Thirty years ago, Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) gave us the best movie orgasm of all time, over a pastrami sandwich (mustard and pickle on the side) at New York’s Katz’s Deli. Over at the next table, an older lady deadpans, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
It’s the most iconic line in When Harry Met Sally, a movie penned by Nora Ephron and filled with some of the most memorable dialogue of all time (“Baby fish mouth;” “Too much pepper in my paprikash;” “He’s never going to leave her;” “Men and women can’t be friends,” are just a few notable examples), a cry for sexual liberation that took a lighthearted comedy moment and made it subversive.
The first on-screen female orgasm featured in a non-pornographic narrative film can be traced by to 1933, when then-Hedwig Kiesler (who would become Hollywood movie star Hedy Lamarr) starred in Ecstasy, a Czech-Austrian movie directed by Gustav Machatý. In the scene in question, the camera zooms in on Kiesler’s face, showing her character, Eva, in the throes of passion with her lover. It was instantly controversial, and the film was condemned by American censor Joseph Breen as "highly — even dangerously — indecent.”
That attitude — that a woman’s sexual fulfillment is somehow wrong, or dirty — is still deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche. Depictions of female pleasure are still few and far between, and the subject of mass cultural debate. More often than not, orgasm scenes are included to cater to the male gaze, rather than as a real-life depiction of a woman enjoying a sexual encounter. Of the ones that have made it into the zeitgest, the vast majority feature white cis-women, having sex with white male partners. And the double standard that values male pleasure at the expense of a woman’s is still very much alive.
That’s why When Harry Met Sally still holds up today. That scene is about a woman telling a clueless man that he knows so little about women’s pleasure that he can’t tell when it’s fabricated for his own enjoyment. And yet, it’s also a subtle nod to the women in the room who rarely get that kind of overwhelming climax. This is the kind of thing we can aspire to, and deserve. Even if it’s brought on by a really good pastrami sandwich.
Ahead, we take a look at the some of the most memorable movie orgasms of all time. Go ahead, enjoy!