On ‘When Harry Met Sally’ and Why Marriage Matters

In Classic Film Throwback Series, Reviews by Sam Hendrian

This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series

– By Sam Hendrian –

“I’ll have what she’s having.” So goes the legendary line delivered by director Rob Reiner’s mother at the end of a decidedly off-color (if undeniably funny) scene in the classic 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. This particular scene signifies the film’s large preoccupation with sex and how it fits into loving relationships, and while its perspective on this important subject matter is certainly flawed, it nevertheless offers rich food for thought about what it means to be friends and, more importantly, what it means to truly love someone. The casual sexual encounters that the characters engage in and the emptiness they are ultimately left with afterwards also make quite a good case for why marriage matters in human society.

When Harry (Billy Crystal) first meets Sally (Meg Ryan), his views on sex, friendship, and life itself are bitingly cynical. Sally is particularly taken aback by his bold statement that “Men and women can’t be friends… The sex part always gets in the way.” While this statement initially comes across as arrogant and a reflection of immature masculinity, let us examine it for a moment and see if there is any truth to be found beneath its seemingly shallow surface. While men and women have the ability to control their sexual desires, attraction itself is an organic occurrence and can most certainly occur between two people who love each other platonically. Harry’s belief is that this attraction will always overpower platonic affection in any friendship between a man and a woman, and while this is not true in an absolute sense, it is reasonable to say that the existence of attraction can make nonsexual male-female relationships become awkward and uncomfortable.

Despite Harry’s assertion that he could never truly be friends with Sally because he finds her attractive, friends is exactly what they become throughout the course of the movie. They both become romantically involved with other people, but these relationships never work out, and it is in each other’s company that they always seem the most happy and comfortable. Harry becomes Sally’s confidante, and in one of the scene’s most poignant moments, she explains to him why one of her more long-lasting sexual relationships ended in a break-up:

“When Joe and I started seeing each other, we wanted exactly the same thing. We wanted to live together, but we didn’t want to get married because every time anyone we knew got married, it ruined their relationship… And Joe and I used to talk about it, and we’d say we were so lucky we have this wonderful relationship. We can have sex on the kitchen floor and not worry about the kids walking in. We can fly off to Rome on a moment’s notice. And then one day I was taking Alice’s little girl for the afternoon because I’d promised to take her to the circus, and we were in the cab playing ‘I Spy–’ I spy a mailbox, I spy a lamppost– and she looked out the window, and she saw this man and this woman with these two little kids. And the man had one of the little kids on his shoulders, and she said, ‘I spy a family.’ And I started to cry.”

This acute yearning for marriage and family as expressed by Sally is beautiful and extremely relevant in a post-Sexual Revolution society that says that the only real purpose of love and sex is pleasure. Sally’s ex-boyfriend remained steadfast in this warped belief, and so their relationship did not work out. Harry, on the other hand, has grown more caring and perhaps a little less cynical over the years, and there is hope that he will be able to fulfill Sally’s natural longing for a relationship that is genuinely loving and open to life.

Sally and Harry’s friendship grows stronger and stronger as the film progresses, but then they make one serious mistake that threatens to destroy it all together: they have sex with each other. This experience ultimately leaves them feeling hollow and uncomfortable, and they wish they could take it back. If they care about each other so deeply, why does this physical union feel so wrong? The truth is that Harry and Sally are not yet ready to give entirely of themselves to each other, which is one of the elements the sex act requires to be truly fulfilling. Only after they are united by the bond of marriage, in which lies the beautiful promise to remain lovingly faithful until death, can they be completely ready to consummate their loving relationship and nobly give all of themselves to each other. While Harry and Sally may not recognize this truth consciously, they do subconsciously, as marriage unexpectedly becomes the next big step in their years-long friendship.

As New Year’s Eve arrives and the film nears its conclusion, Harry vegges out in his apartment while Sally tries to have a good time at a party. Both lonely souls long for each other’s companionship, but the shadow of their recent mistake still looms over the natural intimacy of their relationship, and they are uncertain if they can ever be comfortably reunited. This uncertainty is gradually overpowered by the unconquerable affection they have for each other, and Harry finally makes the brave decision to leave the comfort of his apartment and visit Sally at the New Year’s Eve party, knowing he could be rejected but hoping he can convince her why they are soulmates. Upon arriving at the party and confronting Sally, he delivers one of the most beautifully romantic speeches in movie history:

“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 someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

This touching paradox of loving someone not despite but because of her or his more quirky/irritating characteristics is at the heart of making a relationship last, and it profoundly parallels the love God has for each of us in our littleness and imperfection. Sally realizes in this moment that Harry loves her deeply and will steadfastly do so for the rest of her life, and she understands now that she wants to do the same. They tie the knot soon afterwards, and while we do not find out much else, we can reasonably conclude that they have an immensely loving marriage filled with fulfilling sex and the openness to life that Sally has always yearned for.

While an imperfect film, When Harry Met Sally nicely illustrates the sublime mystery of true romantic love and the important role marriage plays in fully uniting a man and a woman who want to spend the rest of their lives together. It has certainly earned its status as a romantic comedy classic, and it will likely continue to enchant audiences for years to come. Let us learn from the example of its flawed but lovable characters and strive daily to love each other steadfastly, sincerely, and sacrificially.    

 About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.