The true love story behind When Harry Met Sally...
As we delicately embrace this new year, many of us will have ‘finding true love’ on our list of goals. Perhaps the enduring quality of this iconic film lies in the fact that the lead characters were friends for 12 years before realising what they really wanted was right under their noses all along, writes Alice Vincent
Nearly three decades ago, a romantic comedy appeared that would change the genre forever. Nora Ephron took the wise-cracking Jewish neurosis of Woody Allen and gave it a woman’s touch. In the process, she created When Harry Met Sally..., an acerbic and adorable treatise on whether men and women really can be “just friends”, played out through the compelling, will-they, won’t-they romance of Harry Burns and Sally Albright: two New Yorkers entwined in a platonic relationship for more than a decade.
The film made a star out of Meg Ryan and an unlikely sex symbol out of a middle-aged Billy Crystal, but its impact on cinematic history was far greater: in the wake of When Harry Met Sally… came dozens of shiny, happy-ever-after rom-coms that continue to fill box office coffers to this day.
Even those who have not seen When Harry Met Sally… are likely to be aware of Ryan’s famous faked orgasm scene: shot in the middle of the Katz’s Deli in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (now a tourist destination). It ends with a quip by director Rob Reiner’s elderly mother (“I’ll have what she’s having”) that has ingrained itself in cinematic lore.
But the thundering audacity of this sequence often overshadows another climax: that of the film. Harry and Sally’s final moments on screen see one of the most charming declarations of love ever written in a screenplay, and help to make When Harry Met Sally… one of the best New Year films ever made.
As people around the world clamour for romance at the start of another new year, here’s the story behind the scene that nearly didn’t happen.
Harry and Sally weren’t meant to wind up together. Not originally, at least. That they did is largely down to a real love affair that took place on set. Reiner was approaching 40 when the seeds for When Harry Met Sally... were first sown. As an actor, Reiner had made his name as Michael “Meathead” Stivic in US sitcom All in the Family, but had strayed into directing with mockumentary This is Spinal Tap by the mid-Eighties. Now, Reiner wanted to make a rom-com.
For When Harry Met Sally..., Reiner drew much from his own personal life: he was married for a decade in the Seventies and had been divorced for nearly as long. As he told the New York Times in 1989: “I was in the middle of my single life. I’d been out a number of times; all these disastrous, confusing relationships one after another. And I thought, ‘This is an area I’ve never explored. Of course, it’s been explored by everybody else. But what do I think about this? What would my take on this be?’”
Nora Ephron, the journalist, author and daughter of Hollywood screenwriting greats Henry and Phoebe, had only written one screenplay (Silkwood) when she met with Reiner and producer Andy Scheinman for lunch. She rejected their first idea for a film, but was intrigued by the second: does sex always get in the way of friendship?
Ephron interviewed both men to get a picture of their experience of love and loss, and subsequently came up with the character of the endearingly pessimistic Harry. Sally’s sunny, twitchy demeanour, meanwhile, was based loosely on Ephron. The result, as Ryan would later surmise, was a film “about two neurotic, self-indulgent people who are madly in love with each other but don’t know it… for 12 years”.
Another important crossover between Reiner’s reality and that seen on screen was Billy Crystal. The pair had been good friends since the mid-Seventies — the split-screen scene in which Harry and Sally watch television together while on the telephone was inspired by a habit that Crystal and Reiner had developed themselves — and Crystal agreed to take the part as long as he could have some input in the role. His subsequent improvisation would result in some of the film’s greatest lines, including, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Just as Reiner’s troubled love life inspired When Harry Met Sally... so the film’s very creation helped him find romance again. The director was chatting with Barry Sonnenfeld, When Harry Met Sally’s... cinematographer, in Los Angeles before shooting had begun, and Sonnenfeld decided to play Cupid.
“I know this girl,” he told Reiner, “Her name is Michele Singer, and you’re going to marry her.” Reiner replied: “What, are you nuts?”
Singer was a photographer and friend of Susan Ringo, Sonnenfeld’s then-fiancée (the pair are still married now). When photography began in New York in early October 1987, Susan brought Michele along to the set.
Reiner recalled the scene to the New York Times: “I’ll never forget it. It was a scene on a stoop in front of a brownstone. Billy and Meg are having an argument. And I look over and I see this girl, and whoo! I was attracted immediately. And Barry says, ‘That’s Michele.’ I said, ‘That’s Michele?’”
Reiner gatecrashed the group’s lunch and cracked out an opening line worthy of Harry Burns: “You know, you really shouldn’t smoke. It’s not good for your health.”
Singer shot back: “And you shouldn’t be so f***ing fat.”
Buoyed by his new romance, Reiner decided to change the film’s ending. Ephron’s original script had Harry and Sally drifting apart only to run into one another on the street several years later, catching up about where their lives went before walking away. Ephron recalled that it only took up seven pages of the script.
“It wasn’t until I met Michelle that I thought, ‘Okay, that’s how it could work for me,’ and I changed the ending to where they got together,” Reiner later recalled, although at the time he still maintained that the more romantic denouement was “kind of phony to me”.
Although there’s a rumour that Crystal improvised the memorable line, “I came here tonight because when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible,” it was all Ephron. A copy of the script from August 23, 1988 shows the lines in place, along with the directions: “She turns to go. She stops dead in her tracks. It’s Harry.”
Of course, When Harry Met Sally… doesn’t end at midnight. We see the couple again, after their wedding, interviewed alongside dozens of far older couples recalling the stories of how they met. Sally lists the food they ate at the ceremony in meticulous detail (a trait inspired by Ephron’s own habits — when Reiner first saw her make a very specific order at one of their early restaurant meetings, and immediately declared it “hilarious”. “This has to be in the movie!”, he declared).
As with the happy ending, the couple interviews — one of the film’s best-loved features — weren’t originally scripted. Instead, the idea arrived after Reiner visited his friend Alan Horn at his parents’ house.
In an attempt to open up Alan’s taciturn father, Sol, Reiner asked him how he met Alan’s mother. “Suddenly Sol Horn came to life,” recalled Reiner. The octogenarian told him the story about seeing his future wife in a Horn and Hardart restaurant, and remarking to his dining companion “how he was going to marry that woman”.
As Daniel M Kimmel writes in I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies, Reiner was charmed, and the story became the first one told in the movie. Sol Horn is attributed for his “inspiration” in the credits. The film-makers went hunting for stories from older couples about their love lives, but swiftly discovered that real people would become distracted on camera. So they recorded their stories and got actors to recite edited versions of them. One is from Ephron’s parents, another was told by a man who was best man at Reiner’s parents’ wedding.
Over the past quarter-century, When Harry Met Sally... has become a bona fide classic, much of its dialogue working its way into the public consciousness.
In 2001, the writer admitted to the Seattle Times that she kept “getting letters from kids in college totally obsessed with the movie. And I still have people who say to me all the time, ‘I was having a Harry-and-Sally relationship with him or her.’”
It’s worth noting that the film’s title (which remains an unpopular choice in Ephron’s book), has an ellipsis at the end — this is a film about a couple’s beginning so we are left to guess what happens next. Crystal said that there were on-and-off discussions with Ephron about a sequel, but they never got further than “What are you going to do?” You know, “Where do you go?”.
In 2014, however, fans got the closest thing to seeing how Harry and Sally may have worked out when Reiner was honoured with the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 41st Chaplin Award.
Since making the film Crystal and Ryan have only seen each other once in a while. But when they heard that Reiner was being recognised, they started emailing. The day before the event, Ryan went over to Crystal’s house to formulate a plan. “It was like it had never stopped”, Crystal told US comedian Mindy Kaling shortly after. “We both went, ‘Isn’t this something?’ We just fell into each other all over again.”
The next evening, Crystal and Ryan appeared together as a couple for the first time in 25 years, on stage at the New York arts institution, and they did so to the film’s opening track: It Had to Be You. “Nobody had any idea we were together,” Crystal said, “they snuck her in and out of Lincoln Center!”
Crystal recalled how he and Ryan were giddy with one another: “We just started talking, told stories, overlapped each other, giggled with each other.” The crowd went crazy. “For those of you who wanted a sequel all these years, well, this is it.”
The pair walked off stage and saw a monitor that was playing the New Year’s Eve scene.
“We just held hands and looked at it,” Crystal said, “And [my character is] telling her, ‘You’re the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night…,’ ‘…when you want the rest of your life to start right away’ — you know, all of those great lines. And we just looked at each other and just smiled and hugged each other. It was, like, perfect. It was really perfect.”
A few weeks afterwards, Reiner and Singer celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.