Thirty Years Since ‘When Harry Met Sally…’ Disrupted the Idea of Happily Ever After

Columbia Pictures

Punctuation is important, perhaps nowhere more so than in the title of When Harry Met Sally… the iconic 1989 film which thirty years after its release remains the gold standard for romantic comedies. The film, written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, is a masterwork of slow-burn romance and the humor of everyday life. The title informs audiences they will hear about the circumstances surrounding the meeting of Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan)… but the ellipsis suggests it is not the meeting itself that is the story. It is all about what happens after, during all the moments seen and unseen as they grow up together and grow closer.

From the very beginning, Harry and Sally subvert romantic comedy tropes, starting with the meet-cute. They are introduced by a mutual friend (whom Harry is dating) and after graduating from the University of Chicago they drive to New York together. The instant annoyance and distrust they share are palpable. They bicker and scoff at each others’ idiosyncrasies, and upon arriving in New York, they go their separate ways. Here we see one place where an ellipsis is important: we jump ahead five years, as they have lived their own lives and not thought of one another. And then… they meet again at the airport, not long before Harry is to be married, before going separate ways once more. And then… they meet again in a bookstore five more years later, right around the time of Harry’s divorce. It is then that their friendship starts to begin in earnest.

Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Sally (Megan Ryan) notice Harry in a bookstore – Columbia Pictures

During the drive between Chicago and New York, Harry advances his now-famous theory that men and women cannot be friends because “the sex part always gets in the way.” But Harry and Sally do become friends, even if it takes them a while to find their footing. An ellipsis can also indicate hesitation, stopping and starting, trying to find the right words as thoughts trail off. Their friendship hesitates, as it does not move in the most obvious or straightforward progression, nor does their romantic relationship. When Harry Met Sally… toys with stereotype and genre expectations for the love story by not making the romance feel like an inevitable, foregone conclusion. Instead, the characters are allowed to grow and evolve in a natural way, drawing some of their notions of romance from the movies— Harry and Sally memorably watch Casablanca together from their separate apartments and debate the ending— but also from their life experiences. Both Harry and Sally are full of neuroses: they are often obnoxious, difficult, flawed, “high maintenance.” They struggle to cope with breakups or order at restaurants or agree on anything. But they learn to find comfort in each others’ company despite their differences and even after spending time apart.

Perhaps what makes the film stand the test of time is that Ephron perfectly understands the power of what is left out. She is not afraid of ellipses, and her screenplay never resorts to cheap resolutions or romantic comedy cliches. When Harry and Sally meet, they do not jump straight to being friends; when they do become friends, they do not leap to romance right away. Though the film teases a sense of cosmic destiny via the repeated theme music of “It Had to Be You,” it also teases viewers, making them wait to see if that’s actually true. Yet just as those three simple dots in the title are there for a reason, the hesitations and time jumps are essential to understanding Harry and Sally’s story. They are allowed to exist as fully-formed people independently of one another even as they continually find themselves pulled back together.

Harry and Sally argue over lunch at Katz’s Deli – Columbia Pictures

Ephron’s sharp screenplay elevates mundane talk about sex or divorce into hilarious exchanges of cosmic importance. Harry tells his best friend Jess (Bruno Kirby) about his impending divorce while they do the wave in a sports stadium, while Sally’s best friend Marie (Carrie Fisher) whips out her Rolodex full of potential suitors while at a restaurant. Making silly voices in the Metropolitan Museum of Art hints at Harry and Sally’s growing closeness, while an argument over a “stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table” turns into a cathartic moment for Harry to express the lingering hurt from his divorce. Talking is never just talking. There is always a subtext, unspoken feelings, things that go unsaid…

An ellipsis is not the end of the sentence, but a suggestion that there is more to follow, and when Harry and Sally realize that they have fallen in love, they want to cut to the chase. As Harry dramatically declares to Sally at a party on New Year’s Eve: “When you realize you wanna spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” Sally responds to Harry’s revelation that “it doesn’t work this way.” Just as they do not quite know what the ending of Casablanca says about love, they do not quite know what confessing their love says about their future together. But they realize that all they want is to figure it out as they go along together. 

Harry and Sally watch movies together from their separate rooms – Columbia Pictures

This is not a story that ends in a perfect “happily ever after,” even if the characters are happy. Instead, it dismantles the whole idea of such an ending. It’s a story of a series of afters, of things that could have been endings but weren’t. In the final scene of the film, Harry and Sally tell an interviewer the meandering story of how they met, became friends, fell in love, and got married. The film ends as they are still mid-conversation, perhaps the only appropriate ending to their love story, which did not begin in full when they met, nor did it end after they finally got together. The rest of their story will just be left up to the viewers’ imaginations…

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