Great Films You Need To See – Secretary (2002)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout March with the theme of ‘sexuality’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case Steven Shainberg’s S&M-flavoured romance Secretary.

Long before the box office submitted to the inevitable adaptation of E.L James’ mummy porn juggernaut, another, altogether more fascinating Mr Grey indulged in a spot of big screen sadomasochism.

A film that doesn't allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook

A film that doesn’t allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook

It helps that the Mr Grey of Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002) is played by jittery genius that is James Spader, whose career has been mottled with sexually dysfunctional types, from his impotent voyeur in Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989), to his character’s penchant for amputees in Crash (1996).

A nother day at the office for Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Scretary

A nother day at the office for Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Scretary

His is the perfect casting for the eccentric attorney; an obsessive-compulsive misfit who finds his soul mate in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s equally damaged Lee. Fresh out of a psychiatric hospital following a long period of self-harm, Lee soon returns to her masochistic ways in the miserable company of her hard-drinking father and meek, downtrodden mother. She responds to a job advert for a secretary at Grey’s low-rent office (an oft-sought vacancy, presumably, due to the illuminated sign out front) and the pair slowly attune to each other’s wavelength; which just happens to involve acts of BDSM.

The film’s prologue features Lee in bondage performing menial office tasks, before flashing back six months to her leaving hospital. The sight of Lee stapling paper using her chin and fixing up a cup of coffee with her arms bound to a pole is treated matter-of-factly but nevertheless threatens the prospect of a nudge-nudge sex comedy (the misjudged poster also doesn’t help).

Eccentric attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) in skulking mode in Secretary

Eccentric attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) in skulking mode in Secretary

But Shainberg wisely avoids the trap of winking at the audience or going over-the-top thanks to a script that treats its characters with a tenderness and understanding they have been longing for all their lives and finally find with each other.

The Red (actually purple) Riding Hood cloak the wide-eyed Lee wears when she first enters what we assume is the wolf’s lair of Grey’s office is nicely subverted when we see him frantically checking his hair, asking awkward, inappropriate questions of his would-be employee and revealing his carefully manicured orchids; a none-too-subtle symbol of his own fragility.



The film is careful not to rush what is a complex relationship, with their guarded fascination with each other signalled by lascivious glances that suddenly explode into something more extreme as Grey’s dominant demands for perfection from the willfully submissive Lee play out in increasingly intense ways. This extends beyond the office, to the extent whereby he instructs her on how many peas to put on her plate, to the bafflement of her family.

There are other nice touches, particularly between Lee and timid childhood friend Peter (Jeremy Davies) whom she falls into a relationship with to the delight of their parents. Lee’s frustration with the unassuming Peter is palpable, while the look on her face when she spies his picture during a masturbatory fantasy about her boss is priceless.

Office work takes a turn for boss E. Edward Grey (James Spader) and his Secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

Office work takes a turn for boss E. Edward Grey (James Spader) and his Secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

In a breakout performance, Gyllenhaal takes Lee on an involving journey from a child-like waif controlled by her illness, to someone who knows what – and who – she wants and is more than prepared to do what is necessary to get it.

Spader, who reportedly adopted the same hot/cold demeanour with Gyllenhaal off set as Grey has with Lee, is typically hypnotic; all slow, hushed tones and coiled mannerisms that erupt into moments of sexual expression that appear to surprise and thrill him in equal measure.

A film that doesn’t allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook.

Debuts Blogathon: Steven Soderbergh – Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989)

Debuts Blogathon

It’s the final day of the Debuts Blogathon; and what a great Blogathon it’s been. When we first proposed the idea; Chris and I never guessed we’d get such a brilliant response. The diversity and quality of the entries we’ve received has been what’s made this such a fun feature to put together. I’ve learned a lot and look forward to revisiting some old classics and adding others to my watch list. I hope you have to. Thanks so much to Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop for being my partner on this venture; I couldn’t have put this together without him. Thanks also to all the brilliant contributors whose insightful and passionate entries have made this Blogathon so great. Finally, thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to follow the Blogathon; I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. Here we go, the last entry and it’s my take on Steven Soderbergh’s debut Sex, Lies And Videotape.

Steven Soderbergh

Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989)

Stepping up to accept the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival for his debut feature Sex, Lies And Videotape – at 26, the youngest director ever to do so – a bewildered Steven Soderbergh was heard to say: “Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here.”

Sex, Lies and Videotape PosterThe weight of such an achievement could easily ruin a career, but not Soderbergh. Since that heady day on the French Riviera, he’s made some clangers, but some inspired, important works of cinema too and, as he (supposedly) folds up his director’s chair for good he can reflect on a filmography many others would give their right arm for.

Written in eight days and filmed for a budget of $1.2m, Sex, Lies And Videotape has been credited with helping to usher in the explosion of the new American independent film movement of the 1990s. The film was distributed by Miramax and made almost $25m at the box office. Suddenly, indies were no longer the preserve of the arthouse crowd; they were for everyone.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeThe title of the film helped to turn heads, of course. One might almost think it was a working title as it’s so self-explanatory. The plot is equally straightforward – unhappy, sexually uptight housewife Ann (Andie MacDowell) is married to conceited lawyer John (Peter Gallagher), who’s having an affair with Ann’s extroverted sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). The cat is thrown among the pigeons with the arrival of John’s old school friend, the shy, eccentric Graham (James Spader), whose only cure for impotence is to watch back videotaped interviews he’s carried out with women talking about their sexual experiences.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeIn lesser hands such a premise could be a recipe for exploitative disaster, but what lifts Sex, Lies And Videotape into the realms of great cinema are two things – the script and performances.

Soderbergh lives up to the frankness of the title with raw, unflinching dialogue that fizzes and crackles when spoken by the superb cast. MacDowell was never better as the prissy Ann, who talks about First World problems to her shrink and is seemingly destined to allow John to walk over her until she’s woken out of her stupor by Graham. Gallagher and Giancomo (an actress who’s deserved a brighter career) are both great, but it’s Spader who really stands out. His big breakthrough, Spader took Best Actor at Cannes alongside Soderbergh’s triumph and it’s easy to see why; the emotional honesty and depth he brings to the repressed Graham is startling.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeAs the title implies, at its dark, chastened heart this is a film about deception. In one nicely observed moment, as John is rearranging a business meeting to be with Cynthia, the camera slowly moves pulls a 180° until it comes to rest on a picture sitting on his desk of a smiling Ann. Soderbergh makes the point more cleverly by running one scene into the next while still having the end of a conversation play out over the new scene. These conversations invariably undercut what we’re watching and underline the lies these characters trade in without fear of being exposed.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeDeception (and self-deception) is a theme Soderbergh has returned to time and again throughout his oeuvre. His Ocean’s trilogy features characters who deceive for a living; the eponymous Erin Brockovich tries to expose corporate secrets that have led to the residents of a small town suffering chronic medical problems; the lies spoken by those in and around the drug trade are explored in Traffic; George Clooney’s psychologist/astronaut chooses to believe in a lie in Solaris; Matt Damon’s whistleblower employee gets a taste of his own medicine in The Informant! and Liberace (Michael Douglas) keeps his homosexuality under wraps in Behind The Candelabra.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeIn an interview, Soderbergh spoke of his fascination with deception: “I’m fascinated by lying, If you walk around all day every day, telling the truth about every situation you encountered, to everyone you encountered, someone will eventually kill you. It’s just a matter of where the line is for you in lying.”

If Soderbergh is anything he’s reliably unreliable when it comes to his output. After Sex, Lies And Videotape, he suffered a fallow period commercially, making curios like the noirish The Underneath (1995) and Schizopolis (1996), which made peanuts. It wasn’t until 1998’s Out Of Sight that he got noticed by the wider world again, a film that paved the way for his style-over-substance Ocean’s trilogy. In between he veered between the brilliant (Traffic (2000), which deservedly bagged him a Best Director Oscar; the hugely underrated Solaris (2002); his two-part 2008 biopic of Che) and the not-so-good (2006’s The Good German; The Girlfriend Experience (2009), which starred porn actress Sasha Grey). For every glossy studio picture there’s been a low-budget project, broadly described as a ‘one for them, one for me’ approach.

Sex, Lies and VideotapeMuch like Tarantino, music is extremely important in Soderbergh’s films. While QT prefers the jukebox approach of adopting pre-recorded music, Soderbergh uses musical score, supplied in many of his films by composer par excellence Cliff Martinez. Martinez’s score for Sex, Lies And Videotape (his debut score) is one of the film’s great strengths; it’s experimental, ‘indie’ aesthetic fits the film like a glove and created a trend that many scores aped over the following decade.

In a lot of ways, Graham is Soderbergh, a man with a movie camera looking for some kind of truth. Graham eventually destroys his camera, which Soderbergh has done (metaphorically speaking at least) by turning his back on filmmaking out of disillusionment with a Hollywood system that could fire him from the Brad Pitt-starring Moneyball a week before the cameras started to roll.

Any time away from the camera for this most gifted and adventurous of filmmakers is our loss. The promise he showed with Sex, Lies And Videotape almost 25 years ago has been realised enough times to make us wish for it once more.

Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Chris delivers his brilliant assessment of Stanley Kubrick’s 1953 debut Fear And Desire. To read the other entries in the Blogathon, click here.