Deviant sex and James Spader. James Spader and deviant sex.
They seem to go together like actors from the WB and bad horror
flicks. For an actor who’s made over 40 films in his three
decades in the biz, a good portion of them involve a lot of
pain and a lot of sex all at the same damned time.
Spader’s latest go at debauchery is Steven Shainberg’s Secretary.
He plays off-kilter attorney E. Edward Grey, who’s looking
for, you guessed it, a new secretary. He finds exactly what
he’s looking for in young, naïve Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal).
Recently released from a mental hospital for cutting herself,
Lee wants to get out into the world and away from her array
of dysfunctional relatives and her pathetic boyfriend Peter
(Davies). She finds an ad for a secretary in the classifieds,
gets the job and boom! The rest is sadomasochistic love history.
Since most people don’t usually string S&M and love story
into the same sentence, Secretary wins originality
points from the get-go. In fact, it took home the well-deserved
Sundance Special Jury Prize for Originality. But aside from
a great story, it’s the acting and the moody set design that
set Shainberg’s third feature film apart from all the rest.
Spader turns in another of his masterfully crafted creepy-sexy
roles. It’s hard to decide whether you want to console Grey
or hate him, tell him it’s okay to like pain or want to inflict
it upon him yourself. Reminiscent of his disaster-sex-loving
character in David Cronenberg’s Crash, Spader aptly
portrays Grey’s struggle between thinking his sexual proclivities
are evil and really wanting to smack his secretary on the
ass. Hard. When Spader has good material, he’s quite amazing
to watch and with this film, he rivals his performance in
sex, lies and videotape.
But his performance would have meant nothing without the
amazing talent of Maggie Gyllenhaal (the other half of the
soon-to-be-uber-famous Gyllenhaal siblings). In her first
major role, she brings a huge, radiant, wounded animal presence
to the screen. The physical pain that her character desperately
tries to feel and the emotional pain that drives her to harm
herself manifests itself in her every glance and movement.
You can’t help feeling for Lee, want to help her, want to
end her suffering.
And though he’s barely in the film, it wouldn’t be right
to not mention Jeremy Davies. His depiction of Lee’s mentally
unstable, sex-starved boyfriend, Peter, is one of the funniest
onscreen characters in some time (funny in that painful-to-watch
way). With this film coming hot on the heels of the fabulous
CQ, watch for Davies to become the new “it” boy.
In the end, Secretary is a great love story. Unconventional,
sure, but who’s to define some else’s true love? And that’s
the whole point. If you’re lucky enough to find love in this
world, do what makes you happy, whether it involves pain,
bondage, or whatever. Who knew S&M could teach us so much?
—D. Renae Bolen