After its 1989 release, “When Harry Met Sally …” set the bar for all future romantic comedies. It turns 30 this year and yet the film still feels so relevant. But that’s the hallmark of a classic film.
Director Rob Reiner can’t quite believe it. “It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? ‘Spinal Tap’ is turning 35,” he says, referring to another classic he directed. “‘Harry Met Sally’ is 30. All it means is that I’m old. That’s all it means.”
Prior to a special screening of the film April 11 at the TCM Classic Film Festival, Ben Mankiewicz will moderate a panel with Reiner and stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. The TCM primetime anchor and festival host has another theory about the film’s popularity. “It endures because it is largely a perfectly crafted picture with a wonderful script enhanced by perfect performances,” Mankiewicz says, comparing it to such classics as “His Girl Friday” and “Some Like It Hot.” “Truly great comedy endures — and ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is like ‘Seinfeld.’ It was hilarious when we first saw it — and it continues to make us laugh today. “
The simple premise of the film, can a man and woman be friends without sex getting in the way, was hashed out between Reiner and writer Nora Ephron based on the director’s own post-divorce experiences.
“My dad used to say, ‘Write about a piece of ground that only you stand on. Then hopefully it will resonate with other people,’” Reiner recalls. “I looked into what was true for me and Nora gave me her perspective on what a woman goes through and I think we hit on some essential universal truths about this forever dance between men and women.”
From the start, Reiner knew Billy Crystal would be a perfect Harry. There was just one problem: they were best friends in real life. “The fear I had was, ‘What if you would [work] with a friend and it doesn’t work out, are we going to destroy a friendship?” he says. Though he considered other actors, including Tom Hanks and Albert Brooks, Reiner says, “I had no reservations about him playing the part, I just wanted to make sure.”
Crystal admits he was hoping to get the call. “I kept thinking, ‘Rob’s an amazing director and if he doesn’t think I’m the right guy, I’m not the right guy,’” he says. “But inside, you’re going, ‘this doesn’t feel right.’”
Reiner ultimately offered him the part and says, “It turned out way better than anything I could have imagined because not only was he great in the part, it made our friendship better.”
For the role of Sally, Crystal says they viewed “a ton of wonderful actresses” but it was all over the second they saw Meg Ryan. “It was like in a ’40s movie when someone says, ‘And then she walked in!’” Concurs Reiner: “It was instant chemistry.”
Crystal notes he had previously met Ryan, who declined to comment; she came close to playing his love interest in “Throw Momma from the Train,” Danny DeVito’s 1987 black comedy. “Danny thought she was too young for what he wanted in the part so we didn’t cast her,” Crystal says. “I often wondered, would Rob have cast her if we had just played boyfriend and girlfriend in the movie before this? Maybe fate put us together for this movie.”
Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher rounded out the cast as Harry and Sally’s best friends and the film was shot in New York for only $16 million. It went on to gross more than $92 million domestically and earned Ephron an Oscar nomination for original screenplay. But the healthy gross doesn’t even begin to reflect its cultural impact — in addition to so many quotable lines, even a nonsense phrase such as “baby fish mouth” triggers instant recognition.
Perhaps the most infamous line was uttered by Reiner’s own mother, Estelle, in a scene shot at Katz’s Delicatessen. After Sally fakes a loud orgasm to prove a point, the camera cuts to a woman telling the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.” (Ryan suggested the scene and Crystal came up with the line.) To this day, a sign hangs at Katz’s indicating where the scene was shot. And Reiner couldn’t be more tickled that his mother is part of film history. “If you see the AFI list of 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time, she’s right up there with Clark Gable saying, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!’”
Harry and Sally have been such a part of viewers’ lives that it’s inevitable talk of a sequel would spring up from time to time. Reiner, who has never done a sequel to any of his films, recalls seeing a Twitter poll that asked if the pair was still together. “Yes, they are still together,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they haven’t had tremendous ups and downs or been on the verge of divorce and got back together, just like any relationship. But I do think they’re still together.”
Crystal also sees no appeal in a sequel. “As we got older, what would the movie about? ‘When Harry Left Sally?’ ‘When Sally Got Sick?’ Just let them be happy and where everybody wants them to be,” he says. “For all of us who believe in happily ever after, that’s where they live.”
What: “When Harry Met Sally…” Festival Tribute at TCM Classic Film Festival
When: 6:30 p.m. April 11
Where: TCL Chinese Theatres