By Marc S. Sanders
Two years after my family and I moved from New Jersey to Florida, I was age 16 and still felt lonely. Very lonely. I was not prepared for the culture shock of leaving a primarily Jewish community and transitioning into a mixed bag of different cultures and mentalities. I couldn’t adjust and the only people I could understand in 1989 were Batman, Indiana Jones and Harry & Sally.
The script written for When Harry Met Sally… focuses on the title characters adjusting to life in the decade following college graduation, where their paths cross periodically and they debate the aftermath of Casablanca, as well as what it means to sleep with someone or not. More importantly, they are often returning their attention to whether a man and a woman can be friends without any temptation for love or intimacy, no matter how attractive they find each other to be. Boy oh boy, that’s a loaded observation, isn’t it? It is so consuming that as close as Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) become with one another as best friends, no matter how many people they date, they still couldn’t be any lonelier. At the time, I could understand their dilemma. I had a terrible crush on a girl at school. We were close friends who could laugh with each other. Yet, I never took it to the next step. I should have asked her to the homecoming dance in our sophomore year. I really should have. The risk, though, is the change in the comfortable dynamic we had. I didn’t want to lose that. Harry and Sally are attractive to one another. Rob Reiner includes great close ups of the two actors looking at each other, wondering who is going to make the first move. Will they bring this relationship to a new level? It may never happen. It didn’t for the girl I thought I could fall in love with. At least Harry and Sally had each other’s shoulders to cry on. I adore this film, directed by Rob Reiner, because I yearned for what they had in friendship first, and as a relationship second.
Sally and Harry couldn’t be any different. He is of the mindset that any woman he encounters is destined to be slept with, or more simply put, men and women could never be friends because at the bare minimum, men are thinking about sleeping with every woman they come across. Sally can’t understand that, but when Harry shares his philosophy with her the first time they meet, while on an 18-hour drive from the University of Chicago to New York City, she can’t help but suspect that it just might be possible.
The two depart from one another to start their new lives in the big city, and come across each other five years after that on a flight they inadvertantly share, and then another five years later when they are given an opportunity to catch up on their relationship status. In present day, 1988, Sally has just broken up with her longtime boyfriend. Harry has gotten a divorce. Ephron has written these characters to ultimately need one another.
When Harry Met Sally… is certainly a comedy, but more than likely it’s because Billy Crystal’s quick wit and delivery comes off familiar from his other career accomplishments. Meg Ryan works beautifully as a scene partner that debates Harry’s cynical view of people with Sally’s natural positivity. Their mentalities go in opposite directions, but the film continues to imply that these two couldn’t be more perfect for one another. Chalk that up to Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal’s chemistry. They are one of the all-time great on-screen couples. These two actors are my friends. I want it to work out for them. When I saw the film three times in the theatres, I wanted to experience what they experienced. Their story has bumps in the road. They get mad and upset with each other. They debate with one another, but they amuse one another too, and what a romantic adventure they share together.
A terrific novelty of Reiner’s film is when he cuts away to elderly couples with rich histories of how they met and stay together for decades after. We weren’t there to see these wonderful people kindle their relationships, but we’ll see how Harry and Sally come together. I remember long ago, that my father told me that when you get married, make sure you are marrying your best friend. He said love is important, but you have to like each other first. I did marry my best friend and I like her. I love her too. We drive each other crazy. We have very different interests. We even live in our home differently, that we share with our daughter and dog, but we want to be with each other and no one else. No one else factors. When you watch When Harry Met Sally… you see why two people continue to be with each other, first as friends, and maybe as lovers later. When you have a best friend in your life there’s no one else you want to laugh with or cry with more often than that person. There’s no other hand you want to hold.
A brilliant midway scene in the film occurs when Harry and Sally have the misguided idea of setting up their other best friends with each other. Harry’s buddy Jess (Bruno Kirby) may be a good fit for Sally. They are both writers, after all. Sally’s girlfriend Marie (Carrie Fisher) has a keen interest in conquering married men, not far off from how Harry routinely proceeds with one relationship after another by sleeping with the women he dates. He’s not in love with them, but of course he’ll sleep with them. The irony comes when both Harry and Sally could never fathom that Jess and Marie find each other attractive, not the ones they were originally intended for.
There’s much heightened romanticism to When Harry Met Sally… I won’t claim it to be very realistic with how life works out for many of us. Look at the famous deli scene where Meg Ryan demonstrates for Crystal’s character that a woman can convincingly fake an orgasm. It’s a hilarious scene. One for the ages. However, a scene like that wouldn’t happen. If a scene like that did occur in real life, the woman would be asked to leave the premises immediately. It’s not the point though.
Love and happiness should consist of elevating ourselves to a delightful fantasy of joy, affection and laughter. Love should also guide us to carry our best friends through sadness and frustration. We can’t survive this challenge, we call life, alone. I realized that first hand when my innocent, naïve and unsure teenage self watched the movie for the first time all those years ago at the Mission Bell movie theatre in Tampa.
People need someone to grow with. We need someone to continue to teach us while we teach them in return. Most importantly, as it becomes a running theme in When Harry Met Sally…, we need someone to kiss at midnight every New Year’s Eve.