There is nothing more cliché than someone posing the question: Can men and women ever be just friends? It's a concept to roll your eyes at, outdated in its view of gender and sexuality. It should have been laid to rest decades ago, along with other useless gender wars resting on heteronormativity. It is also the thesis of one of my favourite films of all time, When Harry Met Sally.
Written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, the film came by accident. The two met to discuss another movie and ended up in conversations that would eventually make it into the film. Beloved tidbits in the script—like the discussion on orgasms, why women buy themselves flowers, and what men think of after sleeping with someone—all arose from these casual dinners. Ephron was Sally with her restaurant orders, and Reiner was Harry with his deeply cynical outlook on life. When the two decided on the film When Harry Met Sally, they never planned for the titular characters to be together. Instead, it would be about friends who came together in the transition between serious relationships. Over time, however, it became clear the two characters were destined to end up together—much to our benefit.
Whether or not the film answers its thesis is more complicated than a simple yes or no. The film answers the question that Harry and Sally were never friends and never meant to be friends—but its analysis of love, friendship, and adulthood is far more interesting than the great gender divide. (Though if you're desperate for an answer to this greater question, Ephron and Reiner were just friends.)
When Harry Met Sally on a drive up to New York after graduating from college, the two hated each other. Their individual defining characteristics were too incompatible. When they met again a few years later, Harry was about to be married, and Sally was beginning a serious long-term relationship. The two still hated each other. It wasn't until they were both in their 30s, going through a divorce and a breakup, that the pair could bond over their failed relationships and subsequently become friends.
During their year-and-a-bit long friendship, Harry and Sally bore their souls in art galleries and errand trips, introduced their two best friends to each other, fought, slept together, fought again, saw their friends marry, and then confessed their love to each other. "It only took 12 years and three months," Sally laughs at the end of the film. The two were awful together at the beginning of their relationship; they were too at odds in their stubbornness and inability to reflect and evolve as people. It wasn't until Harry and Sally could grow apart and together that they could become the people they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with.
The movie's charm and longevity shouldn't be credited solely to its intriguing thesis. It is in part due to Ephron's Oscar-nominated screenplay, with witty and relatable dialogue and elements drawn from real life, making any scene grounded yet idealistic. It can also partly be credited to the chemistry between Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. Two brilliant actors in their own right, together they have a spark that is almost non-replicable, apparent in every scene. Meg Ryan's adorable charm is clear in any romcom she is a part of (it can even come through in animation like in 1997's Anastasia); Billy Crystal wears a wonderful white knit jumper. It may also be the enemies-to-best-friends-to-lovers trope that recent media have failed to fully replicate.
The film’s charm also comes in its treatment towards the world around Harry and Sally. Every character in When Harry Met Sally is someone you could easily encounter in the real world, a byproduct of Ephron's very personal writing. The best friends of the titular couple, Marie and Jess, have their own deep flaws: Marie has continued a years-long affair with a married man, believing he will leave her but never does, and Jess is too indulgent in his writing and pretension to focus on anything other than a few articles he’s read. They’re human, not just props, who, despite the titular couple’s intentions in setting Marie up with Harry and Jess with Sally, develop their own recognisable and distinguishable love story. Because love and friendship can never fully be scripted, not even in a romcom.
When Harry Met Sally also seems to understand that love is timeless and for everyone, no matter how or when it comes. As time jumps between Harry and Sally's meetings, the film features documentary-style interviews with different elderly couples, each explaining their love stories. One couple fell in love at 16, only to not see each other again until their 40s. One couple lived next to each other their entire lives, only to meet and fall in love when they were both in another city. For another couple, it was simply love at first sight. No couple had the same story, and all of them felt deeply personal to a specific place and time. But every story also felt deeply familiar, like the love stories our grandparents told us when we got bored and asked them about their lives.
When writing about the movie retrospectively, Ephron discusses how, while her name is on the screenplay, it was more of a collaborative effort. The film is built from conversations in cafes between her and Reiner and suggestions from Ryan and Crystal, all from different expertise, experiences and perspectives. Perhaps that is why I can watch this film not in my 30s, but a little over 30 years after the film was first released, and still cry when Sally tells Harry, “I really hate you,” because I know she means the other word instead. The world may have changed, but at our core, friendships and love still shape our desire as humans. When Harry Met Sally understands this core, and few films released since can say the same.