Let’s begin with a quick word about this guy, whose career began with arguably the most extraordinary run of heterogenous knockouts in modern Hollywood history.
When Harry Met Sally was his fifth on the hoof: before it came This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me and The Princess Bride, while Misery and the Best Picture-nominated A Few Good Men (which lost to Unforgiven) followed along afterwards. This hot streak was decisively broken in 1994 by the notoriously awful North, which prompted Roger Ebert to write possibly the most celebrated pan in the history of film criticism. (A sample line: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.”)
But what North lacked, and his other films did not, was a terrific script – and if Reiner’s widely varied career has a thread running through it, it’s his ability to breathe cinematic life into a great writer’s words with apparent effortlessness. A Few Good Men was Aaron Sorkin. Misery and Stand By Me were (very different) Stephen King tales. The Princess Bride was a William Goldman fantasy; The Sure Thing one of the great 1980s rites-of-passage yarns; This is Spinal Tap a comedy-changing masterpiece devised by Reiner and its stars.
Nora Ephron’s script for When Harry Met Sally may be the pick of the bunch, with its conveyor-belt-like supply of brilliant observational humour, note-perfect heartfelt monologues and comic repartee, and unfailing ability to have its characters say one thing, or even nothing at all, and communicate something else entirely to each other and the audience.
Ephron once said that When Harry Met Sally’s screenplay worked as well as it did because Reiner could use Billy Crystal’s Harry as a kind of on-screen alter ego – when he was making the film, he too was a downcast divorcee – and if Ephron disagreed with any of the tacks his character took, she could just have Meg Ryan’s Sally say so. So the sexual tension at the film’s core is both concocted and organic: no wonder it’s so fearsomely potent.