Did Nora Ephron’s “When Harry Met Sally” ruin male-female friendship?

UPDATED: Debating Nora Ephron's classic, from Harry and Sally's chemistry to that famous scene at Katz's Deli

Topics: Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Romantic comedy,

Did Nora Ephron's "When Harry Met Sally" ruin male-female friendship?Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally"
Willa Paskin and Mary Elizabeth Williams both admired Nora Ephron, but they disagree on "When Harry Met Sally." Paskin calls it an ideal romantic comedy; Williams says it's to blame for creating the myth that men and women can't be friends. They'll argue it out here -- we'll be updating the conversation in real time, so keep checking back. Join in the discussion in the comments.

Mary Elizabeth Williams: Let me start by saying I adore Nora Ephron, who died yesterday evening at 71. Her essays introduced me to Fay Weldon and, more significantly, Jane Austen, when I was a teenager. “Silkwood” had one of the first great LGBT characters I ever saw in a movie. Her New Yorker essay about Manhattan real estate, just a few years ago, made me laugh and weep like something out of a Nancy Meyers movie.

But her greatest legacy will likely be ruining countless viable, thriving, necessary relationships. That, and giving us the phrase “Steve Harvey, relationship expert.” I’m talking about “When Harry Met Sally.” The moment Harry said, “Men and women can’t be friends” 23 years ago, it passed from being a provocative line uttered by a guy who, by the way, is pretty much a jerk, and into accepted doctrine. “When Harry Met Sally” remains an ersatz Woody Allen movie about two incredibly irritating people. I still can’t think of that film without wishing it’d been “When Jess Met Marie.”

Willa Paskin: I too adore Nora Ephron, so I’m relieved that we agree on “Wallflower at the Orgy” and the rest, and all we have to argue about is “When Harry Met Sally,” the best romantic comedy — give or a take a “Broadcast News” — made since Billy Wilder retired. I could go on and on about it and its perfectly structured, hilarious, concise screenplay (you could write a book, and lord knows people have tried, about all the self-involved pathos in the “And I’ll be 40 … someday” line, but none would be as hilarious or to the point). But I’ll address your particular complaints first.

One, it’s never a great movie’s fault when people use its lines to be annoying. By this logic, “Anchorman” and “Zoolander” would be the worst films of all time. Second, men and women not being able to be friends is the undercover theme of the vast majority of rom-coms, wherein the man and the woman, friendly or otherwise, almost always get together. Nora Ephron just had the savvy to call that theme out, and turn it into forever cocktail party chatter. Three, irritating people? That’s the point! Harry Burns and Sally Albright are two persnickety, specific weirdos, one who orders everything on the side and one who is the morbid guy constantly showing off about how much more morbid he is than you, and they’re perfect for each other. Think about the sort of “flaws” that pass as “characters” in most rom-coms, where the girl’s a klutz and the guy’s a ladies man. Harry and Sally are both so much more, and if that makes them annoying, the kind of people that might try one’s patience at a dinner party, well, lucky for us, we only have to watch them at the movies. (But I’m glad we agree on Jess and Marie.)

Williams: Yeah, but when people say “I’m kind of a big deal” or “Have you ever wondered if there’s more to life than being really, really ridiculously handsome?” they know they’re referencing characters who are absurd. Harry and Sally have become a romantic ideal. I’m not saying Ephron set out to destroy platonic relationships as we know them, but she did make a pretty half-assed couple there.

“The will they or won’t they,” “should they or shouldn’t they” device has been with us always, but it was “When Harry Met Sally” that fully articulated this idea that men just always want to nail you, and women just always really want you to be their boyfriend — therefore you can’t really trust each other to be friends. Which is such a massive crock of BS. Because first of all, even if you do want to nail each other or harbor romantic ideals, even if you wind up sleeping together, or you never do because, eww, gross, dude, you’re like my brother, you can be friends. And the perniciousness of this idea that you can’t has been one of the all-time worst things that ever happened to heteros.

Also, I would be hard-pressed to think of a movie that doesn’t sound less authentic. Look, I like movies that have a strong voice. I like Aaron Sorkin. I like Wes Anderson. And I cringe when Harry does his little speech about the crinkle in her nose. I die of fremdschamen when Sally fakes that orgasm. Because the whole movie is one big faked orgasm.

Paskin: I think this is a misread of the movie itself, though perhaps not what it’s come to signify in the culture. The movie has three acts (first you hated me, then I hated you, and then we were friends for a long time. And then we weren’t.) Yes, in the first act, Harry says men and women can’t be friends, but the third act of the film the two really are friends. When they set Jess and Marie up with each other, they really mean it. The fact that the relationship changes into something else — and something way more complicated than “bro, I just want to tap that” —  feels organic to me. That the film ultimately does uphold Harry’s dickish epigram doesn’t make the conclusion feel less earned. For a long time, Harry and Sally were friends. And then they weren’t.

And besides, though, yes, of course, boys and girls can be friends, boys and girls who are friends are sometimes … not only friends. That too is not an altogether uncommon human arrangement. Nora Ephron and her movie and her characters have no responsibility to rep for the Just Friends Really Do Exist side of things: Not every movie has to be everything to everyone. And I think the fact that the movie made Men and Women Can’t Be Friends loom so large in the culture speaks to just how accurately it nailed that particular situation. If nothing about the premise of “When Harry Met Sally” had rung true, it wouldn’t have permeated the culture quite so thoroughly.

As for the fakery: Sure, this isn’t a mumblecore movie, or “Before Sunrise,” but who needs it to be? The people in “When Harry Met Sally” may not sound exactly like real people, but they sound exactly how I want people to sound in romantic comedies — smart, clever, witty. When Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were lobbing one-liners at each other, the joy in watching wasn’t that they seemed like you and me.

And as for the crinkle-face speech, I think it is so hard to watch that now with the proper perspective, since almost every single romantic comedy made since has completely hijacked it. But once upon a time, before “When Harry Met Sally,” when a man wanted to declare his love, he didn’t run through all the annoying things a woman did that he loved about her anyway, Nora made that up, and everyone since has stolen it.

And “When you find the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start right now?” Come on. My heart is not made of stone.

Williams: I was thinking how you referenced “Broadcast News,” and about Woody Allen, and what romance can be in the movies. When I think of “Broadcast News” and “Annie Hall,” they’re fantastic movies because they tackle so many of the same issues in more complicated ways. Jane and Aaron are best friends, and then it gets all horribly messed up, and it’s satisfying exactly because they wind up on a couch talking about their delicious wedding cake. They somehow find their way back to being friends. Alvy and Annie meet and fall in love and break up and make another go of it and in the end they have a supreme fondness for each other that transcends happily ever after. Harry and Sally pretty much killed that kind of subtle, complicated romantic comedy. I lay the blame for at least 80 percent of what Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson have committed in their careers at the feet of Nora Ephron. I blame Nora Ephron for “Leap Year.”

Did I mention I actually love Nora Ephron? But this is a serious crime.

Paskin: Look, by this argument, it is impossible to have a subtle, complicated, adult romantic comedy in which the main couple ends up together. If there is a happy ending, the movie must be cheap or immature in some way. I just fundamentally disagree with this. Admittedly, I am a total sucker for romantic comedies and happy endings, and I will watch both “27 Dresses” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” when I find them on cable. But blaming “When Harry Met Sally” for horrible Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson movies is like blaming Frank Lloyd Wright for suburban tract housing. Without him, suburban tract housing as we know it would not exist, but that doesn’t make him anything other than a genius. If rom-coms today were written with a quarter of the craft and care of “When Harry Met Sally,” I would never complain that everyone always ends up together (see a movie like “Definitely, Maybe,” which has a happy ending, but is just better made than rom-coms usually are). Seriously, there is not one ounce of flab on that screenplay: Every single line tells us something important and revealing about each character and their worldview.

Williams: Not at all. You can be subtle and complicated and get the girl. But if we’re putting Ephron in the realm of Woody Allen and James L. Brooks, it’s fair to say, nope, here’s the difference. Ephron was imitating them. In a very pale manner. I’m a big softie. I love romances that are smarter and sexier and better than anything were awkward tongue-tied human achieve. I will stop in my tracks if “Pretty Woman” is on TV, and it doesn’t get more far-fetched happy ending than that. Somewhere, right now, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” is playing and I want to be there. But I do cop to a fondness for rom-com with a twist of ambiguity. I would take the last few seconds of “The Graduate” or “Say Anything” over every movie Nora Ephron did put together. I think “The 40 Year Old Virgin” is a great rom-com. And “Juno.”

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And I agree that “When Harry Met Sally” and its big speechy moments have gone on to become a cultural touchstone, but I can also assure you that when I sat in a movie theater in 1989 with a group of male and female friends, I wanted to crawl under my seat. Harry’s declaration of love to Sally was then and remains for me the summation of all a man could say to me to never get laid. You know why? Because it’s a movie that thinks it’s smarter than it is. It’s a movie that wants to be “His Girl Friday,” which I resent, because Rosalind Russell and Meg Ryan both play journalists in their films. And I want to punch Meg Ryan.

Of course not every movie has to be all things to everyone — and I’ll be the first to defend “The Help’s” right to not be the story of the entire civil rights movement or “Girls” as not the full state of young female adulthood. But don’t you get the sense, watching it, that Ephron was actively trying to make a statement movie? It feels so stand-up comedy routine: Men be all like this! But ladies be all like that! You see it again and again in Ephron’s films. It’s just so lazy.

Paskin:  This is starting to get into personal taste territory, because the answer for me is, no, I don’t get the sense “When Harry Met Sally” was intended primarily as a statement movie, all girls be like this and boys be like that. I have to circle back to what I mentioned earlier, which is that I find both Harry and Sally to be extremely singular, occasionally difficult weirdos, the sort of characters writers write when they’ve been saving up the good details for a long time. All the film’s vignettes of the old couples who are long married — their stories don’t sound exactly like Harry and Sally’s, except that they all found long everlasting love. “When Harry Met Sally” seems to me much more guilty of romanticism than stridency, of sentimentalism (all those montages of New York in the fall, they get me every time) than hectoring. And, it probably goes without saying, I dont find the romanticism or sentimentalism to be egregious crimes.

And as for Meg Ryan. A lot has happened to her and her career since she starred in the trifecta of Ephron movies, but every time I see “When Harry Met Sally” I am reminded how great she was. Harry is the slam dunk part in this film, the curmudgeon with the funny lines and the sardonic sense of humor. Sally is a much more shrill character, and in the wrong hands, she would have been the uptight lady, some version of the mature scold who now appears in most Judd Apatow films.

But Ryan never falls into this trap, and I think it has a lot to do with Ephron’s world view. In her commencement speech at Wellesley in 1996, she told the graduating seniors, “Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally.” Sally Albright takes everything personally, and it’s what is so wonderful about her, and not just because Harry says as much in the climactic speech you hate so much.  Sally can’t even let the bizarro-compliment from the aggressive guy who finds her attractive go, nor his claim that she’s never had good sex. And, the actual orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally” is made for me not just by its infamous kicker, but for the sleepy, funny, no big deal face Sally makes to Harry as she puts a bite of food in her mouth. I love Rosalind Russell, but “When Harry Met Sally”-era Meg Ryan could take her.

Williams: See, to me, the orgasm thing is the heart of everything awful about the movie.

Sally is a prim little number, a control freak. Sally does not have sex on her cold Mexican tiles. Sally’s erotic fantasies change only with regard to her outfits. So when she thrashes around in Katz’s deli, it’s a bit. It’s a joke for the sake of a joke, so that Rob Reiner’s mom can deliver the kicker. It has zero to do with who Sally is prior or how she behaves after. And when characters behave in ways that are untrue to themselves, even when their true selves are prissy and annoying, that’s cheap. Sally may have hidden depths, but in public, she can barely muster “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” at the Sharper Image, is all I’m saying.

We all have our movies that just get to us. (“Flashdance”? Yes, please. “Mean Girls”? Any day.) Others will forever leave us cold. I know I could no more persuade you of the ickiness of “When Harry Met Sally” than any force on earth could get me to like “500 Days of Summer” or “Once.”

I like New York in the autumn and all that, but I really like a movie that breaks my goddamn heart. (Or involves a steeltown girl’s dream of becoming a ballerina.) Even when she’s crying that she’s going to be 40…. someday! I never feel Sally’s heart breaking. Even at the wedding, when he makes that boneheaded dog years reference. I feel Marie’s heart, when she’s chasing that married guy. But Harry and Sally seem so mildly inconvenienced by it all. There’s no great heat between them, no moment when I as a viewer believe that Billy Crystal would catch a grenade for this fussy woman.

Paskin: I know what you mean about the heat between them, and how it’s not particularly, uh, flammable, but this never really bothered me, I think mostly because it just affirms to me the two of them actually really are friends, if they also become something more. It’s not like they’re two strangers with brand new chemistry– and when they do have that fight about “Casablanca” and Sheldon in the movie’s early scenes, there is a crackle between them — they’re two fully grown adults who know each other extremely intimately. Whether or not the movie is a rebuke to the idea that men and women can just be friends, it’s a deep friendship that underlies their like and love of each other, not some freshly minted infatuation. They’re making up their minds about one another, not just their hearts. (And, besides, in the universe of this film, not to mention in the real, actual universe, when is Billy Crystal going to have to catch a grenade for her? That seems like a pretty high ripped-from-the-movies-bar.)

As for Sally’s heart and whether mine ever breaks for her: It’s the scene right after Harry goes on his rant to Marie and Jess about the wagon wheel table (best prop in a movie ever, or best prop in a movie ever?) and Sally is the one who goes and gets him, and he picks a fight with her about why nothing ever “backs up on her,” and instead of talking about that, she just tells him to not say every single thing he’s thinking all the time, and they hug. For a movie with so much talking, a lot goes unsaid in that scene, and I do so, so, so feel for Sally in that moment, a woman who can’t even let herself be a little broken with her very best friend, because being put together and taking care of other people is who she is actively committed to being all the time.

And this ties to the orgasm scene, which, I agree is not particularly in keeping with her character and is not a scene I love very much (though, in character or out, I understand a comedy director like Rob Reiner’s incentive to keep it in. You don’t toss a gold brick just because it doesn’t fit into whatever you’re building.) Sally Albright, who won’t have sex on her cold tiles, is not going to fake orgasm over a pastrami sandwich. But the part I can get behind, the way I make that scene make sense, is that it is the ultimate example of how Harry Burns is the one person in the universe who makes Sally Albright get out of her comfort zone, because he is the one person in the world who drives her crazy enough that she wants to win every argument with him that she can. And, that, whatever I said just a paragraph ago, is pretty legit chemistry.

Anyway, let’s watch “When Harry Met Sally” together sometime soon, even if it may be slightly torturous for you. I guarantee I’ll be annoying and point out the part where they are riding in the wrong direction on Lake Shore Drive, and the other part during the “Pepper in my paprikash” bit when Meg Ryan looks over at Rob Reiner to be all “What is going on?” And then you can tell me to get it together when I start to smiling really big as Harry begins his great race to New Year’s. If it gets contentious, we can talk about that amazing scene between Jess and Marie when he promises her “she’ll never have to be out there again.” Or we can put on “500 Days of Summer,” because we sure agree about that.

Williams: No, Willa, let’s not watch “When Harry Met Sally” together. Let’s watch it, both of us, separately, at home in our beds, and talk on the phone the whole time, and be as clever and argumentative as we possibly can. I think Nora Ephron would have wanted it that way.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.
Willa Paskin
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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