Lessons We Can Learn From When Harry Met Sally

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When Harry Met Sally, 1989 (film still)

As Nora Ephron's classic 80s romcom makes a glorious return to the big screen, we decode its principles, style and witty absurdities

Whether you’re an ardent fan who knows Harry and Sally’s endless game of one-upmanship by heart, or you’re enjoying it for the very first time, blissfully unaware of the twists which await you, Rob Reiner’s iconic 1989 film When Harry Met Sally is one of the wittiest and most earnest romantic comedies you’ll ever have the pleasure to watch.

The plot is simple: its protagonists – Harry Burns, played by Billy Crystal, a sexist, fatalistic political consultant, and Sally Albright, played by Meg Ryan, a bright-eyed, finicky journalist – meet in college in 1977, falling in and out of friendship over the course of 12 years in New York City, all the while debating the age-old question of whether men and women can really be friends without sex getting in the way. Something about the masterful combination of Nora Ephron’s witty writing and Reiner’s direction, however, gives this classic an inimitable timelessness. As the masterpiece returns to cinemas across the UK, we look at what we can learn from Harry and Sally’s oddball journey to an unforgettable relationship.

1. You can have your food the way you want it
Sally Albright is an inspiration to fussy eaters the world over. “I’d like the chef salad please with the vinegar on the side, and the apple pie à la mode,” she tells a waitress in one famous scene. “But I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it, if not then no ice cream, just whipped cream if it’s real, but if it’s out of the can then nothing.”

The lesson to be learned from Sally’s pedantry? You should never be afraid to indicate your exact preference when it comes to placing your order. Whether it’s specifying the temperature of your dessert, or having your coconut cake served with the chocolate sauce on the side because, you know, “the coconut soaks up a lot of it,” life is too short not to enjoy your food the way you like it. Just remember to leave your waiter a generous tip.

2. Don’t expect to agree with your date on the way classic movies end
Before the film has even reached its ten-minute mark, Harry and Sally fall into an impassioned debate over Ingrid Bergman’s departure at the end of classic film Casablanca, establishing their respective frustrations within moments. Harry believes Bergman leaves because Humphrey Bogart doesn’t give her a choice, but if it were her decision she’d stay for the great sex. Sally, being her practical self, argues that Bergman, like all logical women, got on the plane because the prospect of becoming the First Lady of Czechoslovakia seemed rather more appealing than spending the rest of her life with some guy who ran a bar. The discrepancy is the first of many which occur over the course of the film – which just goes to show that the less you agree, the more interesting your conversations. 

3. Choose your life partner as you would a melon
While it’s best not to judge a book by its cover, or to pick a bottle of wine by its label, first impressions are often the truest when it comes to people, and the cutaway scenes in When Harry Met Sally, in which older, established couples explain how they met, or what drew them to one another, are all the proof you’ll ever need that you should listen to your gut. Besides, more often than not you can tell from a brief conversation if somebody is juicy, damaged, or just plain mouldy – and if you do get a good feeling, then don’t hesitate to take a detour and “ride up nine extra floors” to keep talking to them, as one gentleman reveals he did to continue the conversation he was having with his sweetheart.

4. 1980s androgynous fashions are not to be sniffed at
Like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall before it, When Harry Met Sally is an unabashedly joyful celebration of buttoned-up and androgynous styling. Take Sally’s fond appreciation for a boxy tweed jacket, for example – paired with a burgundy cravat for executive realness, or with a brown bowler hat and a cable knit jumper for an autumn walk in Central park. For warmer days, there’s inspiration to be found in her pairing of high-waisted Bermuda shorts with knee-high socks, or a prim and proper Victorian collar tucked under an elaborate lapel. Most important of all, however, is the fisherman's jumper: invest in a range of colours, wear it regardless of the season, and wherever possible, co-ordinate with your lover for maximum impact.

5. Men and women can be just friends
Harry got us thinking with his declaration that “no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive,” and while it may take his character a while – 12 years, even – to realise it, he was utterly wrong in his claim. While studies do show that most men begin friendships with women based on their sexual attraction, as long as sex doesn’t get in the way, a valuable and platonic bond can develop – and a truly timeless film result. 

When Harry Met Sally is showing at the BFI Southbank from December 11 – 28 as part of BFI LOVE; a special screening on December 19 will be introduced by actor Simon Pegg and Man Up screenwriter Tess Morris.