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Director Rob Reiner had no idea that he would strike such a chord with his 1989 film When Harry Met Sally... by posing the simple question: "Can men and women really be friends?" This charming romantic comedy explores this idea by following the characters of Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) over the course of twelve years through a series of chance encounters. At first, the two can't stand each other. Harry is a laid back pessimist with low expectations of relationships, while Sally is a rigid optimist. Over time, the two form a platonic friendship. Falling in love seems inevitable for these two polar opposites, but the question is whether or not they can make that leap without destroying their friendship.
The initial idea for When Harry Met Sally... evolved from Rob Reiner's personal experiences as a man who had been married for several years, divorced and then thrown back into the dating pool again. "I had been single for ten years," said Reiner, "and that really was the basis for the whole movie...trying to figure out how I could ever get with a woman again, and my single life and making a mess of it." The actual script was a "true collaboration," according to Reiner, between himself, producer Andrew Scheinman, writer Nora Ephron, with some notable contributions from stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Over lunch, Reiner and Scheinman shared their personal relationship stories with Nora Ephron, who in turn shared her own. For them, the humorous exchange illuminated the differences between a man's perspective and a woman's perspective on relationships. This "he said/she said" formula became the basis for the screenplay that Ephron eventually completed. Ephron herself provided the inspiration for one of Sally's most distinctive character traits. Scheinman and Reiner noticed Ephron's habit of placing complicated orders in restaurants, though she was oblivious to its comic effect. Reiner insisted that she put it in the script. Ephron's ordering idiosyncrasies became Sally's hilarious fixation with having everything provided "on the side" in the film.
During the famous scene in New York's Katz's Deli where Harry and Sally are debating whether or not women fake orgasms, it was Meg Ryan's idea to have Sally actually fake an orgasm at the table. Reiner loved the idea, but when it came time to shoot the scene, Ryan became a little nervous. According to Reiner, "The first take was very tentative. Then I said, "Meg, if this is going to work, we've got to really go at it." When Ryan still didn't quite deliver what he was looking for, Reiner himself stepped in and took her place at the table to demonstrate exactly what he wanted. Reiner went all out, pounding the table with his hands and yelling, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" to the amusement of everyone on the set.
Visiting her son that same day was Estelle Reiner, Rob's mother. Reiner put her to work as an extra in the deli while Meg Ryan finally delivered her famous fake orgasm performance with the comic gusto Reiner was looking for. Billy Crystal then made the suggestion of having one of the other customers immediately say afterwards, "I'll have what she's having." Reiner gave the memorable line to his mother, and it turned out to be the biggest laugh in the movie.
When Harry Met Sally... contains a series of documentary-like testimonials of various couples recounting the stories of how they met. This was a touch inspired by a time when Reiner had asked the father of one of his close friends how he had met his wife. Reiner noticed how the man lit up and came alive as he told the story of their courtship. This gave him the idea to film real couples and record their true stories and use them in the finished film. At first he did use real couples for these interviews. Their stories were wonderful, but they weren't being delivered concisely enough to suit the flow of the film. Actors were then hired and given scripted versions of the various true stories.
For the music in the film, Reiner wanted to use old standards as a way to give the film a timeless quality. A friend of his gave him a tape of a then-unknown 20-year-old musician/singer named Harry Connick, Jr. Reiner found just the sound he was looking for in Connick's Sinatra-inspired sound and hired him to contribute some songs and special musical arrangements to the film's soundtrack. He provided fresh takes on old favorites like I Could Write a Book and It Had to be You which perfectly fit the mood of the film. The success of the movie and soundtrack gave Harry Connick, Jr.'s career a huge boost.
When Harry Met Sally... was a big hit with audiences and critics alike with Nora Ephron's screenplay going on to be nominated for an Academy Award. For Rob Reiner, the biggest success related to the film was a personal one. It was during the making of When Harry Met Sally... that he met his second wife. When asked how he hoped the film would be remembered throughout time, Reiner answered, "...hopefully that I was honest and people who recognized human behavior the way it really is were entertained and had gotten some laughs."
Producer: Rob Reiner, Andrew Scheinman, Jeffrey Stott, Steve Nicolaides
Director: Rob Reiner
Screenplay: Nora Ephron
Art Direction: Jane Musky
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Editing: Robert Leighton
Music: Harry Connick, Jr, Marc Shaiman
Cast: Billy Crystal (Harry Burns), Meg Ryan (Sally Albright), Carrie Fisher (Marie), Bruce "Bruno" Kirby, Jr. (Jess), Steven Ford (Joe), Lisa Jane Persky (Alice).
C-96m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Andrea Passafiume