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(Credit: Columbia Pictures)

The secret behind the ‘When Harry Met Sally’ orgasm scene

The fake orgasm, it’s everybody’s favourite act of kindness. Some would even say it’s better than the real thing because it comes right from the heart, like a benevolent gift as opposed to a simple response to biological stimuli. However, this all heart, no quim, goodness was flipped on its head for the quintessential cringe-comedy scene in When Harry Met Sally.

To set it up for those who have never seen it – or perhaps have forgotten the context – Harry and Sally have been friends for years, but they fear that sex would ruin their friendship. When casually discussing the throes of passion in a diner, as we all do from time to time, Sally (played by Meg Ryan) tells Harry (played by Billy Crystal) that women fake orgasms all the time, and men simply can’t tell. 

After Harry retorts with a sort of “the lady doth protest too much” bluff-calling routine, Sally unleashes a moment so cringeworthy that it could snap a weak jaw. In a packed-out Manhattan Katz Deli diner, she enacts a Shakespearean fake orgasm of such overacted bravura, hitting high notes that could knock Sputnik out of orbit, that even Hugh Hefner, when he was deaf as a post in his eighties, would say: “Would you mind reigning it in a bit Sally, love. You’re waking hibernating bears in Alaska”.

The scene leaves poor Harry trying to retreat into his sweater like a white middle-class turtle, and it is followed up with the famous punchline of a waitress being met with the request: “I’ll have what she’s having”. The classic ‘I’ll put the kettle on’ moment went down in Hollywood history. It’s an excellent example of permeating the languid flow of a laidback romcom with an unexpected set-piece that too few films of the genre have taken heed of. 

The iconic scene, however, took a bit of foreplay before it could be coaxed out of Meg Ryan. In 2019, at the tenth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, the cast and crew behind the seminal rom-com were in attendance giving a talk. 

When the subject of the diner debacle was brought up, director Rob Reiner was more than happy to reveal the secret of how it came to be. “The first couple of times, I was like, I need it more, I need it more,” Reiner began regarding his directorial instruction to Ryan for the scene. 

Adding, “And then it was, ‘Let me show you’, So I sat across from Billy.” To which Crystal happily quips, with a punchline to match the original: “He had an orgasm Mighty Joe Young would have been proud of.” Meg Ryan reclaimed her seat and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.

Perhaps it’s not so much a secret, but the tableau of Ryan attentively observing a breathless Reiner for tips as he quivers in front of an awestruck Crystal is a humorous one nevertheless. 

You can check out the classic scene below (headphones are highly advisable).

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