When Harry Met Sally... is the rom-com that tackles that tricky territory of male/female friendships, but Katie McCabe argues that there’s a little more to it than that.

There was a time in my life when I avoided ‘classic’ rom-coms. Whenever Pretty Woman or Dirty Dancing came up in conversation, I’d casually drop in that I hadn’t seen either, in the same smug way people tell you they ‘don’t actually own a TV’.

For years this movie haughtiness kept me away from When Harry Met Sally…; it wasn’t until the film’s scriptwriter Nora Ephron died in 2012 that I found out what I’d been missing.

The idea grew from Ephron’s interviews with the film’s director Rob Reiner, who at the time was going through a painful divorce. The result is an honest, funny deconstruction of male and female relationships told from the perspective of Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan).

 

“This film is not really about ‘whether men and women can truly be friends’, it’s about what happens when two people who are hurting use each other as surrogate partners”

 

Harry and Sally on a plane

With its Gershwin soundtrack and rich shots of Manhattan, many critics initially dismissed it as a wannabe Woody Allen film—all it was missing was a Diane Keaton cameo. But to me, the homage only makes it more intriguing. While Allen’s protagonists are reading Death in Venice, Ephron’s are seen leafing through a copy of Smart Women, Foolish Choices in the self-help section of a bookstore.

The characters speak the way we all wish we could—with clever backchat, the sort that wouldn’t be out of place in a Howard Hawks screwball comedy from the classic Hollywood era. Billy Crystal’s lines are delivered like stand-up, and were it written by anyone other than Ephron, he’d steal the show.

What’s wonderful about When Harry Met Sally… is that (for the first two acts, at least) we see right through Harry—his fragile masculinity, his sexism and his phoney morbidity and we respect Sally for seeing through it.

 

“When I buy a new book, I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side”

 

Apply the Bechdel Test (which assesses how feminist a movie is) and the film would implode, but at least the relationship-fixation is true for both sexes. Other than the ‘baby fish mouth’ Pictionary scene, Harry and Sally are the only ones to discuss anything else. We discover little about her successful career as a journalist, but no time is dedicated to his life as a political consultant either.

To me, the show doesn’t really begin until their third meeting in the bookstore, when defences are down and the pair appear broken in two very different ways. A once cocksure Harry has been beaten into a hangdog submission by his recent divorce from Helen, and the perpetually optimistic Sally is dealing with her break-up with a resilient, internalised sadness.

This is where we get to the crux of it, this film is not really about ‘whether men and women can truly be friends,’ it’s about what happens when two people who are hurting use each other as surrogate partners. ‘You had someone to go places with!’ Marie (Carrie Fisher) tells Sally when discussing her break-up.

Harry and Sally become each other’s surrogates. They have someone to watch Casablanca with before bed—even if the moment is only shared through a split screen (in a not-so-subtle nod to Pillow Talk). We watch as they decorate together, lug home a Christmas tree together, and discuss Harry’s sex life in detail. Sally’s casual encounters are oddly non-existent.

The famous When Harry Met Sally... scene

The chemistry between them is as warm as those orange autumn leaves in Central Park. In a few months, it feels as though they have grown up together. During one scene, when they feel truly comfortable enough to fight, it ends in one of the most sincere apologies in cinema as Harry realises he’s gone too far and exhales: ‘can I say something? I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’

At New Year’s we see them dancing contently cheek to cheek, that is, until midnight approaches. Suddenly the weight of the expectation that they might kiss becomes too much, and they retreat outside. The blurred lines of their friendship appear, and they do everything possible to keep it out of focus, even if they know it just might be worth seeing.

As anyone who’s been in a ‘surrogate relationship’ will know—it only works if you’re both committed to the weird pseudo-reality you’ve created, a reality where you’ll spoon together in bed, yet go rigid with fear at the thought of a drunken kiss.

Harry and Sally final get together

When they do sleep together, it all falls apart; and perhaps ‘apart’ is where it should have stayed. Reiner and Ephron have both admitted that, in the film’s ‘true’ ending, Harry and Sally don’t end up together, but that wasn’t the Hollywood way.

Instead, we have Harry running in snug Levis to profess his love, improvising the line ‘when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.’ For that, I’ll stick with the saccharine apple pie ending, and take my realism on the side.

When Harry Met Sally is back on general release Friday 11 December 2015

Read more:
10 Life lessons from Nora Ephron films
10 Romantic Comedies about love/hate relationships

Browse more films by Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner

About the author: Katie McCabe is a London-based magazine editor who writes about film, visual art and pretty much anything else asked of her. Most likely to be found discussing Donald Sutherland.

 

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