I still don’t know how I feel about “Secretary.”
I can’t call it a bad film, because it wasn’t. I can’t say it wasn’t well acted, because it was. I can’t say it was badly written. I can’t really say anything negative. In fact, I know for a fact that there were sequences that I really liked. I don’t remember any sequences I didn’t like. But I think, like movies that deal with horrific tragedies like WWII and the Holocaust, I respected it more than I enjoyed it.
The Pollock Theater’s 10th Anniversary screening of “Secretary” highlighted how much more accepting society has become of the subjects touched on in the film. Right off the bat, I want to commend the film for showing an unorthodox romance that was refreshing from the common, hegemonic Hollywood formula. I enjoyed how it treated a sadomasochist love story with respect, rather than as a joke or as something revolting. Those two things alone make the film worth a view.
The story follows Lee Holloway, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, a recently released mental patient who cuts herself to deal with trauma, like the domestic abuse between her parents and her father’s alcoholism. Upon her release, she learns to type and eventually goes to work as a secretary for a strange — but handsome — lawyer named Mr. Grey (James Spader, now known as the strange — but not so handsome — boss on “The Office”).
Lee is instantly smitten, even when it becomes obvious that Grey is demanding and even a bit sadistic in all the things he makes her do (including searching for something in a dumpster). Surprisingly, this blossoms into a relationship — albeit a sadomasochistic one.
Though the through-line of the story is pretty simple; the tone, the acting and even the visual aesthetic are all charmingly off-kilter. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance is full of innocence and almost has a fairytale-like quality to it. Meanwhile, James Spader has a way of being shy, reprehensible and alluring all in one scene — it’s actually quite impressive to watch.
However, the movie does drag, with a lot of scenes that probably could have been cut or shortened. Additionally, Mr. Grey is unlikable for most of the running time, and I don’t feel his romance with Lee is earned. That might be my conventional Hollywood-conditioning talking, and even I will admit I liked the end … but it did take a long time to get there.
The recent screening of “Secretary” at the Pollock Theater featured a Q&A with the writer, UCSB’s professor Erin Cressida Wilson. She talked about how she was challenged to make the main character “quit” her relationship with Grey and “cure” herself of masochistic tendencies (keeping in theme with feminist ideas that she referred to as “very ‘80s”) and how she had to fight to keep the story’s integrity. She also talked about how hard it was to get actors attached to a project and how difficult it was with a film like this one at the time it was produced (over 10 years ago). Even James Spader declined, and Mr. Grey’s role was to be played by Vincent D’Onofrio before he was cast for “Law & Order” and was replaced by Spader after all.
Wilson also talked about her close working relationship with director Steven Shainberg. She said she was unusually close to the production and on set every day, but that there was very little rewriting once production started — which is another rarity in film.
All in all, it’s a quirky, interesting movie and very worth seeing — I just don’t know if I’d want to see it again, even with the spanking scene.