DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh
KEY ACTORS: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo
IMDB SCORE: 7.2/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 96%
SEX SCORE: 5/5 (Fuckable cast, sex positive themes, source of fantasy material, passes the Bechdel test, rewatchable. Yes!!)
This contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
Of course this was going to be the first movie in this new series – it was the one that inspired it all! A film about sex, relationships, voyeurism, exhibitionism and with Secretary’s James Spader as the lead? It’s safe to say that this movie had a big effect on me…
Made in 1989 and Steven Soderbergh’s feature directorial debut, sex, lies and videotape tells the story of four people: married couple, Ann (Andie MacDowell) and John (Peter Gallagher), her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) and an old college friend of John’s called Graham (James Spader). Ann and John’s marriage is struggling – she is in therapy discussing how she no longer likes it when John touches her and all the while, he is fucking her sister. John’s friend, Graham, has only recently moved to the area but creates ripples in the uneasy balance of these relationships. He reveals to Ann that he is impotent and unable to have penetrative sex. Instead, he gets off on videos he’s made of conversations with women talking about sex. His arrival, and the videos he makes of them, prompt both sisters to reconsider and eventually end their relationships with John. It’s such a good film!
And it’s not just me that thinks this film is great – it won the Palme d’Or and FIPRESCI prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, where James Spader also won the Beat Actor Award, and Steven Soderbergh was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 1990 Academy Awards.
I first saw this around 2005 during my many years at university and when I was deep into an obsession with the OC’s Sandy Cohen, also played by Peter Gallagher, as many women in my friendship circle were. ‘What would Sandy Cohen do?’ had become a mantra of sorts for us! I was in my early 20s and a long way from working out who I was sexually and what I liked, and I watched this with a group of girlfriends mainly to see what Sandy Cohen had done before becoming Sandy Cohen. They were intermittently shocked and bored – he is not a good person here. I could not tear my eyes away and I’m not sure I have ever been the same!
This film initiated such a paradigm shift in me because it caught me at a time when I had no real sexual experience or confidence, but I knew there was so much wonder waiting just out of reach. At that time, I recognised so much of myself in Ann; her hesitation and embarrassment about sex, her frigid existence as a housewife locking her into a life that she knew was making her unhappy but that she couldn’t work out how to change, and I was so afraid that this was my future.
A two year relationship during sixth form with an eighteen year old boy who was too afraid of being caught buying condoms to actually have PIV sex had been followed by several years of celibacy, and I was left somewhat paralysed when it came to sex. The very few times I did have sex had not gone well and I was stuck, bound by my fear and lack of experience. Maybe I would never work out how to have good sex? Maybe I too would end up in a sexless marriage, living as the perfect housewife but never be sexually fulfilled?
So, like Ann, I was fascinated by Graham and his videotapes. Maybe it’s because of my love of movies but there is something nostalgic and a little romantic about Graham’s box of videotapes, each labelled with the name of the person he was filming. As a viewer of the movie, you don’t see much of what is on these tapes and it is left to your imagination, but just the idea of all of these women opening up and talking about sex, answering Graham’s questions and discussing these intimate subjects with such ease, was intoxicating.
And, oh my gosh, I wanted Graham to make a tape of me. I imagined feeling terrified and vulnerable but safe enough to talk, which is a hot combination of emotions! I imagined Graham’s questions probing me and making me realise things about myself that I wished I could vocalise. It was such a delicious fantasy, and one of the earliest that I can remember that was definitively sexual rather than more romantic. I only watched the movie once until many years later but I cannot tell you how often I reimagined that scene and that idea…
Interestingly, in 1989 Roger Ebert described his use of video as a form of sexism assault as ‘he has power not over their bodies but over their minds, over their secrets.’ While I’m not sure that this view of assault stands up in the post-#MeToo world where more definite assault has been revealed to be so dishearteningly widespread and Graham clearly has the consent of the women he’s recording, it did strike me that his simple voyeurism could be seen so negatively.
Because looking back now, this is almost the perfect acting out of my exhibitionist/voyeur tendencies. To be watched so intently by someone who will get off on watching me over and over is among the hottest things I can imagine. Equally, I love the idea of videoing a partner like this, and it proved to be as hot as I’d hoped when I filmed my husband finally breaking his 10 day orgasm denial streak a couple of years ago. The results were definitely NSFW but I got off on the filming and the watching later in almost equal measures, and I remembered Graham’s videos with new eyes.
This is also a form of voyeurism that adds distance and time to the immediacy of the experience, a deliberate choice by Soderbergh. Talking to Film Comment in 1989, he explained that ‘video is a way of distancing ourselves from people and events…[Graham] needs the distance to feel free to react without anybody watching, which, I guess, is the definition of voyeurism.’
This won’t be the last time I talk about James Spader but it is a good place to introduce him. He is among the most fuckable of all actors and, unlike most celebrity crushes, this is more because of how he is rather than how he looks. In the same review mentioned above, Roger Ebert feels that Spader has the ‘kind of sexual ambiguity of the young Brando or Dean; he seems to suggest that if he bypasses the usual sexual approaches it is because he has something more interesting up, or down, his sleeve.’ That is true of his character here and it is definitely true of his character in Secretary. Both are superficially ordinary, almost boring, and yet have such fascinating and kinky depths, and the juxtaposition is intriguing and a little dangerous.
Although the videotapes appealed to me more than the sex or lies of the title, there is so much of interest in the sex and sexual relationships from the other characters. The interplay between Graham’s impotence and Ann’s frigidity in contrast to John and Cynthia’s hypersexuality is almost a caricature. Is this to suggest a challenge or to justify the behaviour of the other characters? Roger Ebert describes the ‘fundamental fact of the human ego’ that we believe that a new partner could cure impotence or overcome frigidity – they’ve just not found yet right one, they’ve not been fucked by the right guy, and other such sexist opinions – and it is true that both Ann and Graham’s character resolutions do revolve around them finding each other. But it doesn’t play like ego; they are almost reluctant in their approaches to each other.
Unlike Cynthia who does visit Graham with the intention of ‘curing’ his impotence as he won’t be able to resist her. And I can see why she’d think that – Cynthia is just so fucking sexy in that 1980s stereotypical kind of way with big hair, a filthy laugh and denim cut off shorts (Laura San Giacomo also played Vivian’s friend Kit in Pretty Woman, another character who rightly or wrongly taught me how women can be sexy), and I did want to be her. I wanted to be that brashly sexy, that confident and capable of getting what I wanted.
But despite the use of unusual camera angles, sweaty faces and red based colours making it clear that her and John were having Good Sex, it’s not hot. The further through the film I got, the less attractive I found them. Certainly, neither of them are as attractive as they think they are and the sex may appear incredible – energetic, hard and fast, sweaty – but it is framed by so much deception that I struggled to find it that appealing! John is also too much of a twat to be attractive, and their sex less desirable as a consequence.
I think this was the beginning of the end of my reliance on movie sex as a visual learning aid. Porn has always been too starkly real for me, preferring to create my own imagery when reading erotica instead, so movies were really my only visual references for how sex should look. And it turns out that it’s rarely as hot as anything I’ve experienced in real life.
After this film, I stopped expecting the sex I saw to be as hot or arousing as the sex I could imagine. The words? The ideas? Fuck yes! And that’s where this film delivers those delights in spades…
Next week: The Thomas Crown Affair!