In which the age-old accusation of whether When Harry Met Sally rips off Annie Hall is discussed
Last night, I asked Firecracker what a good New Year’s movie was, and using her encyclopedic knowledge of rom-coms, she recalled that When Harry Met Sally… (the second movie I review this week to incorporate an ellipsis in the title) had integral scenes set on New Year’s Eve. So I fired up the Netflix instant-o-rama and we watched it. And amazingly, it’s held up really well.
I hadn’t seen it in ages; it’s one of those scripts that were peddled as a model for The Perfect Script to aspiring screenwriters in its day, and it does follow Ebert’s mantra of having 3 good scenes and no bad ones. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan meet in 1977, as they road trip from Chicago to NYC after college; they abhor each other, but over the years they keep meeting, eventually become friends- something Harry says men and women can’t really do- and of course, fall in love. Despite the serendipity of the plot it manages to be very believable, and the strong personalities of its leads are tempered by the excellent character acting of their best friends Marie and Jess (Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby).
For a long time I fell under the spell of a raging wanna-be screenwriter pal of mine who said that this movie was a mainstream ripoff of Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall, and there are certainly some similarities. Woody has his own adages about relationships, the infamous “why do we put up with it? We need the juice” analogy to the joke about the woman who’s husband thinks he’s an orange. In this movie, Harry says women and men can’t be friends, because even if there’s no attraction, the guy wants to sleep with the gal. He’s quite the one-night stand cad, so it’s one of those self-fulfilling prophecies. Now, you might say it strains credibility that Billy Crystal can bag a date in NYC at will, but remember this was the late ’80s when professional women were first performing the schizoid juggling act of balancing career and family, with hormones and ambition at loggerheads. Once the clock ticked past 30, Cosmo was telling them they’d better fall back spreadeagled in Bryant Park and take the first breathing male that conjoined with her. Woody was also unlikely, but he must be a charming S.O.B. if you see his hit list. So it’s believable, but being a rich director helps.
Another similarity is the breaking of the fourth wall to interview old couples and ask how they met and how they stay together. In Annie Hall, it was always played for laughs- “We use a large vibrating egg.” In Sally… it is played for sentiment, and before IMDb we thought that these were real couples and not actors, that’s how sweet it was. Last night I noticed that one of the old wives was the #1 fan from The Running Man who says Arnie is a bad motherfucker, so there goes that. The interludes are quite successful, and break up the episodic nature of the movie very well.
Both movies are very funny, with Annie being the pinnacle of Woody melding his brand of absurd comedy from Take the Money and Run and his clever relationship commentary from fare such as Manhattan, and Sally is what catapulted Reiner from that guy who did Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride to a comic director superstar. It was also Nora Ephron’s first dip into the rom-com well, having written the solid drama Silkwood previously; now it seems like all she does is update classics, which is unfortunate. The IMDb trivia tells me that Harry and Sally are loosely based on Reiner and Ephron themselves, and that’s probably why this is one of the best “unlikely couples get together” rom-coms, because the characters are built on so solid a foundation.
It also takes two actors I can take or leave- Billy Crystal post-Comic Relief, when he, Whoopi and Robin Williams decided that being funny wasn’t enough, and they had to educate people about issues in their films- and Meg Ryan, who I can barely stand except in Joe Versus the Volcano. Personally, I think this is her best role. She plays it very naturally, just as Crystal tones his schtick down to a minimum, except for the “please partake of my pecan pie” ad-lib in the museum. Maybe seeing real actors like Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher- who can take any line and make it work- rubbed off on these two stars. Whatever it was, it worked. They’re the perfect foils for happy-go-lucky, I know-what-I-want Sally and the talkative, self-assured but easily depressed Harry.
You can’t discuss this movie without mentioning its most famous line- “You made a woman meow?” Just kidding. Of course, it’s “I’ll have what she’s having,” after Sally fakes a very loud orgasm in Katz’s Deli. Having eaten there, I thought she was just exalting their incredible hot pastrami sandwich, but she’s proving to Harry that he probably can’t tell when a woman is faking. After hearing his relationship mantras for half the film, it’s refreshing to see him put in his place. Meg Ryan suggested that she act it out; the line however, was Crystal’s idea, so they can share the credit.
This is one of those movies that’s played endlessly on basic cable in cut form, so if you haven’t seen it on DVD I highly suggest you do so. There are a few minor cuts that make a big difference. So, is it a ripoff? I don’t think so. More a homage; they meet in ’77, the year Annie Hall came out; Sally dresses like Annie in one scene. I don’t think it was coincidence. It doesn’t take anything away from Annie Hall, which is still a groundbreaking comedy, and most rom-coms since do stand on its shoulders. Watch it next New Year’s Eve, if you’ve got someone to kiss.
Rob Reiner would go on to make North, one of the worst movies Roger Ebert ever reviewed and one of his most entertaining reviews. Go read it. Woody Allen would go on to make How to Sleep with Your Adopted Daughter and Be a Creepy Old Bastard Making the Same Kind of Movies Over and Over with the Occasional British Suspense Film. Katz’s would continue to make the best pastrami and corned beef in the city, by a longshot.