Revisiting “When Harry Met Sally”

Did screenwriter Nora Ephron and director Rob Reiner once and for all prove men and women could never be friends?

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“When Harry Met Sally” is my favorite of all romantic comedies. “Annie Hall” comes in second, as I love the film but will never forget restraining myself from destroying my television when it beat “Star Wars” for Best Picture at the 1978 Academy Awards.

I was devastated.

That aside, “When Harry Met Sally” will forever hold the crown as far as I’m concerned.

Over an irregular course of 12 years and three months, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) engage in a cross country battle of the sexes. He believes a man can never be friends with a woman as “the sex part gets in the way.” She emphatically disagrees. What ensues is over a decade of accidental reunions and philosophical struggles as the two slowly fall in love.

Minutes into Nora Ephron’s brilliant script, we witness the following exchange …

Harry: You realize of course that we could never be friends.

Sally: Why not?

Harry: What I’m saying is — and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form — is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.

Here’s the rest …

The scene takes place in 1977, as college graduates Harry and Sally share an impassioned car ride from the University of Chicago to New York. Harry is a recent law school grad; Sally is heading to the Big Apple to find work as a journalist. They have been introduced by Harry’s girlfriend, who he’s temporarily leaving behind but has promised to call when he arrives.

The above clip perfectly sets up the characters. Harry is a free spirit; Sally buttoned-up and conservative.

Who’s right?

Of course, the answer cannot be anything other than general. However, for a comprehensive 2000 research study on the subject by April L. Bleske and David M Buss, as quoted by “Psychology Today,” see here:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227528238_Can_men_and_women_be_just_friends

Bleske and Buss surveyed college students for this purpose. The findings were provocative:

  • Both men and women enjoyed the company of the opposite sex, for purposes of dinner and other recreational activities, social status, and sharing information.
  • Most of those questioned noted issues such as jealousy and confusion over the status of the relationship.
  • Many of the men and women surveyed expressed feeling less attractive, and being less attracted to, (other) potential romantic partners due to the friendship.
  • Most of the men surveyed saw sex and romantic potential in an opposite-sex friend as a benefit, while women primarily saw it as a cost.
  • 22% of men vs. 11% of women reported they had sex with the opposite-sex friend. When friendships did not turn either romantic or sexual, men tended to feel rejected by the women, while the women were predominantly uncomfortable with the attraction.
  • Men looked less kindly upon being relegated to the “friend zone” than women.

“Scientific American” had undertaken a similar research study in 2012. Their findings were more emphatic:

I’d be curious to know about your experiences.

Harry and Sally run into each other again, after being absent from each other’s lives for five years.

They pick up where they left off. No one could ever fake an orgasm in Harry’s presence … according to Harry.

One more time. Was this the greatest one-liner in the history of cinema?

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Onward. They become reluctant friends, and each plans to set up a single friend with the other while ignoring their own growing attraction. But Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Jess (Bruno Kirby) hit it off instead. They become a couple. Harry and Sally are, again, together.

Ultimately, in a moment of vulnerability, Sally arrives at Harry’s apartment in tears. Her ex, she says, is now with another. Sally is devastated. A few comforting kisses later, and … they sleep together.

This is their classic post-coital reaction:

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Did she fake it after all? Did she not?

Now what?

They barely survive what was, at least to Sally, a wonderfully awkward evening.

But, the two do not survive as a couple. They split, until Harry realizes what he’s lost in his life. On foot, he runs to catch up with her at a New Year’s party.

The film’s coda immediately commences. From Nora Ephron’s screenplay:

Harry (Voice-Over): The first time we met we hated each other.

Sally (Voice-Over): You didn’t hate me, I hated you. (beat) And the second time we met, you didn’t even remember me.

HARRY (Voice-Over): I did too, I remembered you. (a long beat) The third time we met, we became friends.

SALLY:(Voice-Over): We were friends for a long time.

HARRY:(Voice-Over): And then we weren’t.

SALLY: (Voice-Over): And then we fell in love.

SALLY: Three months later we got married.

HARRY: It only took three months.

SALLY: Twelve years and three months ...

And they appear to live happily ever after. He’s better dressed and she has a wild new hairstyle representative of their new settled status.

Consider this too: They’re now married, seemingly monogamous and hopefully sharing a wonderful sex life together.

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But do leopards change their spots? Did Reiner prove men and women cannot just be platonic friends?

Let me know your thoughts. In the meantime, thank you for reading. (Begin end credits, to the theme of Harry Connick, Jr.’s “It Had to be You.” To those involved with the film, take a bow one and all …)

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Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

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