There are certain special movies that always stick with you. You know the kind I mean. Decades later, you can remember where, when, and with whom you first saw it. And as time passes, repeat viewings don't just bring a feeling of nostalgia, but laughter in all the same places (and perhaps some new ones), along with familiar emotions of the heart that somehow register even more strongly.
For me, "When Harry Met Sally" is such a movie.
Back in 1989, when we still had pay phones, this funny, wise, touching film perfectly suited my own stage in life. Though I was newly married, the prior decade of romantic longing and confusion was still fresh in my mind.
Forget the superficial late '80s trappings: this film remains real and vital because the story it tells is universal. Haven't you had a close friend of the opposite sex you secretly wished was more than a friend? Or at least — you wondered about it. Come on ... raise your hands.
What also sets this poignant romance apart is how endearingly human and imperfect the central characters are, and how different they are from each other. Amidst so many strained, fluffy comedies, Rob Reiner's film still carries the ring — and sting — of truth.
I'd loved Reiner himself since watching him play "Meathead" Mike Stivic in the classic TV show "All In The Family" back in the early '70s. Close to twenty years later, he was a god, having produced four classics in five years. Before "Harry," there was 1984's "This Is Spinal Tap!", 1986's "Stand By Me," and 1987's "The Princess Bride."
On the production of "When Harry Met Sally," just as Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan proved an inspired match on-screen, Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron clicked off-screen. It wasn't that unlikely: after all, both were New Yorkers from show-biz families (Rob's dad is 92-year-old writer/actor/director Carl Reiner, while Nora’s parents, Henry and Phoebe, were also screenwriters, responsible for such vintage '50s fare as "Carousel" and Tracy/Hepburn’s "Desk Set").
It's said there was a little of Reiner in Harry (a slightly pessimistic, look-on-the-dark-side perspective), and a bit of Ephron in Sally (a certain fussiness, evidenced by a tendency to “special order” in restaurants).
Whether or not their own foibles shaped the central characters, the interplay between Harry and Sally works divinely. Never have stars Crystal and Ryan come off better, with the comic actor given real dimension and heart, and the cute, All-American leading lady imbued with enough quirks to make her lovable. No wonder Ephron received an Oscar nod for her screenplay.
Sadly, we lost Nora two years go, but at 67, Rob Reiner is chugging along and still exploring the eternal mysteries of male/female relations.
His new film, “And So It Goes,” a comedy about a budding romance between two people in their mid-sixties (Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton), opens this Friday. Clearly it’s got the requisite star power, but will story and script be Ephron quality? We’ll find out in a few days.
Meanwhile, to celebrate this quarter century milestone, let’s all revisit "When Harry Met Sally," and be charmed and captivated once more.
Trivia note: that's Rob Reiner's mother Estelle doing a small cameo in the scene at Katz's Deli in New York. Little did Estelle know that she'd utter the film's best-remembered line. After Meg Ryan's very public fake orgasm in the restaurant, Estelle turns to her waitress and says: "I'll have what she's having." Priceless.