The Problem With the Orgasm Scene in When Harry Met Sally

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 14 2013 2:02 PM

The Problem With the Orgasm Scene in When Harry Met Sally

This week, Improv Everywhere—the “New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places”—released a video of their agents recreating the famous fake-orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally at Katz’s Deli.  Only instead of just one woman simulating carnal pleasure, crowds of women did, to the disbelief of bystanders.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

The video feels very uncomfortable and very long—much like the scene in the movie. Although it’s become the most recognizable moment from Nora Ephron’s 1989 classic (so much so that Katz’s Deli has a permanent sign hanging above the table where it was filmed), it’s a jarring scene in the context of the film. Sally, up to this point in the movie, has been demure and reserved—recall that in the opening scene, she blushes and hesitates when Harry asks her whom she’s had great sex with. Now, all of a sudden, she’s making a spectacle of herself in front of a bunch of strangers. The orgasm scene is a compelling gag, but it doesn’t seem to jibe with the rest of what we know about Sally.

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A new anthology of works by Nora Ephron hints at why that’s the case. The Most of Nora Ephron contains both the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally and an afterword Ephron wrote in February 1990. The afterword begins, “This screenplay has my name on it, but it was very much a collaboration,” and she goes on to credit her colleagues—especially director Rob Reiner and his producing partner, Andrew Scheinman—for many of the best moments of the film. (Ephron, like many women, may have had a touch of impostor syndrome.) She explains that, for the most part, Sally is based on her, while Harry is based on Reiner: “Rob and I each had a character we owned.”

As for that Katz’s Deli scene, she explains that after Reiner and Scheinman spilled some “appalling” secrets about how they approached sex and dating, she offered them a few secrets as well. Like, for instance, the fact that women sometimes fake orgasms. Ephron continues,

A few days later, Rob called. He and Andy had written a sequence about faking orgasms and they wanted to insert it at the end of the scene that was known (up to that time) as the andirons scene. He read it over the phone. I loved it. It went into the script. A few weeks later, we had our first actors' reading, and Meg Ryan, who by then was our Sally, suggested that Sally actually fake an orgasm in the delicatessen at the end of the scene. We loved it. It went into the script. And then Billy Crystal, our Harry, provided the funniest of the dozens of funny lines he brought with him to the movie; he suggested that a woman customer turn to a waiter, when Sally's orgasm was over, and say, "I'll have what she's having." The line, by the way, was delivered in the movie by Estelle Reiner, Rob's mother. So there you have it—a perfect example of how The Process works on the occasions when it works.

If Sally was mostly Ephron’s alter ego, but the orgasm scene was Ryan’s idea, then that might account for the lack of character continuity between the orgasm scene and the rest of the movie. Of course, to the members of Improv Everywhere and other fans, that disconnect doesn’t really matter: No matter whose idea the scene was, they want what Sally’s having.

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