WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… – “Someone is staring at you in Personal Growth”

[spoilers follow for the film in question]

When Harry Met Sally… is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s also incredibly misunderstood. Early in the film, an obnoxious and young Harry, fresh out of college, states that “Men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way.” What follows in the film is a long term friendship that falls into sex, and subsequently romantic love. The quote is even repeated at the film’s end when Harry does, in fact, fall in love with Sally. Many have argued that this is the film’s theme and overarching message. A 2014 blog post by Reuters’ Chlo Angyal and another from 2012 by SplitSider’s Blythe Robertson are two recent analyses that support this theory. Both writers argue that the film sends an unhealthy message. I would agree with them that the concept is bullshit. I’m a heterosexual man, and I’m probably friends with more women than men. That said, I strongly disagree that “Men can’t be friends with women” is the theme or the message of the film.

Writer Nora Ephron agrees with me in her foreword to the published script:

Rob and I disagreed. We disagreed all the time. Rob believes that men and women can’t be friends, I disagree. And both of us are right. Which brings me to what When Harry Met Sally is really about –not, as I said, whether men and women can be friends, but about how different men and women are.

Director Rob Reiner approached Nora Ephron about making a movie about men and women trying to be “just friends” and failing, What resulted was much more than that: a dialogue between the two of them in a story about personal growth and the nature of love.

Ephron explains that, for all intents and purposes, Harry is Rob Reiner:

Rob was depressed; but he wasn’t depressed about being depressed; in fact, he loved his depression. And so does Harry. Harry honestly believes that he is a better person than Sally because he has what Sally generously calls a dark side.

And she is Sally:

Because Harry was bleak and depressed, it followed absolutely that Sally would be cheerful and chirpy and relentlessly, pointlessly, unrealistically, idiotically optimistic. Which is, it turns out, very much like me.

Most of Harry’s dialogue came from Reiner’s opinions about life and his revelations about the thought processes of men. And Sally was there, providing the female counterpoint from Ephron. This flies in the face of the idea that a single auteur could tell you what When Harry Met Sally… means. Even the famous “all women fake orgasms” scene was a collaboration. The scene was based on a revelation from Ephron, scripted by Reiner and Producer Andrew Scheinman. It was Meg Ryan’s idea for Sally to fake an orgasm in public to prove her point, and Billy Crystal suggested the “I’ll have what she’s having.” line, (which, fun fact, was delivered by Reiner’s mother).

Meg Ryan as Sally is turned on... or is she?
This moment brought to you by: Collaborative Filmmaking!

film, and signals a major turning point for Sally. The character in this scene is a far cry from the fresh-faced college grad who walks into a diner frantically declaring to Harry that she has “had plenty of great sex!” and is embarrassed when she turns heads. This older Sally is comfortable with herself. She’s clearly more comfortable with her sexuality. She’s less worried about what strangers think about her, and she not only has a better sense of humor, she’s gotten more creative and thoughtful about how she counters the bullshit in Harry’s arguments.

The diner orgasm scene directly follows Harry’s explanation to his guy-friend Jess of the benefits of his sex-free friendship with Sally. He emphasizes all the things he’s able to talk about and learn from her because she offers him another side of things than what Jesse (or any guy) would normally focus on. (“You made a woman “meow?'”)

The diner orgasm scene is immediately followed by Harry and Sally picking out a Christmas tree together. This string of events at the film’s midpoint illustrate the beauty of Harry and Sally’s burgeoning relationship. Sally has someone to help promote her sense of humor and help her develop thicker skin. Harry has somebody to call him out on his shit and help pull him out of his funk. They both have someone to celebrate Christmas with – a holiday about peace, reflection, familial love… a perfect setting for a platonic relationship… one that creates an oasis of peace and understanding in their torrid everyday lives.

Harry and Sally bring home Christmas together
How nice.

When Harry Met Sally… not only illustrates that men and women can and should be friends, but that doing so is an essential part of becoming an adult. The film is about how relationships change and grow as the people in them change and grow. It’s about how, despite the difficulty of befriending people different from ourselves, those are relationships that help us mature the most. Finally, When Harry Met Sally… is about how dramatically deep friendship improves romantic love, (though never mandates it).

1977 – The first time Harry meets Sally, he’s obliviously making out with her friend. They are in a transitional phase as they both leave The University of Chicago together to their new home of New York. Harry is nihilistic, brashly opinionated, and irritatingly spitting seeds out of the window of her car. Sally is hyper-controlling, gratingly optimistic, and easily frazzled by anything outside her narrow world view, (including Harry). Nevertheless, Sally wants to be friends with him. He’s the only person she’ll know when she gets to New York. But he adamantly insists that it’s impossible (because of “the sex thing”).

1982 – The second time Harry meets Sally, she’s obliviously making out with his friend. (Ha! Payback!! Symmetry!!!) They are (again) both in a transitional phase as they are both entering into what will be long term relationships. This is symbolized by the fact that they are (again) travelling, this time by plane. Harry’s nihilism has taken a turn for the better. He’s getting married. Sally momentarily gives him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that this display of hopefulness may mean that Harry is a person she’d now get along with. He quickly proves her wrong by picking apart her relationship, and turning the conversation sour. This time he wants to be friends, but she reminds him of his opinion that it would be impossible (because of the sex thing). He disagrees that he ever thought that. Then realizes he did. Then tries to amend the rule since they’re now in relationships. Then realizes that wouldn’t matter. Sally doesn’t correct him.

1987 – Sally’s 5 year relationship has ended, and her apathy about it is starkly contrasted by her manic, man-starved friends. Alice wants to be married, consequences be damned! Marie is having an affair with a married man (who is never going to leave his wife). Contrasted by the company she keeps, Sally clearly has matured. Her world has opened up a bit, and her naive optimism has been tempered by harsh life experience. And then she runs into Harry at a bookstore. The fact that he’s perusing the Personal Growth section is an indication that he’s matured. (Never mind the fact that it’s the theme of the movie.) Neither 1977 or 1982 Harry seemed like the kind of guy to look to others for the answers to his problems. But 1987 Harry is broken and he knows it. The nihilist-turned-lover is in the middle of a particularly nasty divorce with a woman who tells him “I don’t know if I ever loved you.” (“I’m a writer. I know dialogue, and that’s particularly harsh.”) And Harry finally does something to ingratiate himself to Sally. He admires her positive attitude. Having realized that he doesn’t have all the answers, he looks to her as a role model of how to pull himself out of despair.

When Harry Met Sally - watching Casablanca
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

10 years of maturity and a shared rough breakups have put Harry and Sally in a place where they can finally relate to one another. Harry is no longer an insufferable know-it-all and Sally seems more intrigued by opinions outside her growing world view. (They can even agree on why Ingid Bergman gets on the plane at the end of Casablanca!) Harry’s still got a hard edge. (He still reads the last page of books first, in case he dies before he finishes them.) Sally still “likes things the way she likes them,” but she’s far more relaxed about being called out about it. Their different forms of pretense and arrogance have fizzled away with age, and they’ve warmed to the idea that friendship involving a different worldview might not be such a bad thing after all.

This, I think, is the most damning evidence against “Men and Women can’t be friends” as the film’s message. Halfway in, the movie has already billed this Harry’s thesis as an immature concept, and we’re seeing the immensely positive outcome of moving past it.

When Harry Met Sally - Billy Crystal will stay up and moan
“I’ll stay up and moan. Maybe I should practice now.”

At this point the film moves into a subplot that begins to bring to light the one thing Harry and Sally still haven’t figured out: love. Since they get along so well, it only stands to reason that they would be a good match for each others’ friend, right? (Psssh!) Their blind double date backfires when doesn’t-understand-women Jess and still-dating-a-married-man Marie immediately hit it off and careen headfirst into a loving relationship. As these two are moving in together, Harry runs into his ex-wife (“singing ‘Surrey With the Fringe on Top’ in front of Ira!”). In a fit of nihilistic rage, Harry loses his mind at his friends, and he has his first major fight with Sally. They make up, but it brings to light how impossible Harry is finding it to move on from his loss. Sally empathizes, but strongly urges her friend to let it go. After all, she did. How hard could it be?

The two settle into a string of “meh” relationships. They know each other well enough to realize the others’ relationship will be unfulfilling before they realize it themselves. With what seems like a twinge of jealousy, they start to realize that they “get” each other better than anyone else seems to.

The 20-megaton bomb drops when Sally’s ex calls, announcing his engagement. The blessed apathy that Harry once admired in Sally shatters, and she dissolves into a heaping mess. The beautiful lie she had been telling herself, that she and Joe just wanted different things, crumbles away beneath her and she realizes she has nothing to ward away the pain of loss and rejection she should have processed long ago.

And, of course, the unthinkable happens…

When Harry Met Sally - Post-coital bliss
Post-coital bliss.

The fact that Harry and Sally have sex, and the fact that it complicates things, is not evidence that “men and women can’t be friends.” The fact that Sally avoids Harry after things get awkward, isn’t even based on a “We’re friends. Whoops, we fucked!” scenario. Sally is processing four things during their time apart:

  1. A feeling that she is unlovable… that even people who have claimed to love her never did, because she is fundamentally flawed.
  2. Guilt over jeopardizing her friendship to get over the immediate sadness she doesn’t know how to process.
  3. Resentment over the lingering feeling that she might have been pity-fucked.
  4. Confused, deep seated feelings of love for Harry, that she feels will be unrequited, since if they did get together, Harry would certainly only be “settling” because the single game is too painful to continue.

Harry barely has time to process what’s happened. He knows that the way things played out was unhealthy, but he isn’t dealing with half the concerns Sally has. He’s just trying to understand his own feelings about her. This would be tricky enough for them to work through on its own, but the violently mixed feelings and backlash from her end make it nigh impossible.

When Harry Met Sally - Wedding

Things come to a head when Jess and Marie get married. These two fuck-ups have never been happier, and it’s because, despite all their confusion, they knew immediately what Harry and Sally are still not grasping: the only people worth pursuing romantically are ones you would be willing to be “just friends” with. These two didn’t fall for each other because the other one was hot. They fell for each other because they related on a deep and meaningful level beyond the sexual. Watching them, you get the feeling that sex and romance is just a bonus. They just had the foresight to realize immediately that the other was everything they’d ever needed in a relationship, and streamlined the process by hooking up.

I’d like to think that the depth of Jess’ relationship with Marie opened him up to the idea that women are totally worth being “just friends” with, and that he developed many fruitful inter-gender friendships after the film’s conclusion. Likewise, I hope Jess’ love helped heal the part of Marie that so desperately clung to such clearly unhealthy relationships in the past. Regardless, Jess and Marie’s high point couldn’t contrast Harry and Sally’s low point any more clearly. The two fight at their best friends’ wedding and though Harry wants to move past the incident, Sally seems like she doesn’t. I posit that she absolutely would have, once she’d had time to process her own concerns, but the immediate result is that, their friendship is put on hold, and she spends Christmas alone.

Sally brings Christmas home alone
Christmas symmetree! (This movie is a lot smarter than my puns.)

For Harry, the process goes much faster. He does, after all, only have one issue to work through. Can he see himself with Sally? He clearly already loves her as a friend. But it finally clicks for him. The things that initially made him decide she could only be a friend don’t bother him any more. And his hard edge and narcissism that initially made them incompatible have softened with time. She’s already proven to be a friend that he can have fun with, he’s always found her attractive, she pushes him to grow like no-one he’s ever known, and he’s finally matured to a place where he realizes these are the things he should be looking for in a romantic relationship.

Now let’s be clear. All these things, by no means, doom two friends to romance. The fact that Harry decided Sally was everything he wanted in a romantic relationship doesn’t undermine their friendship. What if Sally hadn’t reciprocated his love? I posit that Harry would have gone off, licked his wounds from crashing and burning during his grand New Year’s gesture, then eventually gone back to just being friends with Sally. Things might have been a bit different, but he’s right at the wedding when he tells her “I’m not saying it didn’t mean anything, I’m just saying why does it have to mean everything?”

Harry gets it now. He gets that friendships with women needn’t feature intercourse as an endgame, and he gets that his friendship with Sally is worth saving from the mistake of having sex. The reiteration in voice over of his younger self that “men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part will always get in the way” is not actually in Nora Ephron’s script. There are some other cut lines about the difficulty of their platonic relationship, but I can only imagine Ephron didn’t want to highlight the “men and women can’t be friends” thing because she didn’t agree with it. Reiner put it in. He probably did mean for it to reiterate what he interpreted as the movie’s theme, but I don’t think that’s how it plays.

To me, it reads as if Harry’s younger, arrogant, nihilistic self is taunting him. “After all this time, you’ve finally realized I was right all along!” his past self says. And Harry realizes that his past self was full of shit.

And then he realizes that his past self was the reason he didn’t know sooner that he loved Sally.

And then he decides to do something about it.

Harry and Sally - New Years Eve
“My whole life, I have never known what this song means.” “It’s about old friends.”

I’ve read the argument that Harry’s decision to love Sally somehow removes her agency in the matter. This is bullshit. She turns him down flat, and gives him a lot of good reasons for doing so. And Harry has all the right answers. He loves her for all the right reasons, flaws and all. It’s not a removal of agency that he makes it “Impossible to hate him.”

That’s just love, baby.

When Harry Met Sally… is a film about love. It’s periodically broken up into a series of anecdotes where elderly couples talk about the vastly different ways that they came together. It’s also a film about the differences between men and women, and the difficulty this brings to maintaining platonic friendships. It’s is a film about how people change over time, and how their relationships change with them.

Harry and Sally may not be real people, but their conversations are real. They may not be the perfect example of a functioning platonic relationship, but I’ll be damned if their story isn’t one of the most nuanced, believable, and beautiful love stories that’s ever played out on screen.

I love When Harry Met Sally….I love the ellipses in its title. I love the way it repeats locations, events, and themes at specific intervals to make a point. I love Barry Sonnenfeld’s casual, yet thoughtful cinematography. I love that in a moment of conversation, controlling, young Harry accidentally walks to the driver side of Sally’s car, even though it’s not his turn to drive, and they correct their placement without saying a word about it. I love that it uses an understanding of Casablanca as a barometer of sexual maturity. And I love that in a scene where Harry sings to Sally’s answering machine, we see that he purchased the karaoke machine that embarrassed him in front of Ira.

He loved the moment he had singing karaoke with Sally even more than he hated being reminded that he ran into his ex-wife

…and this is illustrated in a throwaway gag.

Goddamn, this movie’s good.