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That Moment In ‘When Harry Met Sally’ (1989) A Fight On The Steps

A choreographed argument with a flight of stairs.

When Harry Met Sally is a 1989 comedy-drama about a man and a woman who are perfect for each other but take a long time to realize that it’s true.

Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) meet after graduating from university with the two driving from Chicago to New York, though it isn’t a match made in heaven as they mostly bicker and realize they are nearly complete opposites. They go their separate ways, but as the fates would have it, the two run into each other over the years and soon something catches on between them, though deciding what that is and what to do about it has them realizing they might just be what each other are looking for.

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Directed by Rob Reiner, and written by Nora EphronWhen Harry Met Sally is a romantic comedy that looks a lot like the classic romance movies of the golden age though is anything but with a surprisingly complex story about characters that truly grow, resist what they crave, and filled with great passions for what they believe, even if those passions blind them to things that should be obvious. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are a supremely well-cast as the titular characters, with Harry’s acerbic, dark outlook the perfect contrast for the perennially upbeat Sally. In the twelve years the film spans, we see those same traits in both people soften, the years and experience giving each the maturity that will bring them together. Epson’s script is a remarkably sharp observation on modern relationships, never putting either in the weaker position nor the stronger, but finding a balance that doesn’t generate a gender war, as happens with so many stories in this genre, but rather a battle of differences where communication and respect and partnership are the major players. It’s refreshing and allows the characters to be just who they are instead of man versus woman. It falters only in the lengths it will go for laughs in sacrifice of authenticity, such as the now classic diner scene that has Sally faking a very loud orgasm and an impromptu karaoke song in a Sharper Image store. These don’t detract much though, as the story, despite its predicability, is well-grounded and even manages to accomplish a satisfying end without a wildly absurd public display of affection that has utterly ruined many of this film’s predecessors. If this movie were made today, Harry would not just go to the New Year’s Eve party looking for Sally, he’d have made his way to Times Square and got himself on the Jumbotron to confess his feelings.

THE WAGON WHEEL COFFEE TABLE

Harry and Sally have best friends Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Jess (Bruno Kirby), and while they had tried to set them up as dates with themselves, the two best friends end up falling in love with each other instead. In a short time, Jess and Marie get engaged and move in together. On moving day, Harry and Sally help out, but before arriving, while looking for a housewarming gift, they run into Harry’s ex-wife, who is now married to someone else. It does not go well as Harry shrinks into self-doubt and depression that rears its ugly head while Harry and Sally are at their friend’s new home. A heated discussion leads to Harry, in a temperamental and emotional outburst, warning the new couple that their split is inevitable and so should start now putting their names in their books.

He then storms off making a disparaging remark about a wagon wheel coffee table that started the conversation. Sally follows after where Harry is already waiting for her, quick to apologize, but Sally feels it necessary to remind him of his behavior. Still ruffled, Harry fires back that he can’t understand how she can be so devoid of emotions, as she too has been cut out of a long-term relationship. How is it she seems so able to cope? Does she not have any feelings of loss? Why hasn’t she been dating? Why hasn’t she slept with anyone? These are rapid-fire, trigger happy questions he has for her, and they cut deep. She fires back, hard, and makes it clear that she and he are not the same. As the scene unfolds, the two are on the apartment front steps. While it’s not the most iconic moment, it’s it nonetheless, a powerful one that is the best-directed of the film.

INTERPRETATION OF THE STEPS

It’s the truth that makes this work. Here are two people who clearly care for each other and are surely in love, despite their resistance to the attraction. Their closeness, something neither have ever experienced in any other relationship, allows for the stinging barbs. They are not yet bound by the relationship title, their friendship built on a foundation of honesty begun a decade earlier in a long drive across half the country. This bond they share is stronger than any they’ve ever had, yet as sure as it, it hasn’t fully connected them, and it is moments like this that allow the gaps to be filled and cement the obvious.

What’s truly special about this moment are the steps. Movement is carefully structured as the conversation develops, expands and finally settles. There’s a wonderful sense of back and forth and up and down that sees the two meet on the central landing, metaphorically at the middle. They are in a state of uncertainty, the middle ground, and they begin to declare their sides. She speaks first and it pushes him up. His retort is harsh, and he attempts to flee, but she goes down where she then tries to run, but is ignited by his rebuttal. This is the lowest part of their confrontation, his poor choice of words, a reflection of his own emotions for his ex-wife. She considers arguing his point, but blurts that she doesn’t need to hear this and returns to the steps, this time going one flight beyond the middle where they started. Here, above it all, she takes the higher ground, regains her footing and establishes that she has the real truth, that his reaction to his ex-wife, his best friend, and especially her is foolishly out of place. She uses harsh, profane words to make sure he feels how hurtful his image of her has been.

When Harry Met Sally
When Harry Met Sally, 1989 © Columbia Pictures

This elevated position leaves him with a clearer view and with that view comes the truth. Reiner subtly insinuates with character movements the dynamic shifts in the argument, creating a clear path for us to follow and where to put our sympathies. The motion, beginning with Sally moving down to Harry, then following him even lower symbolizes the degrading situation, the two engaging in a shielded back-and-forth that puts Harry on the defensive and Sally in disgust. This low plane is where Harry is strongest since he is the one over-reacting, projecting his own emotional stress on her. She, valuing the relationship, takes it back to the center and then above, forcing him to follow, even as he continues to bark his hostility, finally, blindly revealing how he thinks, believing sex will get not only him but her over something that has nothing to do with something physical. Firmly on the high ground, Sally turns it around. It’s a magnificently framed sequence that helps make When Harry Met Sally the film that it is.

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