When Harry Met Sally: Revisiting Meg Ryan’s Orgazm Scene and Compromised happy Ending

Full frontal: I am not now (and never was) a fan of When Harry Met Sally, Rob Reiner’s hit romantic comedy of 1989.

As a comedy, it is rather conventional, predictable, and shallow too, aiming to saying something “profound” about the relationship of men and women.

To me, the film is essentially a sit-com, a second-tier Woody Allen comedy about neurotic New Yorkers, a movie of some funny and honest moments, which ultimately do not add up to a more coherent and satisfying picture.

The movie belongs to Meg Ryan, who at that point, has not demonstrated much range, but here shows sex appeal, exuberance, and flair.

There’s no doubt that Ryan benefits from the fact that the script was written by a woman.

Problem is that Billy Crystal can only be Billy Crystal–he’s always the same.  In this picture, he strains too much to be cool and witty, and I always wondered how another actor would have handled the part.

Over the years, numerous readers have asked me about the “fake orgasm” scene.  Last week TCM celebrated the 30th anniversary of the comedy in its annual classic film festival with a big reunion of the director and its two stars.

And what most viewers wanted to know is the “behind the scenes” of that famous, often quoted scene.

Reiner said that there were multiple fake orgasm scenes shot featuring Ryan Crystal in that Delicatessen.  Apparently it took many takes for Ryan playing Sally to loudly show Crystal’s Harry how women can fake convincingly (that is, fooling men) a sexual climax, the picture’s most memorable sequence.

“What Meg didn’t realize is that it would be done in front of all of these strangers,” director Reiner said.

“Everyone at Katz’s Deli,” Ryan added.

Reiner said he used himself as a model to show a more demonstrative moment for Ryan to emulate.

“The first couple of times, it was like, ‘I need it more, I need it more.’ And then it was ‘Let me show you.’ So I sat across from Billy,” Reiner recalled.

“He had an orgasm Mighty Joe Young would have been proud of, ” Billy Crystal quipped, referring to the gorilla in the 1949 movie.

The “Harry Met Sally” scene culminates with Sally’s feigned passionate cries as Harry eats a pastrami sandwich.

Reiner’s mother, Estelle, played the female diner who watches Sally’s monologue from a nearby table and says, when asked by the waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Ryan decided to go right back into eating her coleslaw after her fake excitement show ended.

Crystal revealed that he had suffered with the food consumption in the multiple takes:  “I ate 27 pastrami sandwiches.  For any Jew, that’s a lot.”

Nora Ephron wrote the original script, but there were improvisations and changes by the directors and actors.

Carrie Fisher, who played Sally’s best friend Marie, and Bruno Kirby, as Harry’s best friend Jess, also participated.

“It kept growing and growing and growing. You had Nora and Meg and Carrie throwing everything in,” Crystal said.

“That’s why it’s such a powerful screenplay.”

Two Endings

Writer Nora Ephron’s first draft didn’t have Sally and Harry ending up together because she considered a breakup to be a more realistic conclusion.

However, when it came time to film the revised happy ending, Billy Crystal ad-libbed much of his dialogue with Meg Ryan, including this most remembered line of the picture: “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

I think Ephron’s original ending was not only more realistic but also more dramatically compelling, considering Crystal’s lack of inherent sexual charisma, and the lack of erotic tension between his and Ryan’s character (sorry about my bias).

Crystal acknowledged that he was initially worried that the film would flop at the box office because it was up against several summer blockbusters, such as Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (both, in my view, much better films artistically).

Columbia was indeed careful in its distribution strategy. When Harry first opened in limited format (41 theaters), then went into wide release on July 21, 1989, earning $9 million its opening weekend in 775 theaters.

Favorable reviews and positive word-of-mouth encouraged the studio to expand the comedy to 1,174 theaters and market it as a great date movie.

In the end, the movie grossed an impressive $92.8 million, a nice figure considering that it was made on a moderate budget of $16 million.

Commercial Appeal

Taken into account the inflation factor, the $ figure made by the comedy back in 1989 translates into over $200 million today.