written by nora ephron

#30: When Harry Met Sally...(1989)

IMDB plot summary: Harry and Sally have known each other for years, and are very good friends, but they fear sex would ruin the friendship.

Is this an accurate plot summary? I really respect how it gets to the heart of things.

After last week’s romcom-by-the-numbers disaster, I needed something tried and true. I needed something that would restore my faith in the genre.

In other words, I needed Nora Ephron. 

Written by Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, When Harry Met Sally is exactly what you’d expect of a film with this pedigree. It’s warm, it’s charming, it shows a fairy-tale perfect New York City, and it’s genuinely funny while packing a few emotional moments that come out of nowhere and punch you in the gut. Just like Tom Hanks sharing his feelings with the radio DJ in Sleepless in Seattle or the unexpectedly heartwrenching ending of Heartburn (which I read a couple of weeks ago), WHMS sprinkles some true sadness in with all the sexual tension and witty banter. 

And that witty banter! It’s everywhere! From the second Harry and Sally meet, on a drive from Chicago to NYC as barely-acquaintances, their personalities clash hard. Harry is a ladies’ man (this was 1989, and in the year of Taylor Swift, Billy Crystal was still a viable love interest) whose put on, recent-college-grad nihilism leads him to read the last page of books first and say that men and women can’t be friends because sex always gets in the way. Sally is the kind of lovably uptight weirdo who comes up with a driving schedule and orders her diner apple pie to exact specifications (”But I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top. I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real. If it’s out of the can, then nothing.”). Even thought they can’t stand each other, there’s clearly a spark between them, because this is the good old “people who hate each other turn into lovers” plot. It’s Shakespeare! It’s Austen! It’s perfect!

But Harry and Sally’s relationship doesn’t end with that car ride (obviously, or this would be a very short movie). They meet again several years later, and then again several years after that. Harry and Sally can’t stop running into each other, almost as if they were destined to be friends…or more than friends. Because this isn’t a “people who hate each other turn into lovers” plot at all, it’s actually a “best friends fall in love” plot. And the main reason why it works so well is that Harry and Sally actually seem like friends. Their long conversations, their walks through New York, their phone conversations while watching Casablanca; all of it seems like the way real best friends would act, even if those friends didn’t have a palpable sexual tension that created sparks whenever they touched. 

But Harry and Sally do have chemistry, and no one–not Carrie Fisher and not Bruno Kirby–understands why they’re not together. And we, the viewers, don’t really understand either. They’re so clearly right for reach other, so why can’t they see it? Part of it (maybe most of it) has to do with Harry’s general reluctance to enter into any sort of grown-up relationship after the end of his marriage, and then there’s Sally’s refusal to get involved with anyone at all. It could all feel contrived, but it doesn’t. I mean, if Sally’s so particular about how she eats her pie, of course she’s going to be hesitant about embarking on a relationship. And even if it does just edge slightly into “how can these people not see it?” territory, it hardly matters, because watching Harry and Sally fall in love stupidly and obliviously is a joy. 

It’s a joy to watch Harry stare at Sally across a room while she kisses her boyfriend, and it’s a joy to watch Sally trash talk Harry’s new girlfriend. It’s a joy to watch them not figure it out as their story is interrupted by those adorable old couple interviews. It’s just a joy all around, because Nora Ephron understood something about love that a good portion of romantic comedy writers don’t. She got that it isn’t enough to just have people meet and fall in love–there has to be something at stake. 

She knew that love is never just love–there’s always some sort of loss behind it, beside it, wrapped up in it. She knew better than anyone that loving someone often results in betrayal and heartbreak (seriously, please read Heartburn, but actually listen to the audiobook read by Meryl Streep). Love is loss, necessarily, whether you lose someone through death or cheating or a simple fight. Love is Tom Hanks talking about his dead wife in Sleepless in Seattle. Love is Kathleen Kelly losing the store that was her connection to her mother in You’ve Got Mail. Love is Harry Burns realizing his wife never loved him and love is Sally Albright figuring out that she wants a family and her boyfriend doesn’t. 

It’s all those things, all tangled up, and that’s why falling in love isn’t so easy for Harry and Sally. The falling is unconscious, but actually deciding to be in a relationship is a choice. These are people who, like all Ephron characters, are completely aware of the risk that love brings. They’re not stupid, they’re not naive, they’re not like many romantic comedy characters who are bumbling cluelessly through life, treating love like it’s a game. They get it, and the fact that they still decide to be together at the end is nothing short of a miracle. It’s inevitable, but it’s still a gamble. It’s Nora Ephron casting her vote for hope, even in the face of heartbreak, pain, and loneliness. 

Have I made this movie sound unbearably serious? Because it’s not! It’s very funny, and it features Billy Crystal at the height of his wackiness. But what’s so great about Nora Ephron is that she was always able to be funny while never losing sight of the emotional stakes. 

Stray thoughts:

-Is there any better couple than Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby? No one better illustrates the reality of being married…arguing over coffee tables and being glad you don’t have to date anymore. 

-Just as Sleepless in Seattle has An Affair to Remember, WHMS has Casablanca

-Baby fish mouth is sweeping the nation. 

Romantic comedy cliches: Best friends who fall in love, NYC, a climactic wedding, a toast, men talking about emotions during sports, New Year’s Eve, running through the city to make a declaration of love, a big speech to declare love, Casablanca, a journalist heroine

Is this a good movie: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. 

Did I like this movie? I love this movie like Sally loves ordering sauces on the side. 

Did this movie make me believe in love? This movie made me believe in the power of hope. It’s life-affirming. 

Would I watch this movie again? I might start this movie again in the next five minutes. 


If you have any suggestions for my year of romcoms, find me on Twitter @KerryAnn or send me an email at welcometoladyville@gmail.com.