WHEN HARRY MET SALLY…

By Marc S. Sanders

Two years after my family and I moved from New Jersey to Florida, I was age 16 and still felt lonely. Very lonely.  I was not prepared for the culture shock of leaving a primarily Jewish community and transitioning into a mixed bag of different cultures and mentalities.  I couldn’t adjust and the only people I could understand in 1989 were Batman, Indiana Jones and Harry & Sally.

The script written for When Harry Met Sally… focuses on the title characters adjusting to life in the decade following college graduation, where their paths cross periodically and they debate the aftermath of Casablanca, as well as what it means to sleep with someone or not.  More importantly, they are often returning their attention to whether a man and a woman can be friends without any temptation for love or intimacy, no matter how attractive they find each other to be.  Boy oh boy, that’s a loaded observation, isn’t it?  It is so consuming that as close as Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) become with one another as best friends, no matter how many people they date, they still couldn’t be any lonelier.  At the time, I could understand their dilemma.  I had a terrible crush on a girl at school. We were close friends who could laugh with each other.  Yet, I never took it to the next step.  I should have asked her to the homecoming dance in our sophomore year.  I really should have.  The risk, though, is the change in the comfortable dynamic we had.  I didn’t want to lose that.  Harry and Sally are attractive to one another.  Rob Reiner includes great close ups of the two actors looking at each other, wondering who is going to make the first move.  Will they bring this relationship to a new level?  It may never happen.  It didn’t for the girl I thought I could fall in love with.  At least Harry and Sally had each other’s shoulders to cry on. I adore this film, directed by Rob Reiner, because I yearned for what they had in friendship first, and as a relationship second.

Sally and Harry couldn’t be any different.  He is of the mindset that any woman he encounters is destined to be slept with, or more simply put, men and women could never be friends because at the bare minimum, men are thinking about sleeping with every woman they come across.  Sally can’t understand that, but when Harry shares his philosophy with her the first time they meet, while on an 18-hour drive from the University of Chicago to New York City, she can’t help but suspect that it just might be possible.

The two depart from one another to start their new lives in the big city, and come across each other five years after that on a flight they inadvertantly share, and then another five years later when they are given an opportunity to catch up on their relationship status.  In present day, 1988, Sally has just broken up with her longtime boyfriend.  Harry has gotten a divorce.  Ephron has written these characters to ultimately need one another.

When Harry Met Sally… is certainly a comedy, but more than likely it’s because Billy Crystal’s quick wit and delivery comes off familiar from his other career accomplishments.  Meg Ryan works beautifully as a scene partner that debates Harry’s cynical view of people with Sally’s natural positivity.  Their mentalities go in opposite directions, but the film continues to imply that these two couldn’t be more perfect for one another.  Chalk that up to Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal’s chemistry.  They are one of the all-time great on-screen couples.  These two actors are my friends.  I want it to work out for them.  When I saw the film three times in the theatres, I wanted to experience what they experienced.  Their story has bumps in the road.  They get mad and upset with each other.  They debate with one another, but they amuse one another too, and what a romantic adventure they share together.

A terrific novelty of Reiner’s film is when he cuts away to elderly couples with rich histories of how they met and stay together for decades after.  We weren’t there to see these wonderful people kindle their relationships, but we’ll see how Harry and Sally come together.  I remember long ago, that my father told me that when you get married, make sure you are marrying your best friend.  He said love is important, but you have to like each other first.  I did marry my best friend and I like her.  I love her too.  We drive each other crazy.  We have very different interests.  We even live in our home differently, that we share with our daughter and dog, but we want to be with each other and no one else.  No one else factors.  When you watch When Harry Met Sally… you see why two people continue to be with each other, first as friends, and maybe as lovers later.  When you have a best friend in your life there’s no one else you want to laugh with or cry with more often than that person.  There’s no other hand you want to hold.

A brilliant midway scene in the film occurs when Harry and Sally have the misguided idea of setting up their other best friends with each other.  Harry’s buddy Jess (Bruno Kirby) may be a good fit for Sally.  They are both writers, after all.  Sally’s girlfriend Marie (Carrie Fisher) has a keen interest in conquering married men, not far off from how Harry routinely proceeds with one relationship after another by sleeping with the women he dates.  He’s not in love with them, but of course he’ll sleep with them.  The irony comes when both Harry and Sally could never fathom that Jess and Marie find each other attractive, not the ones they were originally intended for.

There’s much heightened romanticism to When Harry Met Sally… I won’t claim it to be very realistic with how life works out for many of us.  Look at the famous deli scene where Meg Ryan demonstrates for Crystal’s character that a woman can convincingly fake an orgasm.  It’s a hilarious scene.  One for the ages.  However, a scene like that wouldn’t happen.  If a scene like that did occur in real life, the woman would be asked to leave the premises immediately.  It’s not the point though. 

Love and happiness should consist of elevating ourselves to a delightful fantasy of joy, affection and laughter.  Love should also guide us to carry our best friends through sadness and frustration.  We can’t survive this challenge, we call life, alone.  I realized that first hand when my innocent, naïve and unsure teenage self watched the movie for the first time all those years ago at the Mission Bell movie theatre in Tampa. 

People need someone to grow with.  We need someone to continue to teach us while we teach them in return.  Most importantly, as it becomes a running theme in When Harry Met Sally…, we need someone to kiss at midnight every New Year’s Eve. 

THE GODFATHER PART II

By Marc S. Sanders

The first film to use the number 2 (or Roman numeral II, in this case), in its title and the first sequel to win Best Picture is Francis Ford Coppola’s continuous adaptation of Mario Puzo’s Corleone family legacy in The Godfather Part II. It is worthy of all of the accolades it collected as an individual film. Yet, it does not best the first film.

Unlike the 1972 classic, Part II does not provide much character arc for anyone. We’ve already seen Michael (Al Pacino, silently ferocious here) change from good college boy and war hero to the evil puppet master Mafioso he eventually became. This film shows him exercising his threateningly murderous deeds as he works in conjunction with a sly Nevada Senator, a Jewish Miami mob boss (an excellent performance from Lee Strasberg) from the time of his father’s reign, and another mob guy from New York (Michael V Gazzo). We get a whiff of all these guys early on during a commencement celebration for Michael’s son. Coppola keeps this a running theme of grand openings in all three films. It’s a great method of introductions each time.

Following the party, an assassination attempt is brought against Michael. But who did it? Problem is this is where the foundation of the film is not so strong. It’s never really made clear who betrayed Michael. That’s a little bothersome.

Coppola depicts another storyline altogether with the early 20th century origin of Vito Corleone flawlessly played by Robert DeNiro who hardly speaks any English while communicating in a Sicilian variant of Italian. Young Vito immigrates to America following an escape from the Sicilian Don that murdered his family. In New York we witness his rise to power. Famed Cinematographer Gordon Willis washes out these flashback images to enhance a pictorial history accompanied by Angelo P. Graham’s art direction of early brick and mortar architecture and the muddy streets of early Little Italy, New York. It’s a time travel back to a historical age. It’s magnificent.

Back in the 1950s, Puzo and Coppola bring authentic fiction to real life history as Michael considers a go at a business enterprise in Cuba. However, will the rebellion uprising interfere with his plans, and what will it cost him? As well, there’s a great sequence where he has to testify before a congressional hearing in response to suspicion of criminal activities. Coppola used the infamous McCarthy hearing footage as inspiration for this predecessor to what C-Span would eventually look like.

Yet, there’s another story to become involved with as Michael must contend with his dim witted older brother Fredo. John Cazale is superb as the guy who wanted more but was limited by the influence of competing factions and his loyalty to his brother. Pacino and Cazale always had great chemistry together. A great conversation moment occurs in the third act following a terribly surprising twist. One of the best scenes in the film occurs on the porch of the Corleone compound.

More story elements come into play as Michael attempts to balance his married life with Kay (Diane Keaton). She’s pregnant again. Yet, what will that mean for the future of the family?

The sequel to The Godfather assembles another stellar cast. So good, that the film garnered three Oscar nominations in the Supporting Actor category alone (DeNiro, Gazzo, Strasberg) as well as a nomination for Pacino as Best Actor and Talia Shire (Supporting Actress) as Connie, Michael’s sister. That nom left me a little dubious only because there’s not much material for Shire to play with here.

Coppola’s detail is at the top of his game again. The film, like the first, feels like a true life biography.

Puzo offers heartbreaking moments, most especially in the film’s shocking end which leads to a flashback assembly of characters from the first film. That scene alone plays as a great reminder of what Michael once was before becoming the hideous monster that closes the story. Puzo’s whole Godfather franchise hinges on well defined, crushing tragedy.

The Godfather Part II is nothing short of mesmerizing and wholly engaging. You can watch it over and over again. It’s layered in rich storytelling and narratives that provide endless amounts of material for a family meant to be mired in secrets, deliberately hidden in the dimly lit rooms that Willis photographed.

It’s a treat to be the fly on the wall wherever Michael and his family move to next.