When Harry Met Sally… Frankie and Johnny

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.Harry and Sally in the Park in the FallHowever, 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.annie-hallesqueFrankie and Johnny is a member of a rare species. Adapted from a Terrence McNally play it’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.Pacino and PfeifferJohnny, 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.A Red PotatoThe 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. Prelude to a Kiss at the Flower MarketOpposite 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 (Pfeiffer)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.Lunch in the CityThe 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.sallys-momentWhen 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.Clair de LuneThe 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. F&JWHMS

So which film is superior: When Harry Met Sally… or Frankie and Johnny?

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28 Comments

Filed under Retrospective

28 responses to “When Harry Met Sally… Frankie and Johnny

  1. LOVE this post! Frankie and Johnny and When Harry Met Sally are my favorite romantic comedies of all time! Frankie and Johnny is so underrated. For me, I would say When Harry Met Sally is the better romantic COMEDY, I enjoy When Harry Met Sally‘s humor a lot more. But Frankie and Johnny is highly overlooked- it’s got wonderfully humorous moments but has a lot of heart. Like you said- the themes of the scars of your past, etc. Frankie and Johnny has a lot more emotional depth. Great post 🙂

  2. Great duo to showcase 90s rom-coms, Paul. I’d have to agree with crolins’ comment that F&J has a lot of heart and is the more underappreciated.

  3. RB

    Nice juxtaposition there Paul. Love this post. WHMS was groundbreaking, but I’m at a loss as to why we see more cable showings of WHMS, than we do F&J, which was also groundbreaking in a different way. Frankie and Johnny is one of my all time favorites.
    I remember walking into the theatre all those years ago with anticipation, seeing such 2 acting giants playing the leads in what eventually became known as the romcom. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the label distracts us from really noticing what is offered in the movie.
    F&J is that perfect synergy that results from a director and his actors seeming to work totally in sync with each other. The word “Synergy” has become overused business jargon but I think the true essence of the word fits here. Marshall let Pfeiffer and Pacino work their magic even as he slowly built up the tension and the tempo of their relationship, mimicking real life but in a completely different progression than we saw in WHMS.
    Both story arcs combine dramatic license with real life ingredients, and both do so effectively, albeit in a completely different direction. Both movies benefit from intelligent scripts and strong supporting players. The divergence is a bit harder to analyze. WHMS is NY style and F&J is NY working class. Different sides of the same coin, that coin being the quest for a soul mate. You’ve definitely given me something to think about by comparing these 2 movies, and I definitely think that nothing produced today even comes close.

  4. Tough call. Worthy of a huge discussion. Great idea for a post.

  5. Jay

    I thought this was a thoughtful post, even if it did meander a little but there is really no contest here — Marshall may be inspired by Reiner but he can’t equal him. Pacino and Pfeiffer just do not have the magic of Crystal and Ryan. The great thing about When Harry Met Sally…, IMO, is that aside from the orgasm, nothing is faked.

  6. Frankie and Johnny, to me, is the far superior film. It’s one of my sentimental favorites as I worked at a Greek owned diner in my youth and saw in these colorful, damaged, funny, hopeful characters people I knew. To me it’s not even a romantic comedy…it’s more of romantic character study with a few comedic elements.

  7. Frankie and Johnny has never had it’s fair share of adulation. It was great to see Pacino and Pfeiffer together again after Scarface, but on a lighter note. I wish these two had gotten together in other films because their chemistry is incredible. Frankie and Johnny shows this perfectly!

  8. I really love and appreciate both films, but have to admit that I’ve seen Frankie and Johnny more times and every single time it just gets to me. It’s more of a drama to me than a comedy, even though it contains many brilliant comic nuances. I choose Frankie and Johnny, no doubt. Great post, Paul!

  9. Ana

    Thank you for visiting me. You have a great blog! I’ll browse around it.
    Frankie and Johnny. I still watch it. I love Al Pacino too – especially his voice – and the way he keeps telling and showing Frankie that they belong to each other moves me.
    I did a tiny post about this movie in 2012.
    I did put the last scene as an invitation to those who didn’t watch the movie.
    I was watching it now again and I’m jealous of Pfeiffer.
    It’s been a long time I woke up in the morning and looked through the window feeling the way she does.
    The only thing I dislike is the way Pacino stares. It pisses me off when men stare at me that way. lol

    • Welcome Ana.
      How is it possible to get any better than Frankie and Johnny?
      It’s sublime, I love the ending with Debussy’s beautiful Clair de Lune weaving it all together … I would class Frankie and Johnny as a perfect film, it has everything.

      • Ana

        Finally! I thought I was the only one who considered this movie as a kind of classic because nobody talks about it.
        The everyday life they have… the way people connect… there are numerous things that are great.
        Maybe people don’t take it as a cult because of the happy ending, the lack of a very dramatic tone… something like “The Bridges of Madison County” has – where Francesca is dead which has quite a dramatic appeal.
        People don’t like simple and forget how hard it is to achieve it.
        And plus… Nathan Lane is in the cast. 🙂

  10. Nice analysis, and you’ve brought out some really good points regarding Frankie and Johnny. And compare and contradictions in relation to When Harry Met Sally… But of course, I love When Harry Met Sally… a lot more. Not that I don’t like Frankie and Johnny. But When Harry Met Sally… is among the greatest romantic comedies ever, on a par with It happened One Night, Ariane – Love in the Afternoon, Breakfast at Tiffany’s & Annie Hall.

    • I’m actually quite surprised some people think Frankie and Johnny is the superior movie of these two.
      I’m tempted to say that they’re absolutely equal. Both have charm. Both have writing at its best. Both have great acting. Meg and Michelle are wonderful, and Al Pacino’s restrained performance forms an interesting contrast to the brashness of Billy Crystal.
      This one could run and run, because New York is as much a character in these films as Frankie, Johnny, Harry or Sally. That’s the kind of thing that made Manhattan and Annie Hall the awesome, timeless movies that they are, and that’s what helps to make this debate so fascinating.

      • Yup, I love Pacino way more than Crystal, but Crystal is lucky to have appeared in When Harry Met Sally. And true, these are great tributes to New York – Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Manhattan, Annie Hall etc etc… Love Manhattan.

      • I never watched Harry met Sally from the beginning until the end. I have to do it. I love Meg Ryan but I confess Billy is a bit… don’t know how to describe but whenever I see him I say to myself “why they didn’t choose another actor”. “Brashness” is the last adjective I would use for him. lol
        Isn’t it funny how our perception can be so different?
        It is a personal thing.
        I can’t compare the two movies and even after watching it I’ll not do so because I like both for different reasons.
        Pacino is really a great actor and whenever he is acting I feel like watching.
        The “Johnny” tries and tries to convince Frankie is fascinating to me
        even thou the way he stares… I hate when men do it. lol
        Yes, cities can be a character but I’m Brazilian and didn’t go to New York so I only know the obvious references. I don’t feel like going to New York either.
        If I went to America I would go to any other city but not to NY.
        Paris is a character for me even if the movie shows tiny bits. Only a window or a tiny corner makes me feel the mood since I lived there.
        I never thought about it.
        In Manhattan and Annie Hall it is obvious. I can feel what you’re saying.
        Have a great 2017!

  11. Ever seen this one, Paul? “What Lies Beneath” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0161081/
    I watched it over the weekend and really liked it. Michelle looks fabulous as always and the mystery’s Great 🙂

    • Hey Reut. Nice to hear from you.
      I have seen What Lies Beneath, I’ve got the DVD and I posted about it on here last year. Sadly it’s one of the posts I deleted, when one night after a few beers I decided to give my blog a spring clean. Hence why after 5 years I’ve got a grand total of half a dozen posts.
      I know you don’t have a lot of spare time with your work commitments, but if you ever fancy writing a guest post on a Pfeiffer pfilm, you’ll be more than welcome.

      • I would be delighted to do that, Paul! Thanks for offering 😊 I can think of quite a few films with Meg or Michelle I can write about. Perhaps a tribute to Selina Kyle…. love her. It is unfortunate you deleted those posts, but I’m sure you’ll be able to compensate by writing other fabulous posts. When do you want me to post?

  12. Evi

    Paul! This is just to wish you Happy New Year! 🙂 2017!!
    To answer your question, it’s been 5 years now! Wow! Although I haven’t been very good at blogging the past 2 years.

    I had a great time this Sunday morning reading your most recent posts! But I’m leaving a reply here, not to be too off-topic.
    I have been watching and re-watching Sleeping with Other People (2015) and then a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon When Harry Met Sally and I realized the former is almost a modernized version of the latter! Have you seen it?

    Best wishes to you,
    Evi

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