Sally smacks her hand on the table, yelling “Yes! Yes! Yes!,” as the other diners turn to watch. Sally caps it off with a triumphant bite of coleslaw and a smile.
The scene lasts only three minutes, but its impact has endured for decades, as the film “When Harry Met Sally . . . " marks its 30th anniversary Friday. The scene’s punchline — “I’ll have what she’s having,” uttered by Estelle Reiner, mother of the film’s director, Rob Reiner — ranks 33rd on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movie quotes of all time. “The orgasm scene became bigger than the movie it came from,” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote in a book about his friendship with Nora Ephron, who wrote “When Harry Met Sally....” It was the moment women realized this thing they were doing in private was, in fact, universal. It was the first time many men learned about the charade. But it also gave viewers a specific, and perhaps skewed, picture of how pleasure should look and sound.
Not everyone understood the joke. “When the scene was shown to a Las Vegas convention of movie distributors, the men in the room did not react at all. They didn’t get it,” Cohen wrote. “The women, however, did. They laughed, and their laughter became infectious until, one by one, the men joined in.”
It was not clear to Ephron, Cohen wrote, “whether the women had, in effect, given the men permission to laugh, or whether the men were being told that something up on the screen was funny and they had better laugh or look stupid.”
Jennifer Gunter recalled a similar reaction when she saw the film as a 22-year-old medical student in Canada. The women in the theater exploded in laughter, while the men were silent. “It was a really cool moment,” said Gunter, who is an obstetrician, gynecologist and author of “The Vagina Bible.”
Gunter thinks the scene was incredibly validating for women — it gave more of them permission to talk about their lack of satisfaction in the bedroom. “Even if it doesn’t make a woman feel that she can have a conversation with her partner,” Gunter said, “just knowing that you’re not the only person doing something is incredibly powerful.”
Few people realize the scene wasn’t Ephron’s idea but a group effort: Reiner felt the movie needed to reveal a surprising truth about women that made men deeply uncomfortable, notes Erin Carlson, a journalist and author of “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy.” Oddly enough, the film’s producer’s girlfriend’s sister — model and actress Dani Minnick — was the one who suggested Harry and Sally discuss women faking orgasms. Ryan said Sally should act out a climax in a public place. And Crystal came up with “I’ll have what she’s having” and suggested that Reiner’s mother say it. Ephron loved the idea, and it went into the script.
However, filming it was no easy task. Ryan was “anxious and worried about what her then-boyfriend, Dennis Quaid, would think,” Carlson wrote in an email. (Ryan and Crystal declined interviews for this story, and Reiner did not respond to an email.) Ryan’s performance was underwhelming at first, Carlson noted, so Reiner acted out what he wanted. Carlson’s book notes that it took around 30 takes to get the fake orgasm right.
“Meg’s faux orgasm was not only comedy but a transcendent, transgressive response to Harry’s hyperverbal macho arrogance,” Carlson wrote in an email. “Oh, Harry thinks he knows everything about women, does he? Well, I’ll show him who’s boss. By turning the tables on Harry, the feminist Sally evens the playing field. This is a romantic comedy about love between equals. While Harry cracks more jokes, Sally steals the show.”
The scene has made an impact on young feminists. Lux Alptraum was 6 years old when the film came out and did not see it until her late 20s. Still, she knew of the scene long before she saw the movie. And while she was writing a book called “Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal,” she was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, near Katz’s Delicatessen, where the orgasm scene was filmed. On Friday, to honor the anniversary, the deli is hosting a contest where fans can reenact the iconic scene — at the same table where Harry and Sally sat. Jake Dell, the deli’s owner, told the New York Post that customers frequently do their own Sally impressions. “It happens at least once a week, if not more, and more likely at 3 in the morning than 3 in the afternoon,” Dell said. “It’s from men, women, people young and old. We’ve seen everyone do it.”
For all the boundaries that scene broke, there are a few it didn’t. For example, Harry and Sally do not discuss the reasons someone might fake an orgasm. “Maybe it’s because sex is not about orgasm for her,” Alptraum acknowledged, “but her partner does not accept this as an outcome and oftentimes because of her partner’s ego it might feel incumbent upon her to effectively produce an orgasm whether or not she wants one. And therefore faking it become a really useful tool.”
The same discomfort is made clear in a 1993 “Seinfeld” episode in which Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) admits she never had an orgasm with Jerry Seinfeld when they dated. Jerry’s biggest’s concern wasn’t over whether she still enjoyed herself — it was about how Elaine’s faking affected his ego.
Alptraum thinks that pop culture’s focus on orgasm as the barometer of pleasure is not always helpful. “It’s a kind of clumsy way of trying to point to a much fuzzier and more difficult-to-quantify concept, which is that women’s pleasure is not prioritized during sex. That’s the real issue, but I don’t know that orgasm itself is inherently the best measure of female pleasure or anybody’s pleasure.”
Movies play such a large role in shaping our ideas about sex, Gunter said — and the Katz’s scene in “When Harry Met Sally...,” especially at the time, was the rare one that presented a particularly female perspective. But the conversation the movie started is one couples are still tripping over. Gunter’s book asserts that only half of women are satisfied with their sex lives, and couples find it hard to discuss ways to address that.
If Ephron were around to write an update today, what sex-related problem would Harry and Sally discuss? “Millennials distracted by their digital devices,” Carlson posited, and “not having enough sex.”