sheer originality and bold unflinching humor, Secretary embraces the
darker side of a relationship and lays open the notion that love doesn't
always occur the way you would expect.
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has a few strikes against her when she applies for a secretarial position at the law office of E. Edward Grey (James Spader). First, she was released only recently from a mental institution; second, after one day back with her dysfunctional suburban family, she has succumbed to her secret obsession - self- mutilation. However, she gets the job anyway, but then again, Mr. Grey is far from a normal boss. They embark on a relationship together, crossing lines of conduct that would give most human resource directors the shivers.
Director Steven Shainberg performs a remarkable feat by taking what could be construed as weighty material and infusing it with sensuality and, even more surprisingly, "humor." Based on the critically acclaimed short story "Secretary," by Mary Gaitskill, the exquisitely honed character development of Secretary lures one to the darker side of human sexuality, all the while soothing us with the idea that each person is getting--and giving--what they want. Much credit is due to actors Gyllenhaal and Spader, who are perversely delightful to watch as they maneuver through their teeter-totter relationship with skill and precision. While it toys with society's expectations of love, Secretary also explores the delicate balance between pain and healing, control and surrender. It could never be labeled old-fashioned but, when all is said and done, Secretary is, at its core, a love story.
© 2001-2002 Sundance Institute / John Cooper
we have anything to thank Madonna for, it's for bringing the often disastrously
misunderstood topic of sadomasochism at least somewhat out in the open.
There are no whips and chains in "Secretary"; director Steven
Shainberg's weirdly compelling love story. But the potent and scary
theories of dominance and submission suffuse the film like the flush
of a swatted backside.
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) starts looking for a job just days after her release from a mental hospital. Sweet as sugar in a cup of coffee and shy as can be, the attractive young woman struggles to stave off her shocking penchant for self-mutilation. Though she's never held a job before, she connects on some subterranean level with her prospective boss, attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Desperate for approval and alternately terrified and thrilled by Edward's angry outbursts at her mistakes, the young secretary and her boss circle in on a comical sadomasochistic relationship of love and lust; control and surrender.
Emotionally charged and risky, it's a fragile relationship made even more so by Edward's blunt and clumsy determination to not allow Miss Holloway to get too close. For as she quicky discovers, as soon as the submissive starts actively seeking out attention from her dominant partner, it shatters the illusion. The very thing that attracted Edward to his captive love in the first place disappears. Miss Holloway, then, faces a difficult decision: either to follow Edward's orders to leave and lose him forever, or push the limits and prove her devotion to him beyond any shadow of a doubt.
Feminists will hate this movie, which is really ironic. For, although on the surface the story is a sort of "9 to 5" meets "9 1/2 Weeks" wherein an attractive and vulnerable young woman humiliates herself and surrenders herself entirely to a manipulative predatory man, one must look deeper. Otherwise, the viewer will miss the film's broader message of empowerment that BOTH characters are getting exactly what they crave.
Shainberg does an excellent job navigating these truly treacherous waters. He immediately creates a world within a world in Edward's warm yet spooky office. He also draws brilliant performances out of Gyllenhaal and especially Spader who, though he's finally looking older, excels as the coldly haunted, moody and repressed Edward Grey.
like the type of relationship it explores, is not for everybody. But
it does what good films do best; that is to provoke us, push our buttons,
make us think and maybe even entertain us in the process. It's a film
that dares you to like it and, like Miss Holloway herself, is willing
to risk the spanking if you don't.
Steven Shainberg's Secretary is causing a lot of talk and buzz, although
it's unclear how it will be received in theaters. Secretary is a comedy
about S&M with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader ? as a sec and
her boss ? involved in the very unusual relationship. How is it that
James Spader has become the poster boy for sick sexually twisted guys?
Anyway, Gyllenhall - whose brother Jake stars in The Good Girl and is
equally good - is just riveting, and is destined for big things. I'm
sure Secretary will become a cult film, but whoever takes it will have
to have a great spin doctor in their press department.
© FOXNews.com by Roger Friedman
Gyllenhaal (sister of The Good Girl co-star Jake) is both charming and
sexy in this oddball tale of a tortured young woman who discovers self-esteem
by way of an extremely kinky fling with her seriously eccentric employer
(James Spader). It ain't the Red Shoe Diaries segment it sounds like?
imagine an R-rated Felicity directed by David Lynch and you're somewhere
in the ballpark of this funny and moving film that makes S&M seem
as wholesome as milk and cookies.
© ABCNEWS.com by Andrew Johnston, Film Critic US WEEKLY
CITY -- What would Sundance be without at least one dark comedy about
S&M? "Secretary" fills the bill, pushing its subject matter
into a stylized, absurdist love story. Clearly, this is not everybody's
cup of tea, nor is it meant to be. "Secretary" appears destined
for the festival circuit and possibly a limited art house release. Sundance
jurors awarded "Secretary" a deserved special jury prize for
While this may not gibe with what tyro feature director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson had in mind, "Secretary" is almost a sendup of film festival movies. It has all the ingredients -- alcoholism, mental illness, a dysfunctional suburban family and offbeat sexual attraction. Yet Shainberg stages all this in such a tongue-in-cheek, deadpan manner that you know he is sharing a grand joke with his audience.
From the moment his heroine, Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), gets released from a mental institute on the very day of her sister's marriage, Shainberg tips his hand that we are not in a normal world. Within days, Lee realizes Daddy's drinking problem has resurfaced; she reacquaints herself with an old friend, Peter (Jeremy Davies), who also has suffered a mental breakdown, and succumbs to her hobby of self-mutilation. Her mother (Leslie Ann Warren) swiftly locks up the kitchen cutlery "just to be sure."
Lee takes a job as secretary to a strange lawyer named E. Edward Grey -- played by the king of strange, James Spader. This secretarial job is open so frequently that the sign outside Grey's warehouse-office, reading "Secretary Wanted," can light up at a moment's notice. Amid interiors of solid bright colors and odd furniture, Grey seems more obsessed with his new secretary than his clients.
Lee's job consists mostly of typing on a typewriter. (Grey doesn't believe in computers.) After spotting Lee with her new boyfriend, Peter, after work one night, Grey begins to go into a rage over each and every typo she makes. When these errors persist, Grey punishes Lee with a hard spanking.
This turns out to do more good for Lee than all the therapy sessions at the institute. She stops mutilating herself and starts looking forward to her next typo. Then Grey seems to lose interest, a sequence that might serve as an answer to that old joke, "How do you punish a masochist?"
The movie pretty much runs out of gas from here, causing the third act to be a letdown. What keeps the movie going is the riotously funny and supremely self-controlled performance by Gyllenhaal. Her Lee grows positively radiant and self-confident the more her bottom burns.
actors give gutsy performances, since this kind of thing can go wrong
in so many ways. But Shainberg's tone never wavers. This is effectively
supported by Amy Danger's exaggerated production design neatly captured
by Steven Fierberg's moody lighting.
"Secretary'' whips up pleasing film
PARK CITY, Utah (Variety) - A very tricky love story is put across with some skillful high-wire walking in "Secretary.''
In this considerable expansion of Mary Gaitskill's short yarn about a boss-secretary relationship that evolves into a mutually satisfying S&M matchup, the filmmakers are deeply interested in getting to the psychological roots of the characters, and the picture's relative success in doing so makes the outre goings-on here not only dramatically palatable but emotionally plausible.
Touchy theme and cloistered nature of the piece relegate this well-acted picture to a specialized realm even within the specialized market for domestic art films. But this winner of a Special Jury Prize for ``originality'' at Sundance deserves a shot at catching on with that sliver of the theatrical audience that would respond to it before heading off into cable- and home-viewing markets.
A significant advance from Steven Shainberg's first feature, the murky and inert 1996 Jim Thompson adaptation "Hit Me,'' new pic benefits from having been worked out with great care and insight from the point of view of the title character's highly particular psychological makeup. For this, one should presumably credit not only the director and Gaitskill but scenarist Erin Cressida Wilson, a playwright who, in adapting the story with Shainberg's guidance, displays the sort of attention to character detail that is much more common in writing for the stage than in most contempo screenwriting.
An opening glimpse of a young woman gracefully tending to office chores while handcuffed to a portable workout bar serves as the tantalizing teaser to a tale that properly begins six months earlier when Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is checked out of a mental institution. Surrounded by her undoubtedly abusive alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie) and infantalizing mother (Lesley Ann Warren), Lee retreats into old habits, which involve extremes repped by girlish accessories on the one hand and self-inflicted pain/pleasure (such as putting a hot tea kettle to her thigh) on the other.
But determined in her naive way to strike out on her own, the semi-gawky, semi-attractive Lee takes a secretarial job with E. Edward Grey (James Spader), an eccentric, grimly serious attorney who warns Lee that her work will be dull. She doesn't mind, nor does she protest when he gives her some demeaning chores, such as sifting through the Dumpster for some missing documents. No, this is the start of Lee's new life, and she's game.
While the behavioral and psychological underpinnings are being established by the script and actors, Shainberg works to set the action apart from absolute reality by stylizing the settings. With exteriors lensed on anonymous southern California locations to avoid any specific sense of place, pic is dominated by Edward's weirdly painted and decorated rooms, which are unlike any legal offices heretofore seen either in the movies or in life. Amy Danger's provocative production design is initially helpful in setting the off-kilter feeling of unease, but with time it comes to seem calculatedly oppressive and finally over-art directed to a distracting degree.
To further foster the notion that she's putting her life on a track toward normalcy, Lee takes up with an old friend from high school, Peter (Jeremy Davies), a hippieish, ineffectual nice guy who would love to marry Lee. She doesn't discourage him but is clearly far more fascinated by the man at the office who is so demanding of her.
"Secretary'' becomes a movie the late Kenneth Tynan would have loved 50 minutes in. After having become increasingly critical of Lee for her sloppy work habits, Edward pushes to a new level of punishment one day when he makes her bend over a desk and slowly spanks her -- but hard -- as she reads a letter aloud. Next time round, she willingly consents to getting down on all fours and being saddled.
But Lee is thrown for a loop when the ever-unpredictable Edward abruptly calls a halt to the games, throwing her professional life into doubt and her personal life into chaos; so profoundly moved by someone having discovered her secret source of satisfaction, and so utterly frustrated at her sudden lack of access to its sole provider, Lee tries spanking herself, to no avail, and even tries to instruct Peter in the fine art, although he's no better at this than he is in regular lovemaking.
Third-act build-up to Lee's all-out attempt to connect with the inscrutable Edward is unduly protracted (whole film could stand a bit of a trim), but it ultimately pays off in a way that is resonant, distinctively romantic and very gratifying from the point of view of the main characters. By the end, Lee has taken a long journey from a total lack of self-awareness to deep satisfaction, and on a road that is unusual to say the least.
Film's interest lies in this psycho/sexual awakening, and anyone seeking kinky bondage kicks will leave needing to find relief elsewhere. In a very demanding role demanding a vast emotional range from clueless innocent to confident role player and emotional adventurer, Gyllenhaal is outstanding in the way she reveals how Lee slowly accumulates the knowledge to realize what she wants and gathers the courage to get it.
Spader's Edward has elements of some of the thesp's other weirdo roles, and for most of the time the character is meant to be unreachable and unfathomable, but the precision and controlled intensity with which the actor puts over the key breakthrough scenes is crucial to maintaining the film's conviction. Supporting performances are one-dimensionally serviceable, and behind-the-scenes contributions are solid.
Secretary (Romantic drama, color, no rating, 1:52)
© By Todd McCarthy, Daily Variety Chief Film Critic
were several funny competition entries worth noting. The first was Steven
Shainberg's "Secretary," which won a special jury prize for
originality. Under an umbrella of sadomasochism, "Secretary"
tackles the dominant-submissive head games between the self-effacing
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her older boss (a wicked James
Spader). An ironic feminist fairy tale, "Secretary's" many
jokes pave the way to a happy ending, but only after some important
initial bleakness establishing Lee's desire to be controlled.
© By Jean Tang for Salon.com
Starring James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lesley Ann Warren and Jeremy Davies. Directed by Steven Shainberg. Written by Erin Cressida Wilson. Produced by Steven Shainberg, Andrew Fierberg and Amy Hobby. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 104 min.
This year's Sundance hot potato embraces self-mutilation, shame and a dozen sexual perversions, yet still tries to make it as a touching love story. Despite powerful performances from its main stars, "Secretary" falls short of its ambitious aims, struggling to find a fitting end for its intriguing and original premise. Fresh out of an institution and back to pricking her own skin for self-satisfaction, the timid and quietly attractive Lee ("Donnie Darko's" Maggie Gyllenhaal) kickstarts her career by applying for a secretarial position at the offices of one E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Thrilled to receive the job, she soon finds herself berated for her carelessness and ordered to undertake demeaning tasks for Grey's apparent pleasure. As time goes by, Lee learns to love the kind of abuse she receives at the (literal) hand of her boss, letting more mistakes into her work to ensure a hefty payback.
The tables turned, Grey grows confused, unsure of the role each has assumed in the relationship. He swiftly ditches his secretary for fear of emotional attachment. In the face of amorous advances from wimpy casual boyfriend Peter (Jeremy Davies), Lee realizes she really wants Grey back and faces him for a final showdown.
Based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, the film's lead characters will strike a familiar chord with anyone aware of the work of Todd Solondz. For a good hour or so, the film plays along in the vein of "Happiness" and "Welcome To The Dollhouse," cutting a quirky, captivating style, yet never losing sight of the darkness of the material. Erin Cressida's edgy, daring script demands challenging, physical performances from the lead actors. Gyllenhaal delivers a name-making turn as the titular secretary, while Spader, as the squirming, sexually perverted lawyer, is in full control of his role. "Secretary" was awarded the fest's Special Jury Prize for Originality.
© Chris Wiegand for Boxoffice Magazine
provides the backdrop for a very unusual employer/employee relationship
in this very offbeat romantic drama from filmmaker Steven Shainberg.
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a shy young woman, who, after a
brief spell in a mental institution, is released in the care of her
overprotective mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and hard-drinking father (Stephen
McHattie). Hoping to make good on her own, Lee begins looking for a
job, and in her free time indulges in her odd habit of inflicting pain
upon herself in various ways. Lee is hired as a secretary by E. Edward
Grey (James Spader), a grim and ruthlessly efficient attorney who warns
her that her work will be both dull and demanding. Lee takes to the
job with genuine enthusiasm, and while she's recently acquired a new
boyfriend, Peter (Jeremy Davies), she's far more intrigued by Grey's
coldly patrician demeanor. While Grey often criticizes Lee, she seems
to thrive on his abuse, but one day he crosses a line when he insists
upon spanking her after some minor mistake. Lee quite enjoys the treatment,
and wants it to continue, but Grey can no longer take pleasure humiliating
Lee when he knows that she likes it; he fires her, despite her pleas
to be allowed to stay. Finally discovering the key to her sexual and
emotional needs, Lee tries to persuade Peter to be rough with her, but
he simply doesn't have the taste or talent for it, and Lee soon maps
out a last-ditch effort to win back her position with Grey, whatever
the cost. Secretary won a special award for "Originality"
at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.
© Mark Deming for All Movie Guide
SPYder on the apparently very good SECRETARY!!!
That's alright, really, because his stuff usually freaks me out. I caught "eXistenz" in theaters and "Videodrome" on DVD just last month. Wildly imaginative, but always just a little messed up. Apparently, that is in demand in Cannes.
however, manage to spin my way into a screening of "Secretary"
last night, and thought I ought to share my good fortune with my fellow
AICN readers. I've heard that "Secretary" screened at Sundance
this year, so I don't know if you've already posted a review for it.
I missed it if you did. Here's my own contribution to the review pile.
the context of the story, though, it all kind of makes sense. Lee
is a girl with particular and considerable emotional luggage. Most
guys can't handle that, no matter how hard they try or how nice they
are. There are certain kinds of guys who can, though, and that's what
Spader's character represents. "Secretary" is about a girl
who is trying to find what's right for her and her life, a man she
can love and who can fulfill all her needs. In the end, "Secretary"
is about finding out who you are and finding someone who you can truly
love and who will love you back.
happens to have some slightly freaky S&M stuff in it. It's not
so much sexual, though, more about dominance and submission. Don't
let that freak you out, though, because it works. Some of the more
conservative readers won't get it and may not like it. That's okay.
"Secretary" may not be for everyone, but it was a very good
Gyllenhall is great in the role, combining elements of the quiet girl
next door with the same sweet and sexy nature that Kirsten Dunst exudes
in her work. She can go from frumpy and bottled up to confident and
sexy with a sweet smile all the way. Being able to handle the role
of Lee demonstrates her own talent, because it can't be easy to make
her plight believable and even sympathetic. She does, though, which
is essential to keep the audience involved in the story, and believing
and caring for this girl who represents what is to most people an
extreme way of experiencing pleasure.
may be required -- grudgingly, perhaps -- to admire "Secretary"
for it's devotion to its concept. It posits that no relationship should
be considered taboo or unacceptable as long as both parties are getting
fulfillment out of it, and that includes sadomasochistic couples.
just returned home from a mental institution, but her parents' dissolving
marriage and her father's inappropriate advances toward her drive
her back to the same old habits of self-mutilation and other obsessions.
She gets a job working for Edward, and a spanking he administers after
she submits a typo-ridden letter unlocks the door to Lee's twisted
little heart. These two were meant for each other.
are moments in the film that are nearly unwatchable, except that they
fully embrace the weirdness of the situation. Shainberg never flinches,
and neither do his actors, who play the roles not as parodies of real-life
freaks but as actual flesh-and-blood people.
an unlikely love story, but a love story nonetheless. I can't in good
conscience urge anyone to rush out and see it, except for cinephiles
who can overlook personal distaste in the interest of quality filmmaking.
is refreshingly naughty! A masterpiece of a mind trip.
Could I love this film more? No. Two incredible talents emerge on the screen and collide in a synergism of abilities that make this film engrossing, mesmerizing and a cerebral trip to the darker side of the park.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is one helluva actor. I have been trumpeting this fact for some time. Not happy with the cookie cutter roles often given to the gals of glam Maggie bravely accepts roles that are meaty and showcase her tremendous abilities here is no exception.
James Spader took a left off the generic film highway long ago and has never really looked back. Fans of his works sit idly twiddling their thumbs in anticipation for the next delicacy he'll find for us. If he's in it - it's worthy, wild and weird!
Secretary follows the love affair, if you will, of two odd people who are perfect for each other. We begin the love story with a woman (we will meet as Lee Holloway in a moment) that is happily shackled. She's smartly dressed and apparently doing everyday secretarial work despite her handicap of neck and arm restraints.
Hey, buck up! This is a James Spader film so you knew it wasn't going to dance around the subject . Cut to a mental institution six months earlier and the day sad little Lee Holloway is just being released. She has a problem with, er, um, for well, cutting herself a lot. When she "slipped" and almost did herself in . the parents who are not quite Ozzie and Harriet ( Stephen McHattie and Leslie Ann Warren) mind you, decided it would be best to seek help. Now the dear girl is coming home.
Still feeling insecure about her desires for self-mutilation Lee focuses on learning a skill. She goes and studys typing. She excels in the field on paper at least.
When she answers an ad for a secretary "position" at attorney E Edward Grey's (James Spader) office the two start a waltz of flirtations that is immediately obvious is a tad skewed.
Mr. Grey is something of a perfectionist. He can't stand typing errors you see. And while Ms. Holloway's speed is tippity top of the typist crest, she makes spelling errors that make the lawyer's office staff look lax. He has also started to notice Lee's multiple Band-Aids meant to hide her harmful habit.
His eyebrow raises and he slowly lets his true, darker, self be seen by the woman.
She could not be more receptive. Aha! She thinks [paraphrased] ," I enjoy a bit of consenual S&M." When she gets so bold as to attempt to get her generic sex loving guy pal Peter (Jeremy Davies) into her world, she learns the truth about herself, her boss, and her heart.
James Spader is a bit of manly yum. Here he uses his patented glare and boiling sexuality to manipulate his mesmerized audience as well as the film de jour's pray (Lee /Maggie). He's a powerful actor and a fellow I would think about sporting shackles for myself....if he asked. He'd look adorable in a dollop of strawberry whipped cream no?
Gyllenhaal is wonderful. I can not get enough of her. This film will
show the powers that be this chickbabe can handle anything she tackles
with grace, range and unwavering perfection. Her brother, über
cutey Jake aint so bad either ....what a talented family. You think
they sit around on the holidays and spew out great lines from great
plays or just stuff themselves like human ticks on a billion calories
then half drunk on carbohydrates play rule -free charades like the
rest of us?
Wicker Man here with my review of "Secretary". This is a movie
I'd been curious about for some time now. Anything with James Spader
in it at least peaks my curiosity. He's made a career out of playing
some memorable characters with a low-key creep factor (including a funny
turn on "Seinfeld" that was, oddly, still somehow creepy),
and Maggie Gyllenhaal is turning up in interesting movies like "Donnie
Darko" or "Adaptation" that make me interested to know
where she's going to go in her career. Going in, all I knew about the
movie was that there was a big deal made about some S&M and that
the poster depicted a skirted woman's bent-over bottom.
So what the hell is "Secretary"? Well, after clarifying it for myself, it seems to be, in a nutshell, a story about two types of repressed people who somehow free up in the midst of trying to be professional in a mannered business environment. It seems like it's more than that in some ways, and much less in others. Yeah, I know that's pretty vague, so I'll try to elaborate.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is Lee Holloway, a young woman who has just gotten out of a psychiatric hospital where she's been staying due to a penchant for self-inflicted wounds. Lee likes to cut herself, and sometimes burn herself in order to bring inner pain to the skin's surface. Lee's probable source of agony comes from a household consisting of an alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie), an annoying just-married sister (Amy Locane), and a overly-doting mother (Lesley Ann Warren). Immediately upon returning home to live with the family, Lee goes for some job training and subsequently interviews for a secretary job with a lawyer, E. Edward Grey (Spader). Right off the bat, one can sense that Grey is a little odd, a very insulated type of lawyer who seems to want to know a little too much about who he's hiring. Lee gets the job and from there starts into routine, learning the quirks of Grey's small but tightly-run office. Both seem somewhat distant from each other and offer little in the way of niceties, but at some point, though, Spader begins to glimpse of the results Lee's self-inflicted violence. He sees that Lee is holding, or held, back emotionally and intervenes by giving her some stern advice to follow. In trying to tailor her work errors, some of Grey's own demons soon come into play as he begins to employ his own preferred methods of office discipline. A shocking spanking session which should repulse Lee actually opens her eyes to some new possibilities about herself. Their relationship begins to evolve into a different beast, an unspoken sexual flirtation which includes the aforementioned S&M element. To Lee, this "relationship" actually makes her fledgling, more conventional relationship with a none-too-bright suitor, Peter, (Jeremy Davies) seem boring. I don't want to say how it all resolves, but where the movie goes I can't say I would have expected.
What I like about this movie is that it doesn't condemn its characters and that things we're used to feeling uncomfortable about (masochism, fetishism) are explored with some wry humor. I don't think "Secretary" is entirely successful, but it's not entirely typical, either. The biggest problem with the movie is that it's a got a slow, deliberate pace that, at nearly two hours, seems to linger too much on the long road to a conclusion. Luckily, there are performances to really dig into. The movie could have really gone into some Joe Esterhazs territory but thankfully that's not what the director/co-writer Steven Shainberg has in mind. Ultimately, for these characters, the way they interact, however morally off-putting it may seem to many, is the only way for them to feel like whole individuals. It's more Solondz than Esterhazs if anything. For some reason, my enjoyment of the movie somehow brought me back to "The Big Kahuna", another intimate movie about conflicting personalities in which the character acting trumped the actual story. What I enjoyed most, there, as I do here, was watching the actors. You love watching these actors sink their teeth into these roles, knowing how much fun they must be having under these controlled performances. This is simply the kind of challenge actors' actors like to present themselves. While Spader gives a strong, nuanced performance as a man who is essentially torn between being professional and indulging his "deviant" behavior, Maggie Gyllenhaal simply shines in the role of Lee. This is a character who communicates more with her face and small gestures than with heaps of dialogue. This is a part that requires Gyllenhaal to become progressively uninhibited, to be goofy, frumpy, despaired, confused, but all the while, sexy and very sexual. She really succeeds. As an emerging mainstream American actress, taking on this kind of provocative role, not unlike the way Jennifer Connolly made everyone's eyes open wide with "Requiem for a Dream", both invigorates and fucks with the notion of a what a star should be.
I think as a movie, "Secretary" is worth a look, even if it's a video rental. Yes, I have many reservations about it, and it could've been a somewhat shorter film, but with actors I like and a filmmaker involved in a labor of love, that's at least enough to get me to watch.
The Wicker Man
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The
So whattaya say we just jump right in? First up, there's...SECRETARY
Director Steven Shainberg (HIT ME), who has adapted Mary Gaitskill's original short story along with screenwriter Eric Cressida Wilson, deserves credit for tackling such tonally difficult material, and also for having the good common sense to cast the luminous Maggie Gyllenhaal in the lead. I have no idea if this unique and magnetic actress is going to cross over to mainstream stardom, but if she does, this film is going to be where it starts.
SECRETARY is not a great movie. It's not the kind of film that I am going to insist that you run out and see. It is a film of simple and subtle pleasures, and how much you enjoy it will depend in large part on how you react to the performances from Gyllenhaal and James Spader. There are other people in the film, but they make little or no impression. This is about what happens between Lee and her new boss, E. Edward Grey. Everything else is secondary, and in a way, that's the point of the film, so it's hard to criticize the film for its tunnel vision.
The film begins with Lee being released from an institution on the day of her sister's wedding. It's pretty obvious why she was in there in the first place when she begins cutting herself secretly. It's no wonder. Her homelife is a horrible cartoon, a little too dark to be funny, a little too broad to be taken seriously. Somehow, Gyllenhaal strikes just the right tone, even when the script doesn't. She gets us through the start of the film, through Lee's typing training, and into the heart of the piece when she goes in to interview with a lawyer about the want ad he placed.
Every moment that happens between Spader and Gyllenhaal, I was captivated. Something chemical and basic happens between them as performers. In a film like this, something that has to do with attraction and love and need and desire, it's next to impossible to fake heat. How many movies have been notoriously miscast, resulting in cold and ineffective onscreen relationships? You have to pray for alchemy, and Shainberg got incredibly lucky. Even in the first moment between them, there's something going on that is unspoken, deeper than even subtext. E. Edward Grey recognizes something in Lee, she recognizes something in him, and without even speaking about it, they simply snap into place, ready for whatever's next.
Under the careful, tentative touch of E. Edward Grey, Lee blossoms, and this is the part of the film where I think the case can be made that Gyllenhaal steps up as a real find. It's not an act. The actress comes to life as this passage of the film unfolds, and she actually seems to become more beautiful, more interesting, more real. Dozens and dozens of Cinderella stories are made by Hollywood, films like SHE'S ALL THAT or THE PRINCESS DIARIES where a beautiful girl is suddenly discovered to be... well... beautiful. Turning a swan into a swan sort of undermines the whole ugly duckling formula. With Gyllenhaal, it's not that she's ugly at the beginning of the film so much as it is that she simply isn't at home in her own skin. She isn't playing some codified Hollywood version of the outsider; she's a fucking alien life form. And as she comes to realize who she is, and how Grey fits into her life, she begins to inhabit her body with a new confidence. Shainberg shows a very sure hand in the way he keeps Gyllenhaal completely clothed throughout the film until a crucial moment. When she is finally revealed, nude, her body scarred from the pains in her past, she's achingly pretty because Spader sees her as beautiful. We see her with his eyes by that point, and she's transcendent.
The message of this film isn't particularly new or shocking or unexpected. What makes SECRETARY distinct and worthwhile is the particular version of this story that it's chosen to tell. The film says that why we love who we love is often a mystery to us. The film says that love normalizes even the most extreme needs through acceptance. Perhaps there is something bold about saying that pain can bring healing as long as it's applied by the right hand, but even that seems obvious and even normal thanks to the way that Gyllenhaal demonstrates her own acceptance of the idea. There's a sequence towards the end of the film that veers into the surreal, a romantic gesture that becomes an endurance test, and I can appreciate some of the ideas in this stretch of the film more than the actual execution. Despite these moments where Shainberg loses his firm grip on the material, I think there's a whole lot to like about SECRETARY, and I would advise you to take someone with you who turns you on. Even if the particular games in this movie aren't to your liking, it may start one or both of you thinking about what you would prefer. Any film that intelligently provokes that particular type of discussion afterwards is worth at least a look.
The Windy City's Capone checks out a real unusual triple feature:
| Comedy | Rated R | 104 Minutes | 2002
Mary Gaitskill's infamous short story comes to the screen as a film of startling humor and feeling. For that, director Steven Shainberg, who co-wrote the script with Erin Cressida Wilson, owes much to two remarkable performances. Maggie Gyllenhaal boldly steps into the role of Lee Holloway, fresh out of an institution (she cuts and burns herself) and eager to begin her job as secretary to bossy attorney E. Edward Gray (James Spader, twisted and terrific). Lee hasn't been helped much by an alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie), a ding-a-ling mother (Lesley Anne Warren) and a wimp boyfriend (Jeremy Davies), but Mr. Gray gets right to her need to be spanked, handcuffed and forced to deliver letters on all fours. Remarkably, the film is less an S&M wallow than a love story between two consenting adults with complimentary sexual psychoses. Spader and Gyllenhaal are electric, bringing Secretary all the power and compassion it needs.
© Rolling Stone.com, PETER TRAVERS
25 movies 2002 - Blink and You Missed 'Em, but Here Are Some Flicks
Oh, sure, you just had to see Spider-Man and My Big Fat Greek Wedding four times each. But what about all those other films that you--and nearly everyone else--missed? The ones that got lost at the multiplex like a half-eaten box of Goobers? We've done some digging and found five you've just gotta catch--at least when they come out on video.
Excuse me, Miss Holloway, could you file this report, take some dictation and then stab yourself in the leg a few times? Yep, in Secretary, that kind of stuff happens all the time in the office of James Spader, a Florida attorney with an appetite for the funky stuff. So, when Spader hires former psychiatric patient Maggie Gyllenhaal as his submissive secretary, the two develop a tightly-wound relationship made in S&M heaven. Full of creepy, quirky moments, this is a great bizarre love story--and proof that there's someone out there for everyone. While Spader is excellent as the lawyer with no idea how to show affection, it is Gyllenhaal who deserves accolades for her brilliant journey from mousy to empowered. Now, can you please get me a hot cup of coffee, extra sugar, and, oh, pour it all over your head.
This, in appropriately hard-hitting summary, is the plot of Steven Shainberg's The Secretary - although it gives no hint of the film's ability to unplug your higher instincts, make you laugh in all the wrong places and get you thinking about what is actually meant by the word pornography. It's based on a story from a provocative collection called Bad Behavior by the young American writer Mary Gaitskill, who's had literary critics applauding her empathy for the "urban fringe generation".
She's been described as an expert in conveying "the angst of people who wear black". And there must have been a lot of them at this year's Sundance Festival, for the film won the special jury prize for originality - quite something for a piece based on one of the oldest stories of all: woman addicted to abusive relationship.
Then again, Shainberg as director and his scriptwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson, manage to do something original by persuading you to see it as a love story. That's if you believe love can grow out of a union of complementary compulsions. In short, they're out to show that there's somebody for everybody.
Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal, sister of Donnie Darko's Jake Gyllenhaal) has just been released from a mental hospital in time for her sister's wedding. And although her bridesmaid's dress adds an infusion of colour to her wan looks, it can't disguise her basic fragility. Nonetheless, at the reception she finds enough energy to start a mild flirtation with Jeremy Davies (Solaris, Million Dollar Hotel) as Peter, a local boy of her own age. And, for a while, it looks as if these two might settle down in twitchy compatibility.
Davies has been cast so often as an inarticulate oddball that he mainly communicates in sign language these days, so it's no surprise to learn that Peter, too, has had a nervous breakdown. And he adores Lee. The flaw in this arrangement, however, is that she doesn't want to be adored. What she really wants becomes clear when she goes to work for lawyer Edward Grey, played by James Spader, who, at 44, still looks like a dissolute choirboy and is always trouble.
Since his 1989 debut in Sex, Lies and Videotape, he's carved so many of his performances out of ice that I now think of him as an actor who's on a quest for something to make him feel something. And it's not as if he hasn't been trying. His earlier trip to the wilder shores of sexual unorthodoxy in David Cronenberg's film of J.G. Ballard's Crash - another story about a union between eroticism and pain - was proof that he's game for anything.
The Secretary takes you into the same murky corner of the human libido
that French director Catherine Breillat's R-rated film Romance explored
a couple of years ago, although Shainberg is not nearly as solemn
about his findings. His style is subversively droll - as opposed to
nauseatingly titillating - and he's clever enough to leave you guessing
about certain aspects of the plot. All we're really told about Lee
is that she has a loving but anxious mother - Lesley Ann Warren, looking
like a startled possum under several layers of black eyeliner - and
a fond but alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie). The rest of the clues
are supplied by the impishness of Gyllenhaal's performance.
Yes, the scenes of S&M come replete with bruised buttocks and an act of masturbation, but there isn't the objectification that, for me, defines pornography. In most of these scenes, the actors keep their clothes on. But much more important is that they're never stripped of their self-awareness.
What to make of Mr Grey's office decor, for instance, which is part Buddhist retreat, part Oriental pleasure dome? Does it mirror the conflicted state of his own psyche? Clearly, he isn't getting the same unadulterated fun out of his compulsions as his partner is getting from hers. He's borne down by guilt. Otherwise he wouldn't shut himself in his home gym every night, enduring a punishing routine with weights and treadmill - presumably because his local hardware store doesn't stock hairshirts and medieval flagellants' kits.
misgivings emerge from the unlikeliest sources during the lovers'
perverse and often very funny routine, and the power shifts in such
a way that at the end of it all, Shainberg has you exactly where he
wants you: conjuring with the question of who's controlling whom.
Secretary whips up Metro Tartan's biggest UK opening
source: screendaily.com - Robert Mitchell in London (Thank you, Sulena)
HOLLYWOOD -- Love hurts takes on a whole new meaning in the erotic drama Secretary.
James Spader plays a lawyer who discovers his new secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal) likes to receive pain as much as he likes to give it.
Thus begins one of the strangest of strange love stories.
The spanking scene in the film has raised more eyebrows and more controversy than its nude scenes. "I did something in that scene that I'd never done in a film before but that's been the case with so many of my movies," says Spader.
"I'm not a brawler, so my first screen fist fight was something unique and life-expanding for me, as was the first time I did a love scene. I always have a certain degree of curiosity when I'm breaking new territory and this was certainly the case with the spanking scene."
Spader insists when he first read the script for Secretary, which opens in Calgary Friday, he felt it was "an endearingly sweet love story.
thought these two people were so lovely and endearing, yet married
to this sort of extreme behaviour. I never felt the film was anti-women
or I wouldn't have done it."
Studies: Spader - saviour of the perverse
James Spader is 43, and I daresay that's a little old for the kind of public naughtiness he does so well. Naughtiness is so perilously un-American now; we're back in an age where everyone keeps to his assigned duty, and the range of human nature shrinks. The mere existence of Spader in 2003 is enough to remind you how, in the past, the only chance that kind of "weak" actor had in American film was to seem disturbed, and therefore villainous.
You don't have to go beyond the front rank of our leadership to see chronic failure to live up to manly ideals, to find "weakness", irritation and worse. And moving around in American society, you meet such a mass of the bogus, the veiled and the "weak", that James Spader could pass for Everyman, instead of the vaguely disturbed fellow that seems to be the only way of explaining his patent intelligence.
Take Secretary, a picture ignored in America or trashed for being very nasty and unwholesome. You guessed it: it's one of the most interesting US pictures of 2002 in which Spader plays E Edward Grey, a lawyer who, in the words of the script, is "a man waiting to be saved". Saved from what? Well, let's call it the creeping emptiness that seems to be invading his wide eyes, his standard handsomeness and what you'd have to call his good looks. But "good looking" now has become such a cliché, and such a warning, that the only interesting way of being good looking is to nurse that strange "weakness", allegedly alien to America's tough monotony, but actually so fascinating. (In case you're having trouble picturing this look, think Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Tom Cruise - call it the boy-wreck look.)
Mr E Edward Grey needs a new secretary and he acquires Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), only just out of a mental hospital, yet still held back from all the supposed American rewards for her pensive prettiness. Mr Grey is terribly fierce about typing mistakes (part of the charm of Secretary is that it seems to be taking place pre-word processor). However, the mistake can be the key to paradise. For it is Mr Grey's trembling inner desire to have a miscreant typist bend forward over his desk so that he can spank her. And Lee likes it.
These scenes are beautifully done by director Steven Shainberg: they are suspenseful, very sexy, funny, and entirely credible in their revelation of two mercifully un-normal people. For Secretary is a movie about the romance of perversion - the way a kind of magic always (and only) clings to the forbidden. In other words, it is hinting at the notion that the only kind of real sex is illicit - the other kind, the regular normal practice, that is just habit.
This is very alien to that standard version of the American ending: that moment when problems have been solved and happiness achieved. And this is where we get to what is really thrilling about the look of James Spader: for his face is completely unavailable for that self-satisfied, locked-in ending. I won't tell you how Secretary ends, but the film faces the undermining threat of saying that "perverse" sex - spanking - is just a block on the troubled way to happy, satisfactory, normal sex.
Secretary does not fall for that. Rather it says that in a world of people who look like James Spader, we must all wander around like lost souls, doing our best to put on a cheery grin and grabbing crumbs where we can. This will not be owned up to, but it is what living in America feels like - there is a suspicion that the body-snatchers (as in the Invasion Of...) are making progress, and sometimes when you look in the mirror you wonder if you dropped off last night.
Secretary is subversive - the only real art, perhaps, that is left in America. Spader's is the face of this mood and tone, and here he is reminding us of sex, lies, and videotape (1989), still his best film if only because it understood how naturally suited his look and manner are to that wellspring of American behaviour - lying.