Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Birthday Take: "When Harry Met Sally..." (1989)

Left to right: Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally...
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Nora Ephron
Born: May 19, 1941
Died: June 26, 2012 (71 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Screenplay - When Harry Met Sally... (nominated)

The Take

There are very few films in pop culture that come to define a genre. In the case of the romantic comedy, it is something that is hotly debated usually on its merit, especially as the films usually rely on cornball tropes or something illogical. However, there are those few like Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally... that become shorthand for the genre in a positive light. In fact, if one was to compile a few films for a best of compilation, there is a small chance that you might be seeing a lot from Nora Ephron on this list. It isn't because she was a Nicholas Sparks for women, but simply just a female writer who excelled at making something more universal and human that everyone could enjoy.

In the case of When Harry Met Sally..., her arguable magnum opus, she created the more conventional romantic comedy formula. Where Annie Hall made it about sophisticated intellectuals, Ephron's film chose to make something more universal. It was a discussion about the complexities of a relationship. Can opposite sexes be friends without falling into a committed relationship? Along with discussing various other taboos including the many differences between men and women, this was a film that may have ended in a predictable fashion (it is hinted at in the title), but the road there isn't all that boring. In fact, it features Billy Crystal's best performance and includes a decades-spanning format that allows the story to never feel rushed. It is about the long game, of which it shows the progression and changing ideals of its characters in admirable ways.

It may be hard to fully appreciate When Harry Met Sally... in 2015 largely because we see it in every other romantic comedy concocted. The story beats are a tad dated and while it gets by on Crystal and Meg Ryan's excellent chemistry, its ending is still predictable. If you're cynical to the genre, you may already have issues with the way the story progresses. However, it is important to note the blueprint that this film made and recognize how innovative it was for its time. Even a few years later with Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron was continuing to try and alter the way that romance happened (in this case, the characters didn't meet until the end). If anything Ephron's work wasn't about the romance itself, but the characters behind the longing. It was about the long con getting to that happy moment. Few films embody it as much as the one in discussion.

There is a lot to enjoy about Ephron's work, specifically that she wrote compelling characters regularly. In an era where women are still striving for relevance in the film world, respect must be paid to Ephron and her ability to make original content and be successful. Her characters were reflective of a society that was more ideal and favored equal treatment of its characters. It is a subject that most romantic comedies would forget, but for Ephron it was the central motive. With her final film, of which she also directed, she made Julie & Julia about one of the most iconic British cooks in history Julia Childe. With the help of Meryl Streep, she brought the character to life and ended her legacy on a note that reminded us that women weren't just sidekicks. They could be more empowering and interesting.

Yet if her legacy was to be boiled down to one film, it would have to be When Harry Met Sally..., which redefined a genre and created a new classic. It was a film that challenged the norms of the time and resulted in something both scandalous and funny. It was most of all something that appealed to a wider audience than the niche female market that most genre films are geared towards nowadays. It gave the characters motives and topics to discussed. It made them relevant, even if they seemed like blue collar workers. There was everything condensed into one film. It isn't a bad way to go, though I do hope that you give her other noteworthy work some time as well when searching for great cinematic writers of her time. 

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