When Harry met Sally…30 years on

Editor’s note: Molly Ringwald, who played the leads in classic coming-of-age 80s movies like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, recently revisited them as she watched them with her teenage daughter in the era of the #MeToo movement.

In the present day and age, motion pictures seep deep into the public consciousness, and influence our approach to lifestyle, romance, family, friendships, the planet and the idea of space exploration, the future and the past, and everything in between, in a deep way.

Revisiting movies of the 80s is a good way to understand how the ideas embedded in them may hold water even today, or may seem problematic given our changing perspectives as a global community. On the 30th anniversary of the cult rom-com, When Harry met Sally… (which was inspired a Shah Rukh Khan-starrer a couple of years ago), writing analyst Suradha Iyer watched the movie to re-visit its ideas and influence on generations of rom-coms that followed.

When Harry met Sally… a cult favourite rom-com that was released in 1989. I watched the film 30 years after it hit screens and, to my surprise, it felt fresh.

When Harry Met Sally… has a 90% Rotten Tomatoes rating and a cult following among moviegoers of all demographics, which is funny because it fits squarely in the rom-com block (more rom than com, anyway).

How did it fare in 1989?

It exceeded expectations for a rom-com released during a time when it was competing with franchise films like Batman and Indiana Jones. With some critics writing that they enjoyed only certain parts of the film to others who were all praises about it, Rob Reiner (director) and Nora Ephron (screenwriter) launched their dream-team legacy with this movie that lasted the rest of their careers.

Reiner himself didn’t believe the success the film has achieved. He bemoaned that rom-coms had lost their big screen allure, and said they are often reduced to being subplots in big franchises and films that have a point to prove, the whole while missing the whole meet-cute ‘boy-meet-girl phenomenon’ (in an inclusive world, that would be person-meet-person). In a day and age where a rom-com must be packaged into any number of genres and happy-endings to be picked by studios, the magic of a quintessential rom-com cannot be overstated.

And When Harry Met Sally… is a quintessential rom-com.

Why When Harry Met Sally… rules the rom-com roost

Some spoilers ahead.

It begins with a charmingly pragmatic Harry (Billy Crystal) and a confident, but naive Sally Albright (Meg Ryan in her debut role) taking an 18-hour road trip to New York to explore their potential after college. Rather unsurprisingly, they have differences and squabbles over men and women’s disparate perspectives on relationships. Neither falls for the other and they part ways as strangers after trip.

Many years down the line they meet again, older and romantically unavailable, and form a friendship that outlasts their ertswhile relationships. It also results in their respective best friends getting hitched in a dramatic and sweet marriage. They weather many a storm as friends and reach an understanding that even today, is a beloved trope of such movies. They stray into the gray areas of having hooked up which freewheels quickly into Harry calling Sally a dog, and then a cold spate where Harry has to decide whether to meet Sally at their traditional New Year’s party. The happily ever after is somehow, not the point of this story.

What works

When Harry Met Sally… came off to me as a Woody Allen-esque masquerade of layered narratives stuck in the promise of a sweet, love-affirming rom-com.

The actors are funny, sweet, and convincing— an early scene Ryan pulling off d shorts with knee high socks is testament to her conviction to the role.  Crystal is often unlikeable and overconfident in the role, while still making the audience fall for his charms.

Ryan’s famous Deli scene, where she demonstrates faking an orgasm to a thick-skinned Crystal is a standout.

The supporting characters—best friends Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby are not reduced to the sidelines, in this movie. Their characters are meaty and add so much humour & levity to the film, with their romance being one of the best parts of the movie for me.

The segues to older couples talking about their marriage is plenty of fun—after one gets over the initial puzzlement of the relevance of these scenes, we fall straight into enjoying the laidback humour in these cuts. They are affirmations to the longevity and possibility of true love, interspersed between the main story of the characters struggling for love in the 1980s setting.

Do we need traditional romance in 2019

When Harry Met Sally… set up the expectations for a love story that went to the lengths of not being one. It treats the dating circuit with the very same love-hate attitude that is characteristic of the urban millennial dating scene today. That the movie stops before fully reaching its despaired end has a cute anecdote associated with it, where Reiner changed the ending to reflect his change of heart on happy endings (he met his wife while writing the film).

The idea of love is timeless and even cynics that fall out of stride with the idea of romantic love can come around with a good love story.

There’s problematic bits. They do not gel perfectly with 2019 standards.

A Hollywood production of the 80s is, naturally, mostly white and heteronormative. According to me, the ideas it champions and the three dimensional characters resonate no matter what. It did not reek of in-your-face privilege, but it is apparent that all the characters can afford to dine at landmark New York restaurants, and that their biggest problems revolve around dating the opposite sex.

Harry believes a girl and boy can never be friends without sex getting in the way, and this idea forms the premise of several future films—Made of Honor, Friends with Benefits,  What If—the list is long and the jury is still hung on the verdict on its validity.

While Harry’s philosophy, in general, stinks of misogyny, Sally’s rhetoric speaks louder and she is decidedly a happy feminist of the 90s. She is hardly that girl who hides in her naïveté and her love for a man, and that plays out well even today.

The film does a surprisingly good job of staying relevant by making sure no theme or character (and their ideology) takes over the film or makes it about who’s right and who’s not.

Whether every mainstream film needs to match up to a standard of the future is worth debating, but the lack of inclusion seems commonplace for films of this age. The job of films is to represent realities, and this one is at its heart, is universal and one for the ages, if you ask me.

What makes sense about the film is the whole dance of falling in and out of love, the struggles of dating, the promise of love to fix all the uncertainty, and eventually, the celebration of a big friendship that grows into love, albeit abruptly.

Suradha Iyer is a writing analyst at Qrius

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