Even only 35 years after its release, “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) has already become a universally recognized classic of world cinema. Launching the great screenwriting career of Nora Ephron and the great acting career of Meg Ryan, it became a defining piece for the rom-com genre for years to come. I spent many nights in front of the TV watching this movie, along with other Ryan/Ephron collaborations. However, the Jan. 23 screening of “When Harry Met Sally” in Pollock Theater stood out as Meg Ryan herself joined the audience.
Prior to the actual screening, Ryan discussed the film onstage with UCSB alumnus director Brad Silberling, whom she met on the set of “City of Angels”(1998). The actress shared her memories shooting “When Harry Met Sally” and reflected on the influence this picture had both on her career and the history of cinema.
Ryan shared that a distinctive feature of the film was that her and co-star Billy Crystal were both significantly invested in the creative process. They spent the three weeks before shooting improvising and polishing their characters — Harry and Sally. In fact, it is from Ryan’s improvisation that the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene was born.
“… [working on this] film was like being in a band and the music we were playing was in the genre of comedy,” Ryan said.
While the actors were instrumental in creating their characters, their characters would never have been as vivid and memorable if it weren’t for Nora Ephron’s ingenious script. “She was an era,” Ryan said of Ephron. She describes Ephron’s influence not only on her career, but on her life in general, saying that she was always available for advice and that she became almost a godmother to the actress. After “When Harry Met Sally” came out, Ryan also joined Ephron for her directorial projects “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) and “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993). The actress praises the role Ephron played in her career. Her latest film “What Happens Later” (2023), which was released after Ephron’s death, was dedicated to the legendary screenwriter.
Despite the apparent simplicity of the story of “When Harry Met Sally,” the shooting process was far from being easy. The lightness and genuity that posses dialogue scenes of this film required a lot of takes. For example, to capture a parallel telephone conversation between the four main characters took 90 takes and a whole day of shooting. Ryan acknowledges Rob Reiner’s role in the success of the film. She praises his sense of comedy that helped him get the actors to show their best performance. “Greatest directors are also the greatest audience,” says Ryan, explaining that Reiner’s involvement in every scene helped her and her co-actors get a sense of how good everything was working.
Ryan describes that somewhere halfway through the shooting process she realized that while Crystal’s character had more punchlines, Sally’s strength was in behavioral comedy. Understanding this, she changed her acting to exaggerate those little quirks that make Sally such a memorable character. Ryan speaks about her character ironically, but with immense warmth. She jokes that it was very fun to play Sally because of how confident she was in the wrong things.
When Meg left the stage and the film began, I saw a sequence of familiar shots, heard dialogues long stored in my subcortex, but at the same time I realized that I was watching this movie in a whole new way. Having been born too late to catch the premiere in theaters in 1989, I could not have imagined how delightfully this film works in a full theater. Even though I had heard all the jokes many times before, it was impossible not to smile each time among the laughing audience full of loyal fans of the film.
As I left the theater, I kept thinking why is it that 35 years after its release, this movie is still so relevant. And I realized that it was not just about brilliant acting or technical solutions that were ahead of their time. It was about the personalities behind the film. Ephron’s script, Reiner’s direction, the characters brought to life by Crystal and Ryan, all of this has already become a part of the cinematic history. They managed to capture the essence of human relationships so well that it speaks to every generation. It is funny and romantic and very touching. Billy Crystal once said that, in fact, this movie becomes more important as time goes on. Or in his words, “People fall in love every day. People fall out of love every day. People find each other, they lose each other every day. And new generations keep finding ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ We’re forever young in that movie, and we represent them. They relate to us.”