Seems Like Old Times: “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally…”
Picture it: two adults, male and female, walking around in a book store discussing the importance of death and misery in life. They seem like smart, well-adjusted people. Now picture this: two adults, again male and female, driving from Chicago to New York and discussing whether men and women can just be friends. These two mildly philosophical conversations come from two very different films, despite the former often being cited as inspiration for the latter. The two films in question are Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally…, two films that both take place in New York and both explore the nuances within relationships.
As often as When Harry Met Sally is said to be a rather obvious homage to Woody Allen’s “first mature film”, and to some extent Annie Hall’s companion Manhattan, the two films seem too different to really be considered similar at all.
Annie Hall’s anxiety ridden relationship between comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and the tennis playing/amateur photographer/night club singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) is far more realistic in the way it explores the trials and tribulations of dealing with an adult relationship. Allen seems to make it obvious that as good as Singer and Hall are together, they aren’t meant for each other. They’re both pretty emotionally stunted as people, neither of them having fully matured, as adults sometimes do (or don’t). It is an adult relationship, one that’s seen in a very non-linear fashion. Instead of seeing the direct development of the relationship, we get thrown into the middle of it, almost as if Allen expects us to know who these people are. This could be very risky, but instead it pays off. While we may not be as terribly cynical or anxious as the pair are, Alvy Singer and Annie Hall are us. It’s the kind of relationship any adult can identify with. Those same kinds of fights and arguments and wishes for perfection have all been brought up and dealt with, and Allen brings up these topics with knowledge and insight.
When Harry Met Sally…, which was written by Nora Ephron, portrays a different kind of relationship. We have the development from stranger to friend to best friends to lovers to strangers to people in love. It’s kind of a long cycle, and it remains relatively realistic…except when you get to the sex. Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) isn’t as anxious as Singer, but he seems just as deadpan and pessimistic (just consider his thoughts on death), and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) is a different kind of high maintenance compared to Hall. Harry and Sally continually meet by chance and then, after several years, become best friends. Up to here, the relationship resembles many a male-female friendship you see. But when the tow have sex and they stop talking, it’s here that the relationship turns into the stuff of fiction. Yes, the sex and the following cold should is fine, but getting back together is not. While it’s an intricate and romantic portrait of a friendship, the ensuing relationship is not as realistically portrayed as in Annie Hall.
It can be summed up pretty easily: the intellectual, cynical, snobby, pessimistic, embittered singleton in me loves Annie Hall. But the hopeless romantic, the one who loves everything sweet and sappy, adores When Harry Met Sally just as much. But the two films are too different two really compare to one another. Their formats, their view of love, and their general aesthetic. While When Harry Met Sally is punctuated by pretty scenes in Central Park, Annie Hall’s nicest moments, with cinematographer Gordon Willis, are intermittent, sometimes so spontaneously pretty and quick that you barely notice. The format of the films are different. Even though Annie Hall is told in a somewhat autobiographical way with Allen often breaking the fourth wall, When Harry Met Sally is told through various time intervals with intermittent interviews with older couples and their life stories. If anything, aside from its New York setting, the most blatant homage and only real similarity between the two films is the opening titles. Plain white font against a black background.
Both films most definitely have their merits. Annie Hall is more overtly cerebal and sarcastic in its humor, as Woody Allen’s humor tends to be. When Harry Met Sally however is more along the lines of the witty banter that seems to be a contemporary update of the back and forth lines that filled the films of Howard Hawks. Both, however, are excellent films, extremely funny, and utterly romantic. It had to be both of them.
Annie Hall: A
When Harry Met Sally: A