The charm of “When Harry Met Sally” is not in the obviousness of their relationship – we know the fate of these two from the time we read their names in the title – but more in the journey that Harry and Sally make to becoming a couple, or at least giving their “non-relationship” a name. This prolonged journey follows the title characters through years of acquaintance-ship, fashion, hairstyles, and relationships, and allows us as the audience to acclimate ourselves to the idiosyncrasies of their personalities. These factors and the thoughtful detail written into the characters Harry and Sally (thanks, Nora Ephron), along with fantastic performances, have created the classic that has passed the test of time.
Harry’s character is beloved because he simply is not immediately that lovable. Our introduction to Harry shows him making out with his girlfriend, who is obviously far more into him than he is to her. Does this make him a bad person? No, however it does make him an irritating one. When he first jumps into Sally’s car, he begins eating and spitting the seeds of gargantuan grapes onto Sally’s window. He is abrasive and arrogant. Claiming he has a huge “dark side” and bragging about how he broods about death, Harry basically holds this superiority over Sally’s head. His character is allowed room to grow over the years, though he still retains many of his “bad habits” – namely diving into relationships and sleeping with women without hesitation, while still not over his ex-wife Helen. He is also incredibly honest and observant, delivering the majority of the film’s classic musings on relationships. In some ways you could say Harry is our stereotype/archetype for the every man in a relationship. He is sexually unrestrained, operates with little emotion, and is, as Sally describes him, “an affront to all women”. Simultaneously, Harry is anything but a stereotype in that he is sensitive and intuitive toward Sally and her needs. He is emotional and owns that emotion, rather than stuffing it down like Sally, who by contrast denies her feelings to everyone including herself.
Sally is not free from fault here – she is painted as uptight, impatient, controlling, and in Harry’s words “high maintenance”. Not only is she stand-offish toward Harry’s persistent attempts to get to know her, but she is stand-offish in general toward love. Though she has a brief monologue where she describes wanting a family, all of her actions work against that notion. We can also think of Sally as the archetype for the every woman – she is family-oriented and by contrast to Harry is far more sexually conservative. This character trait is contradicted however in the famous faked orgasm scene, where she proves to Harry that women are capable of faking orgasms, while also mildly squashing his male ego. Sally also breaks with her stereotype by being far more removed from her emotions than Harry. It takes until the second to last scene of the movie at the New Year’s party, a span of over twelve years for Sally to admit to Harry that she loves him, and even then she whispers this inaudibly as they embrace.
Harry and Sally are interesting in that they are nearly perfect opposites, but are also the same in that they continually block themselves from the relationship and lives they desire. They go as far as setting each other up on dates with their best friends Marie and Jess, who end up marrying each other. Both Harry and Sally are emotionally detached, and fear a real commitment because of the risk of losing that investment. Harry fears repeating his mistakes with his ex-wife Helen and once again having his heart broken, while Sally wants a marriage and family, but fears the rejection she received from Joe whom she presumably wanted to marry.
I believe we all know a Harry and a Sally – those two great “friends” who maybe hooked up once, or perhaps hug a few seconds longer than any platonic relationship permits. They tap-dance around their emotions, date other people, and fulfill the major duties of most significant others, but they never quite “hook it up”. Harry and Sally is the story of the friends that manage to “hook it up”. Yes, the friend-zone is possible to escape, and according to “When Harry Met Sally,” we can escape it in a mere twelve years!