So, given the general awfulness of what is happening in the real world at the moment, let’s indulge in some shameless escapism and immerse ourselves in its warm embrace.
There are lots of reasons to love this film – Nora Ephron’s sparkling screenplay, the endearing zingy chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in the lead roles, Rob Reiner’s clever directorial decisions (including giving a stand-out cameo role to his seventysomething mother Estelle, more of which later), Harry Connick Jr’s music, the flawless cinematography, the genius of the almost-but-not-quite scene-stealing supporting performances by Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby as the requisite best friends – but what makes it so uniquely brilliant is the way all these elements combine so perfectly.
That is extremely rare – in fact, I struggle to think of another film, in any genre, that pulls off that trick quite so expertly and with so much class. At the centre of the movie was the intriguing question, also the tagline on the original posters, ‘can men and women ever be friends, or does sex always get in the way?’ And that was the smartest move in Ephron’s supersmart script – she kept the perameters narrow. It’s one of the best examples of a writer instinctively knowing that less is more. There was comedy and there was romance; the focus was on Harry and Sally, how they felt about sex, love and friendship and each other. The first time I saw the film, it felt both reassuringly familiar (I was a geeky film buff kid who spent a lot of time watching old black and white films from the 1930s and 40s on television, which I later discovered were romantic comedies) and astonishingly innovative; something completely new and fresh. It was certainly one of the first times I had seen female sexuality discussed so openly on film – yes, I’m talking about the faked orgasm in the diner scene. (And this is where Mrs Reiner comes in, with possibly one of the best known and oft-quoted lines from a romcom...)
Romantic comedy has often, undeservedly, been looked down on as a ‘fluffy’ genre. In fact it takes great skill to get it right. For me it’s a filmic equivalent of comfort food and these days, thanks to Netflix and other streaming services, you can access the jewel in the crown that is When Harry Met Sally whenever you like. “I’ll have what she’s having, please.”