Five things When Harry Met Sally says about relationships

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan

Screenwriter Nora Ephron has died at 71. For many, one of her finest moments is the romcom When Harry Met Sally, about a man and woman who are not friends, then friends, then not friends again. Is it a true picture of relationships?

(Spoiler alert: Key plot details revealed below)

He's an unlikely romantic hero - shortish, receding hairline, a bit of an idiot to the women he sleeps with, and played by Billy Crystal.

She's a bit ditzy and possibly high maintenance ("sauce on the side"). Very Meg Ryan.

They meet at college. He tries to get off with her, she rebuffs his advances, but years later they run into each other in New York and become friends. Then close friends. And then accidentally sleep with each other and it all goes horribly wrong.

What does this film - as much a love letter to New York as it is a funny meditation on friendship, love and sex - say about men and women?

1. Can men and women be friends?

"You realise of course that we could never be friends... men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way" - Harry

That's not true, Sally protests, she has lots of male friends and there is no sex involved.

Oh no she doesn't, says Harry. "No man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her."


"Yes, we jolly well ought to be friends," contends agony aunt Suzie Hayman.

"It's tragic that we have this separation between friendship and sexual relationships. The initial emotional rush when you meet someone can feel like something else, but when that eases you can be left with the fantasy of the person."

Relationship expert Judy James says the male/female friendship is probably rarer than we imagine.

"A lot of men and women are clearly friends, but often one of them will be harbouring some form of attraction for the other.

"It will probably never be consummated, as they would not want to jeopardise the friendship, but I'd say in about 50% of male/female friendships one of them secretly fancies the other.

"You see friends of the opposite sex often admitting that when they reconnect years later on Facebook or Friends Reunited," she says.

Writer and actress Rebecca Gethings - who played Marie, Sally's best friend, in the UK tour of the stage play - says it's only possible if there is no sexual frisson. "Or if there is only a fair to middling attraction between them. But anything more than that, then they are going to end up arguing or end up in bed. Basically, there are too many unsaids.

"However, it's a proper buddy movie - the two characters are on an equal footing - they are equally fitted. It's not just Sally who is quirky and kooky, but in his own way Harry is too."

2. The big break-up... and then get married

"I've been doing a lot of thinking, and the thing is, I love you" - Harry

"What?" - Sally

"I love you" - Harry

"How do you expect me to respond to this?" - Sally

"How about, you love me too" - Harry

"How about, I'm leaving" - Sally

Harry and Sally's friendship is split asunder after a spur-of-the-moment night of passion, when she is distraught about an ex marrying someone else. The next morning, their ease in each other's company has instantly evaporated.

Judy James says the big break-up is common in intense friendships - and often, the more intense the friendship, the bigger the break-up. She says it is usually down to a build-up of resentment.

"It happens when people need time to reassess how they feel - perhaps how it feels not to see someone, especially in male/female friendships.

"It can often give the relationship a little reboot."

Then there are the couples who split only to get back together having realised what they've lost, and end up happily married.

Rebecca Gethings says when Harry says the line "I came here tonight because when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible", this can be music to a woman's ear. "It's usually women who are accused of rushing things, and here is a man [making big declarations]."

3. Moving in/breaking up arguments over stuff

When lovers move in together, the last thing they want to do is write their names in their books. In the film, Harry and Sally's friends Jess and Marie move in together and start arguing over her aforementioned dish and his wagon-wheel coffee table that is truly hideous. She wants to get rid of it. He digs in his heels. Eventually, after Harry flips his lid over their argument, the coffee table is jettisoned.

"If I lived in my perfect house, there would be clutter on every surface," says Suzie Hayman. "If my husband lived in his perfect house, it would be like a Japanese tea house, with a single flower in a vase, a scroll on the wall and everything else bare. It's very far from mine, and the house we live in."

But this is what compromise is about, she says. Like many couples, over the years Hayman and her husband have had their own wagon-wheel coffee table discussions, and weighed up whether person or object takes precedence.

"Over the years I've got rid of things he just can't stand. But sometimes I plead for something special - 'I know you hate it but it was my grandmother's'. It's a two-way street."

4. What a fake orgasm looks like

"I'll have what she's having" - diner customer

The scene: Katz's Delicatessen in Manhattan. The set-up: Sally says most women have faked it. "Well, they haven't faked it with me," says Harry, and refuses to countenance any suggestion to the contrary. She tires of trying to tell him, and without warning starts to demonstrate. Loudly.

It is perhaps the most memorable moment of the film.

"Men had heard the myth of the fake orgasm for years, but most of them genuinely thought they would know if women were faking it," says Judy James.

"I think men quaked in their boots when they saw it, and a lot of them thought retrospectively about their relationships - it destabilised men sexually. Women were probably smiling sheepishly," she says.

James says she would have loved to eavesdropped on people's sofas after the film.

"You can imagine men turning around and saying: 'You don't do that do you?'. I wonder how many women were honest," she says.

Rebecca Gethings adds that the idea a woman could do a believable fake orgasm may be an "unsettling prospect" for men. "But it's a foolish thing to do as it would be setting a precedent."

5. You don't get embarrassed when with someone you really like

"It is so nice when you can sit with someone and not have to talk" - Harry

But the diner scene is not only about sex. It is about relaxing in the company of someone you enjoy being with.

Sally is uninhibited enough to loudly fake an orgasm in a crowded place.

And Harry is at ease enough not to sink below the table in embarrassment as her moans increase in volume.

"Friends that feel comfortable with each other can discover things about the opposite sex, it is a playful way of discovering things about relationships," says Judy James.

"Lots of women have got a gay best friend who they are flirty or more outrageous with. It's a way of stretching parameters with the opposite sex but with not sexual partner - of learning and discovering things about them and themselves."

Suzie Hayman adds that friends can be much more accepting of your quirks - another reason she mourns the too-frequent distinction between friendship and love.

"You accept that your friend may pick their nose or have other bad habits. You agree to disagree and you celebrate the similarities and the differences between you. But all too often, we worry that our lovers might glimpse the 'real us' and be put off."

Additional reporting by Vanessa Barford and Kathryn Westcott

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