There are very few films in popular culture that come to define a genre. In the case of the romantic comedy, it is something that is usually hotly debated, especially as rom-coms are essentially formulaic endeavours that follow the same playbook of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.However, there are those few films like Frankie and Johnny and When Harry Met Sally… that have become shorthand for a pillar of the genre. Now, I love When Harry Met Sally... but for some reason, I always find myself listing Frankie and Johnny as my favourite of the two.Frankie and Johnny is a member of a rare species. Adapted from a Terrence McNally play it’s a romance that has the look and the feel of a comedy, but is it actually a comedy? It is a film about past scars; about not wanting to be hurt all over again. In that respect it’s something most of us can relate to.Johnny, played by Al Pacino, has just served 18 months in prison for forging a check. After finding work as a short order cook, he falls for waitress Frankie, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Frankie is recently divorced and is juggling many personal issues of her own. To them, she now has to add Johnny, who’s been struck by a lightning bolt. He’s convinced they are soul mates and doesn’t hesitate to let her know. Frankie isn’t convinced and constantly rebuffs Johnny’s advances. Johnny, however, isn’t going to take no for an answer.The performances in these movies are almost a mirror image of each other. Pacino plays Pacino, but in a way you seldom see. He may still have all the answers and is full of confidence, but you can also see how fragile he is. His understated acting makes an interesting contrast to the brashness of Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally. Pacino captures things about his character that Crystal could never touch, such as his lightness, his humour, and, most importantly, his vulnerability. Opposite Al, Michelle Pfeiffer is exceptional, playing a woman who’s comfortable working by day, then spending her evenings at home with her VCR. Michelle brings a grounded vulnerability to Frankie and Johnny. She doesn’t have to say a word, conveying her character’s conflict and fear with her eyes and body language. She’s fighting Johnny, she’s fighting herself, she’s fighting everything, and it’s powerful viewing.Frankie and Johnny does contain some lighter moments, but it’s also cynical, frustrated, and absurdly authentic on an emotional level. Really it’s the antithesis of When Harry Met Sally…, whose writer Nora Ephron took the opposite route to McNally by having her movie turned into an unpopular play.The characters that inhabit Norah’s romantic comedy universe are upper middle-class, literate and intelligent, and they rarely make their own coffee in the morning. I just wish I knew how to write about them without clumsily trying to compare Meg Ryan’s big hair and megawatt smile to the colourless visage of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Frankie.When Harry Met Sally… has more big laughs, Frankie and Johnny is more moving. It also has one of the loveliest endings in a romantic movie the light streaming through the big window, their robed silhouettes, the comforting sound of the brushing of teeth, the incredibly beautiful music.The song the film is named after tells a tale of infidelity and tragedy. While I doubt the narrative of Frankie and Johnny would continue down that path, the ellipsis at the end of the title of Rob Reiner’s romantic fairytale would have been equally appropriate for the tale of Garry Marshall’s two moonbeams.
So which film is superior: When Harry Met Sally… or Frankie and Johnny?