If historians had to trace the modern romantic comedy’s origins to a single time and place, they could hardly do better than the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan, in 1984, when Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner sat down for one of the most remarkable lunches in Hollywood. history. Despite the chaperone-like presence of Reiner’s producing partner, Andrew Scheinman, this was the professional equivalent of a blind date.
Ephron, the daughter of two Hollywood screenwriters, had had a prolific prior year. She published her first novel by her, heartburna fictionalized version of her break-up and divorce from Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, and co-wrote the Oscar-nominated script for the biographical drama Silkwood.
Rob Reiner, the son of TV comedy legend Carl Reiner, had shot to fame in the 1970s playing Michael “Meathead” Stivic in US sitcom All in the Familyand directed his 1984 debut feature, This Is Spinal Tap.
This meeting got off to a rocky start. “They told me an idea they had for a movie about a lawyer,” Ephron recalled.
“It didn’t interest me at all, and I couldn’t imagine why they’d thought of me in connection with it.”
She told them she wasn’t interested. And with no pressing business left to talk about, Ephron filled the time by drawing on skills that had made her a remarkably successful journalist: asking deep, probing, sometimes intensely personal, questions.
The subject quickly turned to Scheinman, a perennial bachelor, and the recently divorced Reiner. Ephron wanted to know: What is it actually like to be a single man? By which she meant, of course, what are single men really thinking?
The conversation stirred something. A month later, the trio met again. Reiner had an idea: if the seemingly tiny but all-important differences between men and women were so stimulating to all three of them, why not write a movie about that?
Practically everything in When Harry Met Sallywhich arrived in cinemas five years later, sprang from Ephron’s ability to draw on and then use the raw, messy material from other people’s lives.
“She interviewed us like a journalist, got all these thoughts down, and that became the basis for Harry, and she became the basis for Sally,” Reiner recalls.
The film chronicles 12 years of an ever-evolving relationship between Harry Burns, a charmingly cynical chatterbox, and Sally Albright, a bright, romantic optimist.
After an early scene in which Harry and Sally debate whether or not men and women can be friends without sex getting in the way, they end up becoming close friends. When they finally have sex, many years later, their friendship is ruined before they make up and get married, so I guess we’ll call that debate a draw.
Ephron, who called the writing sessions “as much fun as I’ve ever had”, fondly recalled how she and Reiner “fought bitterly” about everything, with her taking Sally’s side and Reiner taking Harry’s side in debates about what men and women don ‘t understand about each other. Often, Ephron ended up working the substance of the debates into her script.
By the time When Harry Met Sally was in pre-production, Ephron and Reiner were confident in the strength of the script and the alchemical purity of its balance between the male and female perspectives. The challenge would be finding the actors who could translate that balance to the big screen.
Ephron, who once said the movie itself had “no plot”, was aware that finding the perfect Harry and Sally would be just as important as, if not more important than, the writing. “Rob always said it’s the kind of movie that has a very high degree of difficulty in that it has no safety net,” she said. “It entirely depends on your caring about those two people.”
For Reiner, one obvious answer for Harry came very close to home. Since 1975, when he was cast to play Reiner’s best pal on All in the Family, Crystal had been Reiner’s current best friend. Reiner was reluctant to cast Crystal – in part because he valued their relationship so much. A lengthy search included conversations with possible stars like Richard Dreyfuss, Michael Keaton and a hot up-and-comer named Tom Hanks.
“I knew from agents and managers that he had met with almost every male actor my age, except me,” says Crystal.
“I was not happy about that, but what could I do?” Eventually, says casting director Jane Jenkins, Reiner saw Crystal was, indeed, the only actor who could play Harry exactly as Reiner saw him: a note-perfect cinematic riff on himself.
“Rob finally said, ‘Why am I doing this? This is silly. Let’s go to Billy,’” says Jenkins.
At the same time, Reiner’s original plan to cast his girlfriend, Elizabeth McGovern, as Sally had fallen apart. Ella Jenkins and her partner Janet Hirshenson looked for a Sally. Debra Winger and Molly Ringwald were considered, before the production zeroed in on its star actress very quickly.
“Meg was literally the second actress that came in,” recalls Jenkins. “She left the room, and Rob said: ‘It’s her part of her. Cancel everything else.’”
Sally’s quirks need to be so consistently endearing that by the climax of the movie, when Harry tells her he loves that it takes her an hour and a half to order a sandwich, the audience nods along in agreement. Ryan, everyone agreed, was perfect.
In an effort to convincingly portray two characters whose connection endures in one form or another for 12 years, Crystal and Ryan did their best to form a genuine bond, which they hoped would translate on-screen: “After most of our shooting days, we spoke on the phone as Harry and Sally would,” says Crystal.
It’s fitting that the film’s most iconic scene was also its most collaborative. The scene at Katz’s Delicatessen, in which Sally explains that women sometimes fake orgasm – and then proves it by delivering a show-stopping fake orgasm on the spot – was proposed as a way the film could demonstrate “something that women know but men don’ you know”.
The scene was originally conceived as another round of verbal sparring. It was Ryan’s idea that Sally should actually fake an orgasm and Crystal suggested the now-immortal line, “I’ll have what ella she’s having”. And it was Reiner’s mother, Estelle, who delivered that line – and who knocked it out of the park.
The ending is regarded as a classic, with Harry racing through the streets to reach Sally at a party, delivering a speech about all the extremely specific things he loves about her and prompting her to tearfully reply: “I really hate you” (which means , of course, I love you).
But Ephron’s first draft ended with a split that took Reiner’s
close association with Harry to its logical conclusion.
Reiner, nearing 40, had written off his own romantic prospects after a near-decade of singledom following his divorce from Penny Marshall, and felt that the film should end with a wistful shot of Harry and Sally bumping into each other on the street, with their intense friendship years behind them, and saying goodbye.
“I just had them walking in opposite directions at the end,” Reiner recalls. “And then I met the woman who became my wife during the making of the movie, and I changed the ending.”
Yes: in a truly meta twist that solidifies the film’s claim to be the most romantic romcom of all, Reiner met Michele Singer, his wife of 30 years, while shooting at one of those iconic New York brownstones. If Harry became happier, wiser and more optimistic over the course of the production, so did Reiner.
Years later, he says: “People ask me all the time whether Harry and Sally would still be together,” says Reiner. “And I think they would.”
This an edited excerpt from From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy by Scott Meslow, published on 17 February, Dey Street Books, £20