In 1989, a film about two friends forever raised the bar for the romantic comedy genre. When Harry Met Sally… posed the question: “Can men and women ever just be friends or does sex always get in the way?” With the film returning to cinemas this week, it’s time to revisit a timeless classic.
Nowadays, the term ‘rom-com’ conjures images of a foppish Hugh Grant stumbling his way through a series of awkward encounters with an attractive woman, before a final dramatic sequence unfolds, usually involving darling Hugh chasing after said woman through the streets of London. Although it broadly fits into the same genre bracket, the wonderful thing about When Harry Met Sally… is that it doesn’t feel like a regular romantic comedy. It exists in an exclusive club of non-romantic, romantic comedies.
This distinction is mostly attributable to Nora Ephron’s brilliant script. We often talk about how scripts make or break a film. Never has this been truer than in the case of When Harry Met Sally…. Critically lauded at the time (the screenplay was nominated for both an Oscar and a Writers Guild of America Award), Ephron said that she continued to receive letters from college students who have become obsessed with the dynamic between the two characters.
The film explored the dynamic between men and women which had seldom, if ever, been done in a similar fashion in American cinema. Romantic comedies have a bad rep for mercilessly honing in on their target audience. The beauty of When Harry Met Sally… is that it’s an open book. It doesn’t prescribe who it’s ‘for’ and it has that revered quality of feeling distinctly untouched by studio interference. You get the sense that it’s exactly the film that both Ephron and director Rob Reiner intended to make.
Although ostensibly light and frothy on the top, When Harry Met Sally… is in fact dealing with some quite fundamental questions on the nature of relationships. Many of the characters in the film are concerned with finding the sort of life partner about whom they’ve always dreamed. Initially, the main players are full of hope of finding their perfect match in the big wide and exciting world. As the film develops, they become more pragmatic and come to accept that the dreamlike happily ever after is not an imperative.
This gradual realisation goes to the heart of the core dilemma of the film. After their third encounter and despite the former’s initial insistence that men and women can never really just be friends, Harry and Sally become close friends. To a passer-by, they might often appear to be a couple. They care so deeply about their friendship that they both worry what might happen to it if they ever crossed that line into becoming lovers. This tension exists throughout the film and reaches its (pardon the pun) climax in a truly satisfying way.
And then there’s that scene. You know the one. Harry and Sally are sat eating breakfast in a diner and discussing whether Harry is a reliable judge of whether his female conquests have an ‘OK time’ with him of an evening. To prove her point Sally indulges in a little demonstration, prompting a fellow customer to proclaim to a passing waiter “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Though now famous in its own right, this scene acts as a neat microcosm for the film as a whole. The verbal sparring between these two friends is what makes the film so enjoyable. This brings us nicely onto our next item. No discussion of When Harry Met Sally… can exist without acknowledgement of the two leads. Meg Ryan, the one-time queen of rom-coms and frequent Ephron collaborator (Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998)), and Billy Crystal have the ring of perfect casting about them.
Meg Ryan’s Sally is principled and controlling, and prone to making decisions which inadvertently compromise her happiness. Billy Crystal’s Harry is direct, cynical and prone to speaking his mind, normally without considering the consequences. They are the proverbial yin and yang pairing. Over the course of the film, which covers some twelve years, both characters have their core beliefs challenged and both come to realisations about what they perhaps ought to be doing.
Despite being made over a quarter of a century ago, the film has retained its relevance and continues to delight audiences wherever it finds them. It marked the dawning of a new age for romantic comedies. Barely any rom-com released in its wake doesn’t owe it a debt of gratitude. Sadly, these successors have lacked the ring of authenticity that When Harry Met Sally… still has in abundance. But it would be unfair of us to criticise the film for what came afterwards – it did set the bar at an almost unassailable height.