awful and the service confusing but the seat remains; the seat Where Harry Met Sally. Ignoring the tacky blimp like sign that hangs above, I sat down. It was uncomfortable, had a shaky leg but for a second it felt epic, like I had just discovered sat down on history. When I looked to my left however there was no Mrs. Reiner, instead there was a tiny Asian man eating what looked like a pastrami and cheese sandwich, there was no way he was going to say ‘I’ll have what she’s having’. To my right were two more tourists waiting for me to move. Sometimes you can’t recreate the magic that exists in a film (I wasn’t about to fake an orgasm), instead you just have to go home open up the DVD case and put the film on. Which is what I’m going to do right now.
Thank you Nora Ephron.
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