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Remembering Nora Ephron: The real story behind that famous ‘When Harry Met Sally’ line

Meriah Doty
Movie Talk
June 27, 2012

News of the loss of writer-filmmaker Nora Ephron has fans and journalists alike recalling a famous line from "When Harry Met Sally" -- the 1989 romantic comedy for which Ephron wrote the script and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay.

The line is "I'll have what she's having." And it is uttered just after Meg Ryan (Sally) demonstrates the sounds of a fake orgasm to Billy Crystal (Harry) and proceeds to take a bite of her meal while the two dine at a New York delicatessen. (By the way, the line was delivered by director Rob Reiner's mother, Estelle.)

What commenters, tweeters and even some journalists aren't realizing -- NPR mistakenly attributed the aforementioned line to Ephron in their on-air obituary today -- is that Ephron didn't actually write that line.

As the famous fake orgasm scene was being shot, it was actually Billy Crystal who suggested the line. Reiner decided on the spot to make the quip the button of the scene, giving the line to his mother.

The film was a collaborative venture, the product of a collection of stories about the relationships of those involved with the film. The faux documentary vignettes sprinkled throughout "When Harry Met Sally" depicting older couples are real-life stories that Ephron amassed. (They were later recreated by actors.)

Ephron expertly gathered and distilled the stories into a script, but clearly, there was room for improvisation once filming started. Billy Crystal, for example, also improvised the line "Waiter, there is too much pepper in my Paprikash!" -- and Ryan's look off camera to Reiner, breaking character, was kept in the film.

[Photos: Nora Ephron's film career]

As a demonstration of Ephron's generous spirit, she was happy to share the credit -- though the main idea behind the scene was most definitely hers. From the Washington Post:
Ms. Ephron said it was Ryan's idea to film the scene in the deli, and it was Crystal who came up with the one-liner. But the core idea came from talks between Ms. Ephron and Reiner.

"One day, we were sitting around and Rob said to me, 'You know, we've told you all this stuff that you didn't know about men, now you tell us something we don't know about women,' " Ms. Ephron told an audience at a book reading in 2006. "It was almost like, 'I dare you.' And I said, 'Well, women fake orgasms.' And he said, 'Not with me.' "

"And I said, 'Yes, we do,' " she added. "Maybe not all the time, but sometimes. He still didn't believe me. So we went thundering into the bullpen at Castle Rock Pictures where all the women work, and he asked them, 'Is it true that women fake orgasms?' And all these women nodded yes. What a shock that scene was for men."

To her credit, Ephron wrote many other memorable lines, often with the help of her sister Delia -- whose writing credits appear on a handful of Ephron's films. Here are a few her noteworthy lines:

  • "I always read the last page of a book first so that if I die before I finish I'll know how it turned out." -- "When Harry Met Sally"
  • "Destiny is something we've invented because we can't stand the fact that everything that happens is accidental." -- "Sleepless In Seattle"
  • "I have to murder and dismember a crustacean." -- "Julie & Julia"
  • "I remember in high school her saying, 'Now what'd you want to take that science class for? There's no girls in that science class. You take home ec, why don't you? That's the way to meet the nice boys.' 'Mom,' I said, 'There ain't no boys in home ec. The boys are in the science class.' " -- "Silkwood"

Watch 'Nightline' Obit For Nora Ephron:

I have to murder and dismember a crustacean.

— 'Julie & Julia'

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