"Secretary" is an unlikely love story. And viewers may not be prepared for the unlikely emotions it generates. Like most films it's predicated on wish fulfillment, in this case an awkward man and a shy woman who play two ships in the night while we root for these crazy kids to recognize just how perfect they are for each other.
James Spader plays E. Edward Gray, an eccentric lawyer. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, his new Secretary. Mr. Gray has been through a lot of secretaries, while this is the first job Lee has ever held. Mr. Gray is demanding. Lee is eager to please. Mr. Gray hates mistakes. Lee makes mistakes. Mr. Gray gives her a firm warning. Lee makes even more mistakes. Mr. Gray has no choice but to punish her. And Lee accepts his punishment....a tersely administered spanking in his office. And this is where the romance blossoms. For Mr. Gray is a sadist, and Lee is a masochist. Talk about two people made for each other.
And at that point in the screening, even with blatant foreshadowing, a palpable thrill came over the packed audience. If they'd have thought to bring hand fans, they'd have been whipping up quite a breeze. "Secretary" is a film designed to make you blush. It’s up to you to decide out where the blood is rushing to.
Steven Shainberg directs this darkly comic tale based on the short story by Mary Gaitskill. Shainberg is both clever and cautious - he knows he's working with a loaded weapon, capable of obliterating a decade's worth of sexual harassment sensitivity training. Some people will no doubt have a fit watching a young woman, a former mental patient at that, submitting to the manipulations of her boss. I can only speculate on the agendas of author Gaitskill and adapting screenwriter Erin Wilson, but both women are obviously quite fond of Lee Holloway. This is a tale of her liberation, not by giving up on her love of pain, but by learning how to embrace it. There's a lot of esoteric detail into the depiction of a dominant and submissive, suggesting people who have either done their homework or lived the life. The fantasy is not so much one of the voyeur watching sexual deviancy at play, it's of two people discovering that they may not be deviant after all, and they certainly don't have to be lonely.
James Spader knows these ropes from a distinguished career playing tightly wound men in well-tailored suits. Maggie Gyllenhaal will go onto bigger films, but one hopes she remains attracted to dangerous material like "Secretary" where a facial expression is allowed to do much of the talking. And the looks that come over Gyllenhaal's face as her Secretary unfolds are priceless.
© 2002 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 10/02
USA - 2002