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Image: Lions Gate Films

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Secretary at 20: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Sexy Breakout Was Way Ahead of Its Time

Assume the position.

There aren’t many breakthrough movie performances anymore like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s in Secretary, which was released 20 years ago this week. Sure, she had been in some other films previously, like Donnie Darko the year before, in which she co-starred with her brother Jake. But her turn in Secretary was the sort of performance that makes moviegoers stand up and take notice. 

Based on Mary Gaitskill’s short story of the same name, Secretary was directed by Steven Shainberg, from a short story by Erin Cressida Wilson. It’s a depiction of a dominant/submissive relationship made at a time before pop culture often dealt with such things, and also treated mental illness with compassion and empathy at a time when the movies rarely did that, either. 

When the film begins, Lee (Gyllenhaal) is released from a mental institution, as a result of her cutting habit. Let out for her sister’s wedding, Lee — described in just about every review at the time as “mousy” — get a job as a secretary for a lawyer (James Spader, playing a 40ish version of his established ’80s movie persona.) 

Image: Lions Gate

The two quickly fall into a dominant/submissive relationship, which grows into deep love. And what’s important is, that the film never depicts this as something that they grow out of. The love story is because of it, not in spite of it. 

What’s so striking about Gyllenhaal’s performance is how much the character grows, from awkward and unsure of herself at the beginning to things she’s doing by the third act- it’s not only her wardrobe that changes. The film isn’t necessarily arguing full-throatily for BDSM relationships, but it can be read as establishing that doing so is much healthier than self-mutilation. 

Spader’s office is also one of the more impressive movie sets of the last quarter-century; Roger Ebert described it as “like the result of intense conversations with an interior designer who has seen too many Michael Douglas movies.” There’s also a characteristically spooky score by David Lynch’s house composer Angelo Badalamenti. 

Secretary has probably been seen by about 1/1000th as many people as those who have watched any of the Fifty Shades of Grey films, but it’s better than them in any way, from a character standpoint, as well as the performances and the filmmaking. Even the sex scenes are way, way better. 

The story of a demanding boss and the woman who loves his demands.
Image: Lions Gate

Shainberg directed two other movies after Secretary, 2006’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus and 2016’s Rupture. Gyllenhaal has continued to work consistently in the years since, making a well-received directorial debut last year with The Lost Daughter. Spader went on to an unlikely place, network TV, where he had a brief stint on The Office and is nearly a decade into his time starring in the drama series The Blacklist

The film has inspired some of the dumber “that movie could never be made today” conversations, with one commentator declaring in 2018 that of Secretary. This despite the three Fifty Shades movies having been released in the five years before that, and the likelihood that the making of a compassionate and sympathetic movie about a BDSM relationship is absolutely more like today than 20 years ago (there was a pretty great one, Sanctuary with Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley, at TIFF earlier this month.) 

If anything, Secretary was way ahead of its time. And if you think movies that combine controversial subject matter with sexual topics never get made anymore, then you’ve probably never heard of A24. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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