They were cinema’s most unlikely couple. She enjoyed tap dancing and dressing-free salads, wore days-of-the-week underpants and complained that her boyfriends never ravished her on the kitchen floor. (“Not once. It’s this very cold, hard Mexican ceramic tile.”) He loved baseball, spat grape pips out of (closed) car windows, wanted to “nail” every female he ever met and once made a woman meow with pleasure. So why is "When Harry Met Sally" the last great romantic comedy ever made?
On the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, this summer’s romantic comedies — "The Proposal," another lame Sandra Bullock vehicle, and "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," another lame Matthew McConaughey vehicle — look pathetic by comparison, while "When Harry Met Sally," still fresh two decades on, is described by many — including me (I’ve seen it 30 times) — as “the greatest romantic comedy of all time.”
At the time of release this seemed unlikely. "When Harry Met Sally" lost out on its one Oscar nomination (for screenplay) to "Dead Poets Society." Despite five nominations, it failed to win a single Golden Globe. The highest-grossing movies of 1989 were "Batman," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Lethal Weapon 2." But "When Harry Met Sally’s" director Rob Reiner wanted “a talk piece.”
“There are no chase scenes. No food fights. This is walks, apartments, phones, restaurants, movies.”
The film’s enduring stroke of genius was to open with a question. Can men and women ever be friends? At the time Meg Ryan agreed with Sally: “Yes, men and women can just be friends. I have a lot of platonic (male) friends, and sex doesn’t get in the way.” Billy Crystal was a real-life Harry: “Men basically act like stray dogs in front of a supermarket.”
The idea for the film had emerged over a lunch at the Russian Tea Room in New York in 1984, springing from the banter between Reiner, then filming "This Is Spinal Tap" (featuring cameos from Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby, who plays Harry’s best friend Jess), and the screenplay writer Nora Ephron, then best known for Silkwood. Reiner and Ephron were the opposite of Harry and Sally: great friends, never lovers. Rob Reiner has said: “Women in my movies are all the same. The woman is the one who is more together, more grounded, more centred. That’s the way I am with women so my characters reflect that. I generally feel that that’s true. Women are more emotionally grounded and centred than men.”