This article is part of the Lily Lines newsletter. You can sign up here to get it delivered twice a week to your inbox.
Call me a creature of habit; I tend to be a tad obsessive. As a child, I insisted on wearing the same outfit for months: a pink romper that my mother eventually, furtively tossed for everyone’s sake. As a teen, I polished off enough Maruchan ramen packets — particularly the spicy flavors — to feed a nation. And in my mid-20s, I watched “When Harry Met Sally” on repeat, beguiled by the main characters’ banter, captivated by their friendship. Like a warm bath or a cool breeze, the film soothed me, and, as it turns out, also taught me a few lessons.
Call it kismet: After a nearly 24-hour-long labor (sorry, Ma), I was born July 12, 1989, the same day Nora Ephron’s beloved romantic comedy first hit U.S. theaters and charmed its way into our collective consciousness.
“When Harry Met Sally,” starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, turns 30 on Friday, and so do I. (Not every fan gets to share a birthday with her favorite film; color me lucky.)
Ahead of the rom-com’s third decade, I spoke with screenwriters about why Sally Albright and Harry Burns’s connection captured audiences’ imaginations, the challenges of creating authentic on-screen relationships and the future of romantic comedies. Throughout, you’ll also find memorable quotes from the movie because, frankly, I couldn’t help myself.
Upon its release, “When Harry Met Sally,” directed by Rob Reiner, raked in praise. In The Washington Post, Rita Kempley described the film as “a sweet, embraceable comedy, a moonstruck Manhattan romance that, like a Gershwin tune, turns the sighs and glances, the spats and reconciliations, all the cliches of the heart into infectious melody. It’s a movie that walks on air.”
The premise is simple: In 1977, Harry and Sally meet on the campus of the University of Chicago. Both are New York-bound graduates, so they split costs and labor by sharing the drive to the East Coast. The ride’s a hoot — for us at least. The two quibble along the way, about everything from careers to “Casablanca.” Harry is in a relationship with Sally’s pal, but that doesn’t stop him from making a move. She isn’t interested, of course, but informs him that they can be friends. He doesn’t buy it:
When they arrive in New York, they go their separate ways, but over the course of 12 years, their lives intersect, until eventually they do become friends — best buds, in fact — and their relationship deepens and matures in ways their younger selves never expected.
“I hadn’t thought about Harry and Sally for a long time. But I do revisit it every so often when I’m teaching at NYU, and it’s interesting because it holds up in a way that was so ahead of its time, I think, because Meg Ryan’s character has agency that so many other characters” — female characters — “still to this day don’t,” says screenwriter and director Enid Zentelis, an assistant professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “It’s a heteronormative, white rom-com that I actually can get behind.”
Ephron’s writing and Reiner’s direction is “so on point,” Zentelis says, because “you question conformity, you question the status quo, you question monogamy, you question all these things, and ultimately how and why two people need each other, and it’s so beautiful in its simplicity.”
Why does “When Harry Met Sally” still feel singular? Perhaps because these days, romantic comedies — especially the earnest, relatable kind — appear few and far between. In a recent piece for the New York Times Magazine, culture writer Wesley Morris made a confession: He misses Katherine Heigl and the rom-coms she populated. These films may be occasionally retrograde and frequently gendered, he writes, but “romantic comedy is the only genre committed to letting relatively ordinary people — no capes, no spaceships, no infinite sequels — figure out how to deal meaningfully with another human being.”
Reasons abound for why rom-coms are decreasingly released in theaters near you: shifting audience tastes and cultural attitudes, consumers’ desire for streaming content, showbiz metrics. Much has been written about how studios are ditching smaller-budget films for showy action flicks and franchises — what executives tend to see as safer, more marketable bets.
Many of those tent-pole movies, which are costly to produce and predicted to generate massive revenue, follow a three-act structure. In the first act, the protagonist’s ordinary world is disrupted, prodding him or her to embark on an adventure. In the second act, the mechanics of the story must be hashed out ahead of the climax and resolution in the third act. Frequently, love interests appear in the second act as “the motor or the engine” to propel the film forward, says Zentelis, whose film “Bottled Up” was nominated for the Nora Ephron Prize at Tribeca Film Festival in 2013. “When you reduce someone to a structural element inside a story, you’re going to be reductive,” she adds. The characters are cheapened, the relationship hollow.
But Zentelis isn’t inclined to pin the problem entirely on studios.“We live in a world now where people expect instant gratification,” she says, so we’re less inclined to watch movies that require a modicum of patience, such as “When Harry Met Sally.”
She’s more optimistic about depictions of love on the small screen, citing “Fleabag,” “Insecure,” “Chewing Gum” and “Take My Wife.” Films “have a bigger weight on their shoulder to deliver in structurally rote ways,” Zentelis says, while TV is much freer, and there are more outlets to offer diverse stories. “You see relationships that resonate; they’re original,” she says, pointing to one vivid example: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character and the priest in “Fleabag” Season 2. The circumstances seem out there, she admits, and yet “every single aspect of it is so relatable and so honest and brutally real that in a way it’s related to some of the best moments of ‘When Harry Met Sally.’”
Screenwriter and playwright Susan Sandler, academic director at Tisch School of the Arts, suggests a different cultural malady for romantic comedy’s decline: a generational wariness of romanticism.
“What we’re seeing arriving in the movie theaters and streaming services in the way of romantic comedies, everything seems to be coming out with a lot of self-consciousness and a lot of winking at the audience,” says Sandler, who is currently directing a feature documentary on comedian Julia Scotti. “I think there’s a reluctance to embrace a full romantic fantasy.”
In other words, there seems to be a great deal of cynicism in our cinema these days.
“I think that’s part of what your generation is wrestling with. Behind the selfies,” Sandler says, there’s apprehension: “How do you lose yourself in the love of someone else without the self-consciousness of who you are and how you’re perceived?”
There’s a scene in “When Harry Met Sally” that’s one of my absolute favorites: The duo take a stroll through Manhattan in autumn, engaging in low-stakes, airy chatter. They talk about their bizarre-o, recurring sex dreams — Harry’s involves a panel of judges, including his mother, evaluating his lovemaking skills; Sally’s revolves around a faceless stranger ripping her clothes off. They visit a museum, casually taking in the sights, and start speaking in peculiar voices. (Hence the birth of this weird, winning line: “Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash, but I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie.”)
What struck me is their compatibility, how they dare to be silly, the ease with which they are wholly themselves, idiosyncrasies and all, in each other’s presence. Fireworks spell a fun time on Independence Day, but they’re no prerequisite for an enduring partnership. Sometimes, congruence is the more important criterion. Comfort can spell love.
“This isn’t a romance of passion, although passion is present, but one that becomes possible only because the two people have grown up together, have matured until they can finally see clearly what they really want in a partner,” Roger Ebert wrote of Harry and Sally in ’89.
That’s precisely the point, I think. It takes these two decades to realize what they want — and to know it when they see it. Thanks to their looping, amusing journey, I too was able to articulate the kind of mate I needed, and when I met him, I didn’t hesitate.