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On July 14, 1989, Nora Ephron unveiled romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally in limited release. The now-classic film, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, nabbed a screenplay nom for Ephron at the 62nd Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Smart Women/Foolish Choices, Men Who Can’t Love…Run From Commitment — the bookstores sell them by the basket load. Modern romantic relationships are a boondoggle: Otherwise sensible, loving and well-meaning people fall every day for all the wrong partners. As any single or even “currently involved,” person will admit, it’s scary out there on the love front.
Although certainly not pretending to be a panacea for the myriad ills of modern romance, Castle Rock Entertainment’s When Harry Met Sally is a beautiful, brainy, touching and lilting romantic comedy that should touch the heartstrings of lovers and those yearning to be in love everywhere.
To assess this wondrously topical yet wisely old-fashioned romancer in purely mercantile terms seems inappropriate, but herewith the trade angle: bonanza box office, Oscar nomination for Best Picture (it should be an odds-on front-runner) and certain Academy nominations for director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron. And, for its two lovers, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, strong possibilities in the Oscar nom category also.
Punctuating this tender, modern tale with humorous, sage-like snippets of long-married elderly couples recounting the unlikely beginnings of their lifelong marriages, director Rob Reiner gracefully and powerfully accents Ephron’s amazing and magnificent main story — the nearly 12-years-in-the-making love connection between hyper Harry and sensible Sally.
When Harry Met Sally begins rather unpromisingly — not the movie, but Harry and Sally’s romance. It’s 1977 and they share a ride from Chicago to New York. She’s fresh out of college, hoping to crack the journalism market; he’s romantically involved and onward to a political consultancy career. Before they’re out of the quad, they’re squabbling: Sally’s “basically a happy person”; Harry’s dark-sided.
Still, beneath their surface rancor, they grudgingly sense they’re friends. Like most moderns, neither can fathom opposite-sex friends. Always-assured Harry pronounces, “Men and women can never be friends, because there’s always the sex thing.”
A parting handshake in the Big Apple, and flash-forward to five years later, 1982. At a chance airport meeting between the two, each discovers the other is involved with a proper romantic counterpart. Still, despite their surface differences (she’s compulsively over-organized, he’s desperately free-wheeling), Harry and Sally are falling head over heels, despite their stylistic differences, into a friendship. Harry’s latest pronouncement is a puzzler for both: “Men and women cannot be friends…so where does that leave us?”
Where does that leave Harry and Sally? As writer Ephron sagely shows, it leaves them smack-dab in the muck of the world of modern romance, the quagmire of failed marriages blissfully/painfully followed by on-the-rebound, transitional relationships.
In this acutely perceptive and comically radiant love story, Harry and Sally find they’re always there for each other. It soothes them, but still, they never consider themselves a couple. They even well-meaningly try to set each other up with their respective best friends (Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby). But they spend so much time together. And they find they’re even agreeing on the ending to Casablanca, long a nettling point: Sally once thought Ingrid Bergman made the right choice, to go off with safe Victor Laszlo and leave Humphrey Bogart behind. Harry emphatically disagrees: “You don’t leave the love of your life.”
But now, among other wondrous personal discoveries, they find they agree even on Casablanca — that it has the best-ever ending line: “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In this marvelous movie, that classic line radiates as the point of departure — “a beautiful friendship” crazily and wondrously becomes a beautiful romantic “beginning.”
Although we’re not about to tip the ending — do Harry and Sally eventually end up together? — suffice it to say that Ephron’s ending is absolutely right. And Reiner’s diffidently delightful and delicately delirious direction is true and tender throughout.
Crystal’s lustrous, deeply-shaded performance is certain to win him legions of new fans; indeed, his prowess as a comic reaches its deepest human dimension here. Ryan’s performance is so rounded, so superbly quirky and individual that even the snidest cynic will not drop her into the facile category of just another young Hollywood dreamboat. As Ryan has proven all along (Promised Land), her acting talents are remarkably wide-ranging — and she shows it with Sally.
In the supporting roles of Harry’s and Sally’s best friends, Fisher is terrific as a big-hearted woman on a self-destructive binge of doomed relationships with married men, while Kirby is just right as a Jimmy Breslin-styled tough guy with a teddy bear’s heart.
Production credits are perfectly realized. Jane Musky’s sharp production design is appropriately idiosyncratic, picking up every single character quirk, while Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography is glowingly romantic. Amplifying this lilting love story is a scrumptiously selected soundtrack of romantic classics. Frank Sinatra’s impeccably phrased, deeply felt rendition of “It Had to Be You” — well, talk about total harmony. This movie has it.
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