A more 1980s film? Certainly there are many films that reflected the decade, but I argue Harry and Sally could have been made practically anytime with the “can men and women be friends” theme. Each decade would have different nuances, but thematically, it works regardless of the time. What made it such a 1980s cultural bullseye was the openness of the subject in a constantly changing series of relationships. In the 1980s, moving in and out of relationships, painful as it might have been, was part of being unmarried. Most relationships failed and there was no longer a stigma attached to divorce, and talking about sexual intimacy was big business. This romantic comedy is not a chic-flick, it has plenty for both sexes.
“You know, you may be the first attractive woman I’ve not wanted to sleep with in my entire life.” -Harry to Sally
When Harry and Sally first meet, they don’t like each other, and after Harry provides his views on the sexes, including that men and women cannot be friends, Sally can’t wait to get away from him. Years later, they meet again. Their lives have changed, including careers and relationships. Eventually, their lives cross again and there is some connection growing between them. Harry is proving his philosophy wrong, because they are becoming friends. Even though they outwardly feel no attraction for each other, there is a strong respect already. They begin to depend on each other emotionally, even as their lives are going in different directions.
Director Rob Reiner said this was a film about men and women discussing what men and women want. In the film, Harry and Sally are always talking, comparing notes, evaluating other people’s relationships, and condensing life to basic elements. One of the faults in the film is that you never really know either character, other than what they tell you in their dialogue. You can see that they both like each other, but you don’t really know why, not until they explicitly tell you why at the end of the film. Both Harry and Sally are rather focused on themselves, which was very 1980s.
“There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.” -Harry explaining women to Sally
The most famous scene was the restaurant scene of Meg Ryan acting out the orgasm and the older woman at another table wanting to order the same meal. Sally and Harry argue over whether a man can tell if a woman fakes an orgasm, hence the scene. The woman was Rob Reiner’s mother, which made it even funnier. Nowadays, when people visit the Katz Delicatessen, they act out that scene. Yes, they do.
The restaurant scene is funny, but it has very little to do with the story. What you learn is that Sally is very particular about what she wants, and she wants exactly what she wants. That quality is peculiar to Harry. Maybe what you realize is that they each other’s personality quirks and still like each other. All through the film they talk and talk, but not about their relationship, not really.
At one time, they cross the line and have sex, only it ruins their relationship, at least for awhile.
The real “climax” of the film is a confrontation on New Years Eve, when Harry confronts Sally at a party. She dismisses his attention as just loneliness, but he is not to be deterred. For once, he is honest in his feelings, realizing this is the moment. The entire film has been the two of them being coy and looking past each other. Here, Harry takes a stand – his big speech.
The final scenes is the two of them married, what the entire movie has been building toward. There are lots of funny and perceptive “moments” in the film, as written by Nora Ephron, who developed the film with Reiner and producer Andrew Scheinman about the trials and tribulations of re-entering single life. It was not just a story of a slow-evolving relationship with funny gags, like many films. Ephron literally spent years writing this film after Reiner and Scheinman approached her with the idea. Both Ephron and Reiner worked on other projects while the script was in development. Harry had the serious, dark side, while Sally was light and saw the positive in life.
“Men know they don’t understand women, and they don’t much care,” Ephron wrote. “Women, on the other hand, are dying to be friends with men. Women know they don’t understand men, and it bothers them: they think that if only they could be friends with them, they would understand them and, what’s more (and this is their gravest mistake), it would help.”
Ephron also explained that Harry really was based on how Reiner thought, particularly as a single man at that point in his life. Ephron balanced it by giving Sally a voice to have a very different opinion.
Thirty-one years later, are the fundamental issues in the film relevant?