When Harry Met Sally can still teach us about love 30 years later

Sally: He’s obnoxious.
Marie: This is just like in the movies, remember in The Lady Vanishes when she says to him, ‘You’re most obnoxious man…”
Sally: The most contemptible.
Marie: And they fall madly in love.

When Harry Met Sally is the original romantic comedy, and it knows it’s a romantic comedy. In the above dialogue, Marie (played by the gone-too-soon Carrie Fisher) and Sally (Meg Ryan) tell you what kind of movie you’re going to see: The kind where the two characters in the title initially hate each other, and then they eventually fall “madly” in love.

I was a teenager when I first saw the movie. I loved it so much that, at the age of 14, I could recite the entire script by heart. As I wrote in a previous essay, it was the movie that planted the seed to move to New York City and become a journalist. As I got older, every few years—and usually when I was single and wanting very much not to be—I would watch When Harry Met Sally and wish that my love life was as cut and dry: Boy meets girl, they fall in love, they get married.

Instead, my 20s was a revolving door of boyfriends and questionable compromises. After turning 30 and breaking up with a man I thought I would marry, I thought to myself, What am I doing wrong?

I’m now the same age as Sally is in the movie (31), and in honor of the film’s 30th anniversary, I recently rewatched it. I was young and idealistic when I first saw the movie and, similar to the characters as they aged, I’m now mature and a bit more skeptical.

After seeing the movie through a woman’s eye instead of a girl’s, I realize that the love story I once considered so simple is actually more complex than I gave it credit for.

In When Harry Met Sally, Harry Burns (played by Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Ryan) go from 21 to 32 in the span of 90 minutes—from two people who are completely wrong for each other to best friends and, eventually, husband and wife.

The biggest misconception about When Harry Met Sally is that it’s a movie about whether men and women can be friends (the wildly inaccurate tagline: “Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?” didn’t help). Rom-coms released after When Harry Met Sally usually required the couple to be kept apart by an outside conflict, such as distance (Go the Distance), one person getting married (My Best Friend’s Wedding), mutual deception (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), or career aspirations (La La Land). Basically, the only thing keeping two attractive people who love each other apart in those rom-coms is logistics. Real life is both messier and more mundane.

I now understand that When Harry Met Sally isn’t just about, to quote a song from the movie, “How to make two lovers from friends.” It’s about how to build intimacy with another human being. The barriers to love are not very dramatic in the film, but they’re more real: It’s lack of intimacy, it’s egotism, it’s immaturity, it’s actively withholding your true self from another person because to bare yourself to them is to be vulnerable. And being vulnerable is scary as hell.

As Wesley Morris writes in the New York Times, “Romantic comedy is the only genre committed to letting relatively ordinary people—no capes, no spaceships, no infinite sequels—figure out how to deal meaningfully with another human being.”

Harry and Sally meet each other when they are 21 and can’t stand each other; he’s pure narcissistic bravado, she’s unbearably stubborn. It is during this first meeting that Harry tells her that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” But as they age and mature, and their friendship deepens, the falsities fall away and they are able to be more honest with each other.

They counsel each other through their respective heartbreaks (“I think this takes a long time. It might be months before we’re actually able to enjoy going out with someone new”), they call each other out on their assholery (“You’re going to have to try and find a way of not expressing every feeling that you have, every moment that you have them“), and they make each other laugh (“I have a theory that Hieroglyphics are really an ancient comic strip about a character named Sphinxie”).

Ask anyone to name the thing they love most about When Harry Met Sally, and the most likely answer is: “The script!” Nora Ephron’s script remains the gold standard to which all other rom-coms aspire (and very few actually succeed at). It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s insanely quotable (“baby fish mouth!”), and the characters actually sound like real human beings—which is not a surprise considering Ephron put details from her own life and friendships into the script (Sally’s recurring sex dream about a faceless man ripping off her clothes was a real dream that Ephron had since she was 11).

And the dialogue is the most important part of the film. Harry and Sally don’t fall in love because they have the same likes and dislikes, or because they survive a near-death experience together. While they do a lot of shared activities (eating Chinese food, going to museums, watching Casablanca), their friendship isn’t based on these circumstances. It’s built on the clarity they find when they talk to each other. There’s a reason that, 30 years later, Ephron’s script still rings so true. In finding intimacy with each other, Harry and Sally give us a blueprint on how to form a true bond with another human being. It’s not through sex (which in fact almost derails their friendship); it’s through communication.

When Harry Met Sally is not about how friendship can lead to love. It’s about how friendship is a necessary ingredient for love.

It depicts the need to find someone you can have conversations with that will lay you bare emotionally and make you bend over in laughter.

Back in March, I found myself having two standout first dates in the span of two weeks. Neither were particularly fancy dates—I just time spent with people I felt I could talk to for hours, about things both mundane and personal. I’m still dating one of these people. And if we don’t work out, I’ll know what to look for in the future: Someone I can talk to so easily that it feels like Nora Ephron is writing our dialogue.

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