When people ask you what your favorite movie is, it’s sometimes hard to quantify.  There are so many movies to fit your every mood and taste, why pick just one?  This isn’t sports.  You don’t have to have a favorite team.

There are movies you can put on any time at any point in your life, and just enjoy them no matter how many times you’ve seen it.  For me, movies like that include various movie trilogies, like “Back To The Future” or “Lord Of The Rings”.  Or there are movies you can acknowledge are great works of art, but take too much emotional investment for you to watch them constantly, or even more than once, like “Schindler’s List”.

…But every now and again, there’s that one movie that comes along that sums up everything you like.  Where you like every bit of the movie down to the last minute and the smallest detail.  A movie where everything down to the writing, acting, directing, set design, story, themes, politics, morals, and emotions behind it sync up not just with everything you enjoy about fiction, but sync up with you as a person.  Whether literal or figurative, this movie is your identity committed to celluloid.

So yes, I do have such a movie.  And “Secretary” is it.


…Sorry, what? Oh right, blog post!

I remember first seeing it in my college’s film club, during what they advertised as “Weird Double Feature”.  “Secretary” was shown second in the line-up.  What was shown first?  John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos”.  To this day, I still find it weird that the film club decided to pair these two movies together.  One is a funny, sweet, touching, and arousing sex-positive low-budget romantic comedy and the other is…well, fucking “Pink Flamingos”.


Lee Halloway is a young woman who gets released from a mental hospital the day of her sister’s wedding.  Dealing with a stressful home life featuring an alcoholic father, a weak-willed enabling mother, and a sister both parents favor over her, Lee long ago turned to cutting to deal with the emotional turmoil and was committed for a time where she accidentally went too deep.  Sadly though, the wedding reception reveals none of these issues have been resolved (if anything, in the case of her father, they’ve gotten worse) and she quickly returns to her old habits.


Eager to get on with her life though, she enrolls in typing classes and quickly receives her certification.  She applies for the job of secretary to local lawyer E. Edward Grey, a man so tightly-wound and so particular that he goes through secretaries to the point he has a light up sign that says “Secretary Wanted” outside his office.  While initially put off by her meekness and inexperience, he quickly realizes what his new employee is going through and takes it upon himself to help her.

He's helping her.  No really.

He’s helping her. No, really.

It starts small, with Grey roughly spanking Lee every time she makes a typo on one of his memos.  Soon, it begins to slowly upgrade to more elaborate punishments and scenarios when she makes a mistake.  While all of this sounds like a massive sexual harassment suit waiting to happen, Lee quickly finds joy and emotional release in this, even abandoning cutting at Grey’s command.  As the film progresses, she slowly grows more confident and begins to claim her identity, even as Grey himself feels unsure about their arrangement.


Since I like everything about this movie, let’s start with the most important part: the leads.  Lots of people are fond of making snide jokes about Maggie Gyllenhaal for whatever reason, but her performance as Lee Halloway has firmly placed her as my top celebrity crush.  I truly don’t understand people online who say she’s ugly, but her looks aren’t important (both in this review and on principal).  What I find so attractive about Maggie in this role is the fearlessness in which she approaches it.  Towards the beginning she has to be shy and vulnerable, bordering on pathetic.  Towards the end, she has to be nakedly sexual, both in body and mind.  But she does both with a commitment other actresses wouldn’t dare approach.  Acting verve like this is why I’ll always find Kate Winslet (another fearless actress with an un-traditional body type) ten times more attractive and alluring than Cameron Diaz.





James Spader, meanwhile, walks a very tight rope playing E. Edward Grey.  Unlike Lee, whose past and present life we get to know very well, a lot of questions go unanswered about Grey.  We never find out why he’s so tightly wound, so particular, and why he freaks out when things aren’t done just so to his liking.  We also never find out the root of his self-loathing beneath all of this, and his secret feelings of disgust over the way he is.


What can be said though is that his chemistry with Gyllenhaal is off the charts.  The dialogue between them is simultaneously awkward, heart-warming, and yet strangely sexual.  Lines like “Are you planning on getting pregnant?” and Maggie’s giggly “No!” in response are cute and funny, yet sexy at the same time.


Well, not this part. But you get the idea.

Oh my yes, “Secretary” is a sexy movie.  I quickly learned after my first time watching it I would quickly embarass myself watching it in public.  A movie like this is plotted and designed around fetishes, and not just BDSM.  If you have a fetish for bathing, stockings, high heels, soft lighting, wedding dresses, plant life, exercise, or even food, this movie will push all of your buttons.  I know I’ll never look at cream potatoes and peas the same way again.

And I also know they'll never let me into that Old Country Buffet anymore either...

And I also know they’ll never let me into that Old Country Buffet anymore either…

One thing that really needs to be highlighted is the production design and art direction of this film.  “Secretary” was modestly budgeted at only $2 million.  I’m convinced that most of that money, after securing Spader and Gyllenhaal’s salaries, went to the set for Grey’s offices.  Everything is thought out to the smallest detail and shot beautifully.  Combined with the great lighting, even something simple as light from a photo copier can be made beautiful.


What makes “Secretary” great though isn’t just the sexiness.  It’s how it uses it.  I have absolutely no problem with media being sexual (Christ, have you met me?).  My problem is that most of what’s passed off as “sexy” is either craven titillation, or cartoonishly garish, and is usually a cynical attempt to generate controversy (i.e. publicity) and sell movie tickets or records.



“Secretary” doesn’t do that.  It can get silly with some of Lee and Grey’s more elaborate scenarios, but elaborate BDSM scenarios are rather silly.  That doesn’t make them any less fun.  “Secretary” is sexual, but it’s adult.  It’s two leads are fully-developed, three-dimensional people with troubled pasts and wounded souls.  A lesser film would have them jump right into bed, but the actors and filmmakers are smarter than that.  Lee and Grey’s consummation of their relationship is a slow burn over the course of the film’s running time, like walking down a long tunnel that becomes wider and brighter the closer you get to the end.

This is a mature and deep exploration of relationship dynamics.  No, really.

This is a mature and deep exploration of relationship dynamics. No, really.

Perhaps the most resonant theme of the film is claiming an identity.  This is the part of “Secretary” I feel is universal, regardless of fetish, gender, or sexual orientation.  Despite what some would think, Lee finds her confidence and begins to heal from her past by becoming a hardcore submissive.  The S&M play between her and Grey can feature pain and humiliation, yes, but it’s on her terms and is of her choosing.  Both her and her partner find joy and a release in it.  And there, they find love and camaraderie.  They have something together they couldn’t have separately, or with another person.


It isn’t easy claiming that identity though, and the film acknowledges that.  There is fallout and awkwardness from Lee’s choice, as there is with anything other people don’t fully understand.  It’s hard to talk about such things, your wounds and your desires.  I decided to write this review because I was inspired by sex-positive media that my friends and other artists I admire had done.  I don’t do more for two reasons though: I don’t feel I have an original angle on it beyond the titillation I discussed, and it’s frankly hard for me to be open and come clean about such things.  I know exactly why domination turns me on: I was raised primarily by my mother and frequently defer to the wisdom of women in my life, so being the boss is perverse to me, and thus arousing.

It’s easy to find someone attractive or find something sexy, but it’s much harder to talk about something that turns you on and touches the very pit of your soul at the same time.  I shiver at certain points when I watch “Secretary”, but it’s for the subtle moments as much as the blatant ones.  It’s a movie that dares to lay it all out.


The most brilliant part of the movie is a simple one though: it freely acknowledges that what Lee and Grey have isn’t for everyone, but it works for these two specific people.  How many times have you seen a romance people where the actors and filmmakers present this love as the ultimate love to end all loves?  How many times have you seen a tacked on “happily ever after” at the end of an insipid romance that has no bearing on true affection or reality?



“Secretary” is a story about two specific people who find love and healing with their arrangement.  We see their discovery, the growth of their relationship, and the bliss they have after it’s consummated.  It doesn’t get more positive than that.