I'll Have What She's Having
Retriever with warm wet fuzzy chew-toy in jaw, I continue my serial attack on The Essence of Enduring Romantic Comedy with a fond look at the entire film career (a little under 17 seconds, total, in a single movie scene) of Estelle Reiner.
Mrs. "My Son the Director" Reiner is one of the only non-actors to be as famous, for her one-liner's worth of cinematic history, as the two movie stars in her movie. She's the embodiment of the joke's topper, which shares equal billing with the joke itself in people's memories. But before we examine her immortal pay-off, let us savor a few of the many pleasures to be had along the way to it, in some four minutes of rom-com tour de farce.
#1. The andirons
Don't know about you, but I didn't really remember what they called those utilitarian thinga-ma-whoosies until I heard Sally's wonderfully disparaging harangue, which is actually the catalyst, the comedic inciting incident for the scene:
You know, I am so glad I never got involved with you. I just would've ended up being some woman you had to get up out of bed and leave at three o'clock in the morning and go clean your andirons. And you don't even have a fireplace. Not that I would know this.
Rom-com dialogue writers may note the rhythm and cadence that became, whether we like it or not, the voice of Today's Woman in romantic comedy of the '90s (Ephron is in a sense, in this her best work, the rosetta stone of even more recent TV rom-com repartee; see Sex and the City, et al). But what I've always loved is those andirons. It's such a genius bit of specificity, simply a gorgeous and memorable word to utter, and gotten-away-with via being rooted in character (Sally, we believe, is a woman who would have a working knowledge of andirons).
#2. Billy's hand gesture
Hary and Sally get into a hand-gesture thing when they're trying not to say the word "come" in their ostensibly civil conversation. Harry knows he's made his women happy, "Because they...?" Sally asks, making a little circle in the air. "Yes, because they..." Harry affirms, imitating her gesture. "How do you know they're really..." She makes the same gesture. And here, Billy Crystal adds what's clearly his own bit of business, as he accompanies his retort, "What are you saying, that they fake orgasm?" with improvised fake-sign language, as if spelling out the question. It's so perfectly playfully mean that it cracks people up, every time.
The credible context for this fake orgasm stunt is a New York deli -- in itself a brilliant, necessary choice, in obeying the genre's exploit-all-reversals edict: the original scene was written for an apartment, and according to Ephron it was Ryan who wisely suggested it going public. Rom-com humor's well-spring is embarrassment: things private going public is one of the genre's fundamental comedic reversals.
But we'll have to credit director Reiner and his team for having assembled the classic, picture-perfect set of uber-New Yorkers who populate this deli scene. First there's the waiter, deadpan, balding, all middle-age paunch in a powder-blue jacket, and as the scene progresses, the out-of- focus guy in a baseball cap over Meg Ryan's shoulder who turns to watch her get off. Estelle is established at her separate table, a poster-matron for I've already seen everything, whaddya showing me now? NYC skepticism, and then we get a 1-2 comic punch of reaction shots from a pudgy turtle-necked Jewish student and the thin black woman at the table behind him -- topped by the dour, long-lined incredulous face of the cash register guy.
As Meg's hitting her peak, Reiner returns to the wide two-shot side view of Sally and Harry, and we get a little background reinforcement -- business as usual back at the counter and kitchen, while to the sides of our couple, there's the palpable quiet of "good free show with lunch!" going on, which leads me back to...
#4. How to be a straight man
It has taken me something like 123 viewings of the two-shot in this scene (I've been using the clip in various classes and seminars for a decade) to forcefully ignore Meg Ryan having an orgasm and turn my attention to Billy Crystal's side of the frame. Try it some time. In the last run of it, he quietly absorbs Ryan's table-poundings and cries of faked ecstasy with the look of man being repeatedly pummeled in the face by a big wet fish -- sits there and takes it like a man, in other words, while his body makes the uneasy twitches of someone who knows he's being beaten good and proper... by a woman. It really is a thing of beauty.
Crystal also contributes some excellent Expressive Chewing, earlier on, along with some very well-played Looks of Abject Humiliation right (all under control here, folks!) and left (don't actually know her!). But let's face it -- to finally get to the main event -- the scene ultimately belongs to Ryan's face.
Finally we must give props to Meg's mug, a versatile instrument, more Les Paul guitar than say, Meryl Streep's Stradivarius, but nonetheless formidable. In this scene, she offers up a kind of comedic concerto of facial gestures, and orgasm high point aside, many a moment in the prep rewards examination.
A few of my personal extra-orgasmic faves happen before The Big Fake: her brisk, downward nod after Harry claims "he knows" no woman has ever faked it with him, which gives a grandeur to the note of disdainful dismissal in her retort, "Right, I forgot -- you're a man," and the splendid upward tilt of her chin at Harry in the two-shot when he says "You don't think I can tell the difference?" which is followed, in the beginning of her aria-like close-up, by that delicious moment where we see Sally a) get the idea of how to prove him wrong, and b) start to slip into character as a woman on the verge.
But the winner, no contest, of the Defining Face Moment here has to be that smug little smile she allows herself after she's silenced the restaurant in coming, when she's won -- dropping character, coolly en route to taking another bite of cole slaw. Ah, that quiet smile to herself, a soul-of-wit tight-lipped bitty thing that says "...so, fuck you!" to Harry.
It's the perfect set-up of course, for Estelle's topper (I'll have what she's having), a line that according to Ephron was supplied, with a former Borscht Belter's unerring sense of the absurdist understatement, by Crystal.
But all of this is praise of the scene's execution. Now to the point of the discourse. Screenwriter MaryAn Batchellor and I have been trying to define the tenets of what makes a rom-com work and withstand the test of time. She came up with three principles:
Story first, romance second (Ted Elliot)
Same but different (Billy Mernit)
Play to the majority (Terry Rossio)
To this I'd like to add: Make it be about something.
Yes, it's true that the orgasm-in-a-deli gag stands up on its own -- you don't have to have seen When Harry to enjoy it, but finally what gives the thing its power is, in actuality, a substantive dose of theme. The movie is about the differences between men and women. Not so much, can they be friends? as one dutifully quotes the movie itself, but how men are one way and women another. And the path to true love is ultimately defined, by the movie's own happy ending standards, as vive le difference! Appreciate the differences, and you'll be good to go, happily (albeit arguing) ever after.
You hear the "difference" theme sounded, with increasing vehemence, throughout the deli scene as it builds. It starts with Sally's incredulity that Harry could have sex with a random woman and then flee. We hear it again in passing, mid-argument ("You're a human affront to all women") and when Sally makes the afore-mentioned comment re: Harry's arrogance about his sexual performance ("I forgot, you're a man"). The faux-orgasm itself is a blatant axiomatic truth writ spray-paint large across the screen: this is what we can do that you can't, says the woman, and it fools you every time, you testosterone-blinded idiot called man.
In the context of the story, beginning at the mathematical midpoint of When Harry Met Sally, the scene signals the first time Sally has ever won an argument with Harry, and more importantly, the first time he's ever really been exposed to her as a sexual being. The effect is transformative for them both; the midpoint section ends, after a seemingly pointless montage of NYC as winter wonderland (it's actually there, in part, to create enough time for audiences to stop laughing and collect themselves), with a brief scene where Harry and Sally have to share a Happy New Year kiss... and it's really awkward for the friends, for the first time.
But this is the brilliance of When Harry, an often underrated and maligned film that stubbornly holds its place in the top half dozen or so of the rom-com pantheon: its jokes are rooted in what the movie is about. Each gem-like scene speaks to theme, in one way or another.
Some people don't respond to the movie because they don't love one or both of the leads, but to those who think the script "too easy" or trivial, I say: you try it, buster (no American romantic comedy since has pulled off a success this dialogue-driven and small-plotted, and in this, it's the exception that proves Mr. Elliot's rule above, while supporting Mr. Rossio's). Men like When Harry because it so accurately articulates the male point of view; women respond to it because it does the same for them. The movie has endured because it so ceaselessly worries at this theme of difference, yielding laughs that are laughs of recognition.
Finally, I think that this is what we want from romantic comedies (and from movies in general): we want to see us -- we want to understand us. So it stands to reason that the handful of romantic comedies that really last are ones that speak to truths about men and women. And these truths are usually born of a writer's personal exploration -- another way of saying make it be about something is: make it personal. Because when a writer is most passionately involved in trying to figure something out that's important to them (e.g. how can such different species as men and women ever get along?), is when a story most often speaks to something universal.
A farce like Tootsie is about how no man (especially when he becomes a woman) is an island. Annie Hall, with Alvy ("I don't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member") Singer and "I have no idea what club I could ever belong to" Annie, is about dueling self-esteem issues. Groundhog's Day defines selfless love as the means of enlightenment...
Not to get too pretentious about the old meet-lose-get show, but check out the romantic comedies you remember, and I'll wager there's a core insight embodied beneath all the high jinks ensuing, some kernel of informing truth that both justifies and secretly fuels all the fussing and fighting. In an enduring romantic comedy, we have met the problem and recognized it is as us.
Then again, maybe all this analysis is for naught, and "what works" is still a mysterious ineffable -- you just know it when you see it. It's like the elderly woman from one of the mock-documentary couples that pepper When Harry says, explaining that when her husband first introduced himself to her ("I'm Ben Small of the Coney Island Smalls"), she knew: "I knew the way you know about a good melon..."