“You realise of course that we could never be friends. Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way” – Harry.
When Harry Met Sally’s status as a classic is due to a fair few things. It’s wonderfully directed by Rob Reiner with superb performances from its primary and secondary cast, but I’d argue that the biggest impact is from Nora Ephron’s script. Right from the start the film bucks common romantic comedy traits as Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) meet at two very different periods of their life, making peace with the fact that they’ll never have to deal with each other again. This is all told through witty, sharp dialogue to the point where the entire film often feels like one huge warm conversation between people with amazing chemistry.
Meeting for the third time after each going through tough breakups, they vow to simply become friends, despite Harry’s pessimistic attitude years earlier. Arguably, not much changes within their dynamic over this time: Harry is still the cynical wallowing mess with a charming sense of humour whilst Sally is the go-getter refusing to look back, but in the context of a friendship this synergy works perfectly. They look forward to each other’s company and stay up late talking to each other on the phone, and the guise of their friendship allows them to talk frankly about topics such as relationships and sex which in turn strengthens the bond between them.
“You know, you may be the first attractive woman I’ve not wanted to sleep with in my entire life” – Harry.
I’m not going to act like all of this hasn’t been said before. There’s a reason When Harry Met Sally is held in such high regard and yes, it’s incredibly formulaic and simplistic, but it’s the natural flow of conversation that makes it a breeze to sit through. Every member of the audience knows the two are going to end up head over heels in love, and similar to how the two use their friendship as a blanket, the film uses this knowledge we have to simply explore the fun of getting to know someone you really like. There’s no real conflict apparent in the film, because it knows that it would just get in the way of this complete character study between the two of them.
The film even has fun alluding to their relationship in other ways too. Fictitious older couples are interviewed in a documentary style about their relationship at different points in the film, making you think that this is the same kind of story, albeit one that’s actually being filmed. Harry and Sally’s best friends Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Jess (Bruno Kirby) are introduced to each other as potential love interests during a double date, and pounce on each other at the first opportunity. Despite the fact that the two protagonists end up together at the end of the film, they still manage to prove young Harry wrong by sustaining their friendship for two years throughout the film. The fact that neither of them feels pressure to question why the two of them get along so well encapsulates the breezy and easygoing nature of their story. As Marie and Jess go on to get married, they soon learn that everyone else in their lives sees the two of them together as something more.
It’s interesting to note that the original ending featured in the script, the one preferred by both Reiner and Ephron, was one of them continuing to remain friends despite the push from those around them. It’s difficult to try and explain because it’s clearly a case of the film having its cake and eating it too. Much like Harry, it wants to point out the common tropes of such a story and defy them at the same time. The only trouble with that is it’s rare for such a trope to be handled this well and thanks to Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal’s chemistry you can’t help but hope for the two of them to get together.
“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” – Harry.
When Harry Met Sally is a self-fulfilling prophecy taking the form of the epitome of romantic comedies. The fact that the two of them end up together doesn’t take away from the majority of the film we spend in the presence of friends, ones that remind us of our own. Much like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, both Harry and Sally are such well-rounded people that it’s more about the journey to their relationship than the end result. That’s where the fun is, and that’s where the friendship is. It’s just, in some cases, strong friendships offer the best foundation for love.