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March 26, 2008 |

By Agent Bedhead | Underappreciated Gems | March 26, 2008 |

When it comes to compatibility within romantic relationships, I have this theory. True romantic rapport isn’t just about physical attraction, like-mindedness, and liking the same type of movies. Of course, those things certainly don’t hurt a relationship, but I think the true essence of affinity is about finding someone who can deal with your particular set of hangups and vice-versa. In other words, a tolerance for each other’s respective crap is all important. Perhaps I should have put that idea more eloquently, but the sentiment stands. And if you haven’t actually watched Secretary, you’ve probably heard that it’s a movie about some really fucked up dude who gets his rocks off by spanking his secretary. If only it were that simple. Don’t get me wrong — there is plenty of spanking going on in this film, but it’s not all about sex. No: This is an odd little love story of a two unusual people whose hangups just happen to effectively cancel out each other’s internal pain and unease. The film’s story, which is loosely based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, is entirely unrealistic in the sense that any guy who spanks his secretary would probably end up on the nearest federal court docket for a sexual harassment lawsuit. However, the two main characters are so well drawn and skillfully acted, and the screenwriter provides plenty of dark humor and moments of genuine emotion that it’s rather impossible to view the characters as sick deviants or perverts. Instead, Secretary tells the tale of love blossoming between two people that just happen to be into sadomasochism.

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has a history of self-mutilation; since the age of seven, she’s been cutting herself to externalize her internal pain wrought by witnessing the alcoholism of her father, Burt (Stephen McHattie), and enduring her Stepfordesque mother, Joan (Lesley Ann Warren). At the start of Secretary, Lee just ended a stint at a mental institution but, that very evening, she pushes a boiling teakettle against her inner thigh. Shortly thereafter, she answers a classified ad at the law offices of E. Edward Grey, whose shingle contains a very large “Secretary Wanted” sign that lights up during a vacancy. This figurative rotating door for the Secretary position is rather suggestive of a bordello, and, sure enough, when Lee enters the office, she spots the previous Secretary fleeing the premises. At this point, most job appicants would run like hell, but Lee continues down the long hallway. Meanwhile, E. Edward Grey cowers in his office, and it is clear that this guy has some serious tics to his personality. He immediately notices odd things about Lee as well: “There’s something about you. You’re… closed.” To this, Lee responds with audible relief, “I know.” After this bizarre interview, Lee begins her series of trials that Edward uses to test her obedience. Since Edward doesn’t believe in computers, Lee must use a typewriter, and Edward has a nice collection of red ink pens to circle any errors, and he does so at any opportunity. When Lee willingly digs through the dumpster for misplaced files, Edward, in a fit of highly amusing enthusiasm, frantically does pull-ups in his office in an attempt to ward off his excitement.

So, things are going well this point, and Edward’s firmness begins to extend from merely psychological to encompassing the sexual realm. Quite possibly the best scene in the movie arrives when Edward orders Lee to place her hands on his desk and read a letter aloud. When he first spanks her, the expression on Gyllenhaal’s face morphs from one of humiliation and confusion to one of curiosity and pleasure. She continues to read the letter, once … almost twice, until both she and Edward are “spent” and he leans over her. At the end of this powerful sequence, two left hands rest beside each other, and Lee wraps her pinky over Edward’s. This one tiny, mutual expression of intimacy signals that Lee is different from any other Secretary that has entered the offices of E. Edward Grey.

Some critics have taken the far too easy route and generalized Secretary as representative of female oppression and the hands of an evil male. This is a rather unfair characterization because Lee and Edward are merely illustrative of two relatively rational individuals and not the male and female genders as a whole. Lee quickly realizes that she enjoys these spankings as a form of externalizing her internal pain, and she begins to actually seek out these mild punishments by making typographical errors on purpose. Clearly, Lee is not a victim or captive to Edward’s demands, but rather, is actually empowered by this so-called oppression, which actually speaks to her mutual control over Edward. And, like the hothouse flowers that unfold under Edward’s tender care, Lee similarly flourishes under his firm guidance, thereby emancipating herself from the painfully hollow origins of her own self-destruction. At the same time, Lee offers the validation of Edward’s desires, and in doing so, she frees him from the guilt and shame that previously led him to suppress his emotions and sexuality. Their thriving relationship is a welcome contrast to the truly abusive relationship of Lee’s parents. The superseding ability is largely due to the careful pacing of Director Steven Shainberg, so that the blossoming of Lee and gradual softening of Edward both occur at a pace that is believable and authentic.

Secretary is nicely punctuated throughout by Angelo Badalamenti’s score as well as a smattering of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.” The film itself is anchored by two bloody wonderful performances by the lead players. Gyllenhaal’s expressive portrayal of Lee gives her character a depth that is slightly lacking in the film’s script, and this performance prevents Lee from appearing as a mere caricature representative of Edward’s sexual desires. Speaking of which, E. Edward Grey must certainly be the role that James Spader has searched for during his entire career. After playing one-dimensional roles for decades — a judgmental, yuppie prick in Pretty In Pink; an impotent pervert with a thing for videotaping women talking about sex in Sex, Lies, and Videotape; and a fetishist whose sex life is revived by his involvement in a fatal car crash in Cronenberg’s Crash — Spader finally inhabits a character that deserves such a fully realized performance. As Edward slowly reveals his layers of fragility, the audience steadily warms to him in a manner that could never be achieved by a less skilled actor. Secretary dwells on some very heavy subject matter, but the successful combination of elements mean that the film never feels depressing. Instead, the result is a romance infused with darkly comic touches, or, if one would prefer, a love story for the cynics who still want to believe.

Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at

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