I first saw When Harry Met Sally a few years ago and I liked it. I did not love it. It was one of the occasions where I have to unfortunately admit that I just didn’t get it. The second time I saw the film, I understood it more. Having felt solemn and down, the film lifted my spirits up so high that I felt like I’d seen it for the first time. When I revisited it again recently, I was fearful my reaction might have waned since the last viewing. Pleasantly, the film had not lost its charm.
The film starts and is interspersed with adorable elderly couples discussing how they met, which naturally foreshadows the most probable future for our main characters Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan). The story begins in 1977 when Harry and Sally share an interstate road trip from Chicago University to New York City. They had not met before this time, and only knew each other through Harry’s girlfriend. The car trip does not go well, and by the time they reach New York, they cannot wait to get away from each other. Another 5 years later, they meet again on a flight, and once again butt heads, this time through twenty-something pre-marriage anticipatory woes rather than the ideological and morally based naiveties. And then finally, another 5 years later, they meet again and become best friends after their long-term relationships fall apart. Naturally, their chemistry progresses to something more.
What is quite the successful achievement via the actors is the character development from the Chicago University in 1977 setting, to the current 1987/8 time setting that the majority of the film takes place in. And this is where we acknowledge the talent of our leading actors.
Billy Crystal plays a comedic role that we are familiar with in his roles prior and following this film. However, as Harry, he is much more down to earth, dejected and quite the sensitive male. And yet somehow, through this melancholic display, his vulnerability (particularly the pain of his divorce) is very endearing.
We can see When Harry Met Sally being a slightly updated Annie Hall, (especially if you look at the first image, where we see Ryan looking a lot like Diane Keaton in the costuming) which concludes in more of a standard classical Hollywood ending. It has a linear storyline, and there is no sombre, meaningful break-up to end and ruminate; unlike in Annie Hall. However, the film is not formulaic and we must acknowledge the genius of the incomparable screenwriter Nora Ephron. Ephron credits Ryan, Crystal and director Rob Reiner for some of the idiosyncrasies of the film, citing it a true collaborative effort. Ryan is credited for coming up with the orgasm scene, which cannot go unnoticed and propelled the memorable and now synonymous scene into pop culture. The scene also features on many “Greatest Quotes” lists with the “I’ll have what she’s having”, being said by Reiner’s mother.
This film is the ultimate rom-com as it’s got something for both the guys and the girls. The film dissects the idea that popular culture tells us: “Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus.” According to Harry, men and women cannot be friends without the sex getting in the way. In these conversations that continue throughout the film, we see a predated Sex and the City lunch sex conversation. Our famous orgasm scene predates a storyline from Sex and the City by 10 years in its frank sexual discussion in the mainstream. It’s no sex, lies and videotape, but for the mainstream, it’s ahead of the game.
Rob Reiner’s genius in small details is evident in many instances, best noticed in the baseball-divorce scene. Harry is describes to his friend the details of how his wife left him at a baseball game, and as the story gets worse, the Mexican wave makes its way around to them, throwing each awkwardly and hysterically into the air. Also memorable is the phone call conversation between Harry and Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Sally, which once again skilfully shows off Reiner’s hilarious comic timing. Bittersweet moments are there too with the most bittersweet coming at the New Year’s Eve party when both Harry and Sally discover that they have an attraction. It is just as heartbreakingly cute as it is tragic, mainly as it ends in just a peck on the lips.
Among all of the funny scenes, the one that sticks out with me the most is just after Harry and Sally have had sex for the first time. Sally is content and happy and Harry’s face reads “What have I done?” and also brings the audience back to the conversation that occurred in the first part of the film. When driving from Chicago to New York, Harry tells Sally that he wonders how long he has to hold the girl after sex before he can leave. From here, we know that part of their relationship is, if not doomed, then at least troubled. But no spoilers here. You’ll have to see the film to know how it ends.
If I can pass on any advice, do yourself a favour and this Valentine’s Day, skip Valentine’s Day in the cinema, but go rent or buy When Harry Met Sally.
When Harry Met Sally opened theatrically in Australia on October 19, 1989.