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Friday, February 16, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'When Harry Met Sally': For some, it's become a film icon

The Baltimore Sun

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I have a friend who has seen "When Harry Met Sally... " so many times she can quote entire monologues from the movie. Another buddy is an absolute pain to see the film with because he will recite each line of every scene - as it's being said. And then there's the friend who slips the movie into her VCR whenever she's had a bad day at work or an argument with her boyfriend.

For my friends and many other twentysomethings I've met, writer Nora Ephron's 1989 romantic comedy is the quintessential contemporary feel-good relationship movie that somehow still rings true - which is interesting, considering it was written 15 years ago.

"I keep getting letters from kids in college totally obsessed with the movie," Ephron said in a recent phone interview. "And I still have people who say to me all the time, `I was having a Harry-and-Sally relationship with him or her."'

Of all the great romantic comedies, Ephron's flick, which explores the notion of whether men and women can be friends, tops my list. And with its recent release on DVD, fans now can see funny deleted scenes from the movie and learn more about the making of the film through a documentary featuring recollections by Ephron and director Rob Reiner.

Within the genre of romantic comedy, "When Harry Met Sally..." is among the best and most popular for one simple reason - it speaks the truth about men and women. And it was groundbreaking in doing it with a hilariously brutal honesty that was rare in preceding romantic comedies.

It highlighted how some men loathe cuddling - Harry: "You go back to her place, you have sex, and the minute you're finished, you know what goes through your mind? How long do I have to lie here and hold her before I can get up and go home?"

It explored whether men and women can't be friends because, as Harry famously said, "The sex part always gets in the way." These truths about men and women continue to resonate with a new generation of viewers more than a decade later.

The film's resonance may be due in part to its genesis: honest discussions Ephron and Reiner began having over lunches, trading stories about their experiences as single people. Ephron said they both discovered several things about the opposite sex that shocked them during these lunches and eventually decided to put them in the script.

"We knew the only way we could make this work was if we really exposed what men and women really felt and really thought about," Reiner says in the director's narrative on the DVD version of the movie.

"Rob always said it's the kind of movie that has a very high degree of difficulty in that it has no safety net," said Ephron, who co-wrote "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail." "It entirely depends on your caring about those two people. There's no real plot. We were so lucky because Billy (Crystal) was so great, and then Meg (Ryan) was a movie star waiting to happen, and we were there for it."

But beyond sharp dialogue and a pair of likable stars, "When Harry Met Sally..." is appealing because the characters' quirkiness makes them real.

Harry isn't a dashing Clark Gable or Robert Redford. He's the short anti-hero with a receding hairline who complains about almost everything in life. Harry is a jerk a lot of the time, but still lovable because he's sweet and caring underneath it all - and he gets his act together just in time for a happy ending.

As for Sally, she's pretty, but not Cindy Crawford or some other unreachable paradigm of beauty. And she's neurotic, insecure and vulnerable: things many women easily can identify with.

The movie works because so many of us know Harrys and Sallys in our own lives, people we've dated or considered dating. And when we see such a coupling played out on screen - complete with a happy ending - all the better.

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