Based on Mary Gaitskill’s short story Bad Behavior, Secretary is the story of a troubled young woman who becomes a secretary for a perfectionist lawyer where the two engage into a sadomasochistic relationship. Directed by Steven Shainberg and screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson with story adaptation by Shainberg and Wilson. The film is an exploration of two people who bond through sadomasochism that is filled with romance, humor, and drama. Starring James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Stephen McHattie, and Lesley Ann Warren. Secretary is a daring yet unconventional film from Steven Shainberg.
After returning from a mental hospital to attend her sister’s wedding, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is unsure about returning home which is dysfunctional due to her alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie) and her overprotective mother (Lesley Ann Warren). In an attempt to have a normal life, Lee finds an ad for a secretary as she is interviewed by an attorney named E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Lee gets the job as she works for Mr. Grey in writing letters for him and doing other errands where things are fine until a phone call from her father and an encounter with Mr. Grey’s ex-girlfriend Tricia O’Connor (Jessica Tuck). While Lee’s personal life has her gaining a boyfriend in Peter (Jeremy Davies), her work life starts to become overwhelming due to Mr. Grey’s perfectionist persona.
After an intimate conversation where Mr. Grey tells Lee to stop cutting herself, the relationship improves until Lee’s mistakes in her job lead to a moment where he invites her into his office where he spanks her. For Lee, it becomes a big awakening as she finds herself enjoying her job and begins to have feelings for Mr. Grey. When a personal matter concerning Lee’s family has her wanting to turn to Mr. Grey for help, the sadomasochistic relationship ends as he becomes distant. When Lee decides to make an attempt to connect with Mr. Grey, she starts to learn of his own shame as she tries to help him.
The film is about the strange relationship between two very odd people who engage into this sadomasochistic relationship where the man is turned on by her submissive behavior while the woman finds herself enjoying the submissive role. It’s a strange idea for a film that is a romantic comedy of sorts but also a great character study in how these two people can come together in the most unlikely circumstances. Erin Cressida Wilson’s script is very smart for the way she portrays both Lee and Mr. Grey as this unique couple who seem to enjoy having a sadomasochistic relationship where they’re allowed to be themselves. For Lee Holloway, she goes from this socially-awkward and lonely woman that comes from a very dysfunctional family and turns her into a more aware and open woman that doesn’t mind being the submissive.
Then there’s E. Edward Grey who is this individual where he’s introduced as this very lonely man that is unable to express his own sexual desires until Lee is willing to do anything he says where he is aroused by the fact that she’ll do what he does crawling on her hands and knees while holding a piece of paper on her mouth. While it may be acceptable in the office building that he works in, he’s unable to go beyond that when Lee tried to talk to him at his home but she realized that she was invading the very private home that he lives in. Mr. Grey is just as complicated as Lee because he has been through so many relationships that don’t work out while he is truly more fragile than Lee realized.
Wilson’s script gives director Steven Shainberg the chance to create a film that defies the conventions of a romantic film that has a lot of humor and drama. Through his stylish direction, Shainberg dwells into this world of this entrancing office building filled with plants and a small garden with tracking shots that includes a fantasy scene where Lee dreams about coming out of a flower as Mr. Grey is entranced by her. Shainberg also creates a lot of intimate moments in the conversation scenes between Lee and Mr. Grey while the sexual elements of the film isn’t very racy but still has an element of danger as far as the sadomasochism material handled. The overall work is a truly divine yet entrancing film from Steven Shainberg.
Cinematographer Steven Fierberg does a fantastic job with the film‘s photography from the brooding yet exotic look for the office building scenes to more sunnier and colorful look for many of the film‘s Californian exteriors. Editor Pam Wise, with additional work from Jay Rabinowitz, does an incredible job with the editing to create a wonderful montage of Lee and Mr. Grey’s blooming S&M relationship as well as some stylish dissolves and jump-cuts to play up the dramatic elements of the film. Production designer Amy Danger, along with art director Nick Ralbovsky and set decorators Michael Baker and Michael Murray, does a brilliant job with the very cold yet hypnotic look of the interior office building that Lee and Mr. Grey work at to the more quirky home of Lee and her family.
Costume designer Marjorie Bowers does an excellent job with the clothes that Lee wears from a girlish yet somewhat ragged look early on to a more professional yet sexier look as the film progresses. Visual effects supervisor Randal Balsmeyer does a nice job with the film‘s sole visual effects scene where Lee dreams of a great fantasy world with Mr. Grey. Sound editor Brian Langman does a terrific job with the sound to help capture the intimacy of the scenes between Lee and Mr. Grey.
The film’s score by Angelo Badalamenti is brilliant for its melodic-driven score that plays up to some of the dramatic moments of the film with somber piano pieces and bass-driven cuts. The film’s soundtrack, that is supervised by Beth Amy Rosenblatt, is very good for the music that appears such as cuts by Leonard Cohen and Lizzie West for big dramatic moments while music by acts like Little Richard, Cake, the Seeds, the Faint, Pete Belasco, and War appear in scenes played on location.
The casting by Ellen Parks is superb for the ensemble that is created as it features notable appearances from Patrick Bauchau as Lee’s doctor from the mental hospital, Amy Locane as Lee’s older sister, Oz Perkins as Lee’s new brother-in-law, Mary Joy and Michael Mantle as Peter’s parents, Lily Knight as a paralegal, and Jessica Tuck as Mr. Grey’s ex-girlfriend Tricia O’Connor. Stephen McHattie is very good as Lee’s depressed/alcoholic father while Lesley Ann Warren is also good as Lee’s worrisome yet kind-hearted mother. Jeremy Davies is excellent as Lee’s boyfriend Peter who tries to make her feel welcome only to be confused by her sadomasochistic behavior.
James Spader is phenomenal as E. Edward Grey, a controlling attorney who finds comfort in being the dominant to Lee’s submissive behavior only to realize that he might’ve taken it too far. It’s a very complex and compelling performance from Spader who is a man filled with shame over his sexual desires as it’s definitely one of Spader’s best role. Finally, there’s Maggie Gyllenhaal in her breakthrough performance as Lee Holloway. Gyllenhaal’s performance is definitely the most intriguing as she starts out as this very girlish yet awkward young woman that is truly a mess and then becomes this very professional yet sexually-hypnotic woman that enjoys being a submissive. It’s definitely the performance that put her in the spotlight while she and Spader have an amazing chemistry that is truly astounding to watch.
The 2003 Region 1 DVD (remastered in 2008) presents the film in a 16x9 widescreen with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound along with English and Spanish subtitles. The DVD also includes a few special features for its release that includes a feature-length audio commentary track with director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson. The commentary is relaxed and fun where the two talk about elements of the production plus the performance of the actors as Shainberg cites Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas as an influence for the film. The DVD also includes a seven-minute behind the scenes featurette where Shainberg, James Spader, and Maggie Gyllenhaal talk about the film and some of the details that went into the making of Mr. Grey’s office.
The DVD also includes a photo gallery that features still and behind-the-scenes picture of the film plus an ad for the film’s screenplay book and trailers for Secretary and Shainberg’s 1996 debut film Hit Me starring Elias Koteas and William H. Macy.
Secretary is a sexy yet provocative film from Steven Shainberg that features outstanding performances from James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. For audiences that wants a love story that defies conventions will definitely want to seek this out while find something interesting about the world of sadomasochism. It’s also film that gives voice to oddballs who feel lost in a conventional world that is able to take charge and make something of their own and be cool with it. In the end, Secretary is a glorious film from Steven Shainberg.
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