“I got out of the institution the day of my sister’s wedding,” narrates Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The socially repressed Lee has an alcoholic for a dad (Stephen McHattie) and a mom (Lesley Ann Warren) who puts a happy face on everything. Lee returns to old habits, inflicting cuts on herself with the instruments she keeps locked in a child’s jewelry box. Never having worked a day in her life, Lee completes a typing class and interviews for a secretarial position with tax attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader).
Lee’s messy wardrobe, sniffling, and constant playing with her hair unnerves the fussy Mr. Grey, but her submissiveness excites him, as when she happily climbs into a dumpster to look for a file. Lee gives a normal relationship a try with a quirky high school classmate (Jeremy Davies), but she’s more turned on by her withdrawn boss, his red pens and admonishments when she commits a typo on the IBM typewriter. Mr. Grey later confronts Lee about her jewelry box and tells her that she’ll never cut herself again. She obeys, and discovers a world of spankings and obedience opening her life up.
Steven Shainberg had graduated from Yale University and moved to Los Angeles, where he toiled on commercials and music videos before being accepted into the American Film Institute. A friend told Shainberg about a book he thought the aspiring filmmaker would love. It was a short story collection by Mary Gaitskill called Bad Behavior. One of the stories – Secretary – dealt with a homely young woman taken advantage of by her boss, a lawyer who punishes typos by spanking her. Shainberg loved it and over five days, shot a 22-minute short based on the story on videotape.
Several studio executives in Hollywood who saw the short expressed interest in Shainberg adapting it to feature length, but the director wasn’t interested in “curing” the title character of her sadomasochism. Shainberg recalls, “I would say, ‘No, you don’t understand. It’s not a problem. In fact, it’s something joyful and beautiful that happens to her.’ That point of view made it impossible to get anyone to develop the feature.” Shainberg instead made his feature film debut in 1998 with Hit Me, a poorly received adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel A Swell Looking Babe featuring Elias Koteas and William H. Macy.
Shainberg moved back to New York and was looking to collaborate with his friend, playwright, novelist and professor of dramatic writing at Duke University Erin Cressida Wilson. Nothing clicked, until Shainberg decided to take another look at Secretary. Using Jane Campion’s film Sweetie as an inspiration, Shainberg & Wilson spent a year adapting a screenplay. Instead of adhering to Gaitskill’s text – which portrayed sadomasochism as dark and damaging – the script proposed that the experience could be liberating.
Raising $2 million from Slough Pond – which had financed Hit Me – Shainberg found producers who liked the material as much as he did; Andrew Fierberg and Amy Hobby at double A Films came on board in return for profit participation. Casting Secretary was another story. All the A-list actresses Shainberg approached turned the project down. Exploring other ideas, Shainberg considered the virtually unknown Maggie Gyllenhaal. Exhibiting “tenderness, honesty, a sense of humor, and an odd physicality that could lead to something beautiful,” that the director liked, Gyllenhaal loved the script and agreed to play Lee.
Screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2002, Secretary won over festival audiences and went on to receive a Special Jury Prize for Originality. The film’s sexual content and doubts about its marketability kept distributors away, but three weeks later, Lions Gate offered $1 million to distribute the film in North America. Released in September, Secretary notched rave reviews in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, but the film was never expanded beyond 150 screens. Those who found it quickly elevated the quirky romance to cult status.
The Sundance jury who awarded it a prize for “originality” sums up the appeal of Secretary, a wonderfully offbeat romance that succeeds as a situation comedy, a family drama and even somewhat of a camp classic, retaining the best facets of each genre while jettisoning the clichés. Shainberg has stated that the film that made him aspire to be a filmmaker was Blue Velvet, and in some respects, this movie could be viewed as if David Lynch decided to try a romantic comedy, or his version of Pretty Woman.
In addition to the superb casting of Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader – who bring uniqueness, excitement and a geeky hilarity to the film every moment they’re on screen – the script is wickedly funny without turning its characters into jokes. The joy Lee experiences when Mr. Grey calls to instruct her what portions of dinner she’s allowed (”A slice of butter, four peas, and as much ice cream as you’d like to eat”) – as well as what Lee means to him – feels real. Lynch’s frequent composer – Angelo Badalamenti- provides the sensual jazz infused musical score.
TC Candler at Independent Critics writes, “A sexy romantic comedy that avoids all the clichéd pitfalls that are so prevalent in the genre and delivers a touching and honest love story that is, to this point, unique in the history of cinema … If you cross American Beauty with Office Space and mix in a dash of sado-masochistic romance… you have Secretary.”
“What’s best about this film is that it never panders to its audience, yet it nevertheless makes an effective case for a lifestyle which many viewers will be encountering for the first time … The focus is not really sexual, nor even sadomasochistic, but is more about the blossoming of personalities through the exploration of dominant and submissive feelings. Passionate and intelligent, this is a delightful small film deserving of a wider audience,” writes Jennie Kermode at Eye For Film.
Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “Provocative, funny and one of the more offbeat love stories you’re ever going to see, Secretary is an unusual little gem of a film that does what art is supposed to do – provoke us to look a bit more closely at what we might initially judge without thought. It’s a solid effort that will certainly have me looking closely at Shainberg’s next film.”