Long ago, the Powers that Be in the Rom Com Kingdom crowned their ultimate and eternal queen: Nora Freaking Ephron. Screenwriter, blogger, essayist, memoirist: this dame can do it all. But she's best known, of course, for her romantic comedies, which redefined the genre and represent its heyday before things went downhill and we found ourselves stuck with duds like Gigli and Failure to Launch.
The Reigning Queen of Romantic Comedies
Queen Nora didn't just give us When Harry Met Sally. She's also responsible for Meg Ryan rom com gems Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. Known for her sharp wit and ear for dialogue, Ephron brought a certain bite to the swoony genre, making rom coms that were both relatable and yet filled with the kind of romance you might expect only to find in fantasyland.
Her rom coms aren't known for their twisty plots or high drama. They're dialogue-driven. The couples are never thwarted by grand circumstance or torn apart by their stars getting crossed. They're just people talking to other people.
And it's hilarious.
When Harry Talked to Sally
Just think about our it-couple. Much—if not most—of the screenplay of When Harry Met Sally is taken up by dialogue between these two. And they talk about everything:
Mary McNamara of the LA Times refers to Ephron's style as "smart mouth/soft heart" and we think that's spot-on. Her characters—Harry and Sally included—have a trademark snark, but she brings a great deal of pathos to their lines as well.
Smart Mouth/Soft Heart/Good Scene
Consider, for example, this key scene from When Harry Met Sally. Attempting to buy Marie and Jess a housewarming present, Harry stumbles upon a karaoke machine at The Sharper Image. He immediately demands that he and Sally sing a duet—"Surrey with a Fringe on Top" to be exact. Hilarious.
Then Helen, his long lost ex-wife, shows up with her new man, and Harry is clearly devastated by the encounter. When Helen leaves, he and Sally have this exchange:
SALLY: Are you okay?
HARRY: Yah, I'm perfect. She looked weird, didn't she? She looked really weird, she looked very weird.
SALLY: I've never seen her before.
HARRY: Trust me, she looked weird. Her legs looked heavy, really, she must be retaining water.
HARRY: Believe me, the woman saved everything.
Harry's clearly hurting, and lashes out by insulting Helen's appearance. When he says she looks like she's retaining water, Sally rightfully calls him on the jibe. But Harry deflects and manages to end his moment of vulnerability with a hilarious one-liner: "Believe me, the woman saved everything."
She's written a scene that's half painful emotions and half hilarity. Harry's feelings aren't lessened by his crack at the end. And we know just a scene later, when he lashes out at Jess and Marie, that he's in ten kinds of pain. But those sad feelings also don't take away from the humor and absurdity in the situation. As Ephron's dialogue smartly points out, finding the humor in divorce is maybe the best way to get through it.
When Nora Wrote When Harry Met Sally
Of course we could pick apart our favorite scenes from When Harry Met Sally all day long, but it might be worthwhile to take a step back and look at the big picture, too. How'd Nora Ephron get on the project, and what exactly did she bring to the table—besides her smart mouth/soft heart flair?
Way back when When Harry Met Sally was merely a twinkle in Rob Reiner's eye, he sat down for lunch with Ephron, and the two of them hashed out the idea of doing a movie about two friends—of the opposite sex, of course—who avoid sleeping together because it will ruin their friendship… until they do. And it ruins their friendship.
Ephron prepped for the movie by interviewing Reiner about his post-divorce single life, and a ton of tidbits from those interviews made it into the final script. In a way, you could say that Harry was based on Reiner. You wouldn't be wrong. And Ephron has admitted that Sally is based at least in part on her and her friends. If you're going to write a movie about single life in the city, who better to base it on than your single friends, right?
In her spare time on set, Ephron also interviewed other cast and crew, and wove some of those moments into the script as well. For example, all the old couple interviews that are interspersed throughout the movie? Yeah, those came from real-life interviews that Ephron then tweaked to fit the script. Cool, huh?