"When Harry Met Sally" is the perfect fall movie that we need now more than ever

When the temperature drops, nothing warms our hearts like this '80s classic (and pepper on our paprikash)

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published October 4, 2023 2:59PM (EDT)

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal pose for the movie "When Harry Met Sally" circa 1989. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal pose for the movie "When Harry Met Sally" circa 1989. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"When Harry Met Sally" is my favorite movie of all time, and it sits in my top four on Letterboxd. As a former chronically online teenager venturing into the glorious and wistful rom-com genre, I was suggested the film through a lot of propaganda on Tumblr. At 15, I watched the film illegally on YouTube. The second I saw the elderly couple opening the movie, talking about their love story, I knew I felt safe and at home.

Generally, that's why "When Harry Met Sally" holds a special place in my romantic heart because of its ability to appeal to our innate human need for connection. It's why every year when the fall rolls around people reminisce about the film's impact during the colder seasons of the year. The film appears on movie watch lists for the fall, people post all the warm scenes between Harry and Sally walking through burnt orange autumn foliage in Central Park and most of all people begin dressing in oversized cream cable knit sweaters just like Harry like how Zoomers are obsessing over Rory Gilmore from "Gilmore Girls" winterwear.

It's in the friendship that they experience the type of love people search for their entire lives.

Since the film's 1989 release, it has had a subculture of its own that continues to expand past generational confines. If you're talking to a rom-com stan they would point out that the film's longevity, especially its resurgence in the fall, hinges on several key intentional factors like the atmospheric backdrop of Harry's and Sally's lives is a nostalgic late '80s New York City where the Twin Towers are seen through the Washington Square Park archway. There's the warm, orangey color gradiant filter and crackle from being shot on 35mm film (FYI: film thrives in natural lighting making it inherently just warmer than digital), and the commitment to illustrating humorous and earnest generational love stories with real "destined to be in love" elderly couples, who have ridden "nine extra floors" just to see each again.

But the soul of the film, the reason why we see ourselves in its greatness, its stillness, its humanness, lies in the chemistry and connection between the two leads Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Ultimately the film doesn't really have a real textbook plot, it's simply about two strangers who become best friends and fall in love. But it works because of the whipsmart, back-and-forth dialogue from masterminds, writer Nora Ephron and director Rob Reiner, whose own life experiences are heavily present throughout the film. Ephron is supposed to be Sally, who is a veteran journalist just like Ephron — she even obnoxiously orders food like her with every single ingredient on the side. Reiner is supposed to be Harry, who was recently divorced at the time and disagreed that men and women couldn't be friends. Oh, he also had no idea women faked orgasms which led to the infamous and improvised scene from Ryan in Katz's Deli. The punchline "I'll have what she's having" was whipped up by Crystal.

The blossoming, back-and-forth friendship and eventual love story between Harry and Sally spans decades. They meet at different points in their lives: at first, they hate each other as college graduates driving to NYC to start their post-grad lives, then they don't even remember each other five years later in an airport and finally, they become friends five years later after Sally and her longtime boyfriend Joe break up and Harry's wife Helen divorces him — they become the best of friends.

It's in the friendship that they experience the type of love people search for their entire lives. It's pure, it's without pretense, it's without the sexual connotations. It's real and untainted. It's the type of love that love expert and feminist philosopher bell hooks talks about in "All About Love." It is filled with "care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication."

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The film's premise is simple: Can men and women be friends without the sex getting in the way? Harry and Sally disprove the film's hypothesis many times over with their pure, unadulterated commitment to their platonic friendship. They meet each other again in a phase of their lives where they are battered and bruised by the idea of romantic love and find each other to alleviate the pain of modern heartbreak with friendship. It's better to be alone together, right?

In "All About Love" hooks wrote, "Many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape."

It's a love story that feels like the warm feeling of a crackling fireplace on a cold, crisp day.

Harry and Sally experience loneliness together until they realize they rely on each other too much and fall into bed together. It fundamentally shifts the tone of their relationship, which they both consider to be platonic . . . but nothing feels the same and it's uncertain. Post-breakup and hook-up, that's when they spend time truly alone without one another. While they realize that they can be alone without each other, they no longer want to be alone anymore because their lives are better and fuller with each other in it. In an iconic scene, Harry finally has his come-to-god moment. He's tired of lying to himself that he doesn't want Sally and that he doesn't love Sally. He frantically runs through the streets of NYC to find Sally alone at a New Year's Eve party. 

Ephron, who knows what peak romance is to women, writes a perfect love declaration. Harry declares to Sally with a vulnerable, piercing and bleeding heart all the ways he loves and sees her for the person that she is — not just some consolation prize:

I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.

His speech encapsulates the type of love story that naturally works. It's a love story that feels like the warm feeling of a crackling fireplace on a cold, crisp day. It's a love story that is possible for all of us – not just fictional white characters in 1980s NYC. These fall and winter months, as humans, we are looking for companionship. It's why we long for the holidays and a sense of togetherness and community.

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As the temperatures drop and the sun begins to set a little earlier than usual, our serotonin levels also do the same. People begin to feel a bit more down and some of us start the longing for a relationship. It's called cuffing season for a reason. And for the people who are perpetually single or just want to be held by a movie, films like "When Harry Met Sally" take the place of a relationship or just the comfort of companionship and soothe us in the same way. Now more than ever as the planet is warming up and we really don't feel seasons in the same way — films that memorialize this specific feeling of fall and coziness are so crucial to make us feel human, to make us remember the sense of community and togetherness that are so fundamental to the human experience.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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