The movies and TV you need to watch, the music you need to hear, the books and comics you need to read, the games you need to play — The Playboy Library is an ongoing series that offers the 21st century man the pop ammunition to carry himself as a gentleman of culture. Never obvious, always essential.
This week’s premiere of 50 Shades of Grey may serve as some folk’s cinematic introduction to the world of extreme dominance and submission. But, long before the upcoming film broke box office pre-sales records — even before the source material was born as a piece of Twilight fan fiction – a different, fictional Mr. Grey laid his strong hands on an impressionable young beauty and changed her perception of romance forever. The fact that the hero of 50 Shades and James Spader’s character in Secretary (2002) share a surname could be a coincidence. Possibly, it was Shades author E.L. James paying homage. But, most likely, it’s because, metaphorically speaking, “grey” is a fitting description for where most people think BDSM fits in the spectrum of human interaction. For all it’s color — the earlier film is set-designed within an inch of its life — Secretary conveys that grey-ness excellently and manages to hold up reasonably well to evolving public attitudes about sex and sexuality.
Upon being released from some sort of mental health care facility, timid and fragile Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) returns to the same fraught home life that, presumably, damaged her in the first place. Her father drinks. Her mother dotes uncontrollably. Her parents fight, sometimes physically. Her sister handles it all better. And Lee gouges marks into her skin using a variety of sharp yet precious, girlhood knickknacks to release the pain.
Determined to put her extraordinary typing skills to good use, and possibly to escape her dad’s alcoholic rages, Lee gets a job as a secretary working at the most bizarrely decorated law firm in the history of Florida law firms. Her boss, E. Edward Grey (Spader), is a spectacularly fidgety and unnerving taskmaster and amateur botanist who eschews computers for old fashioned typewriters and considers asking a potential employee if they have any plans to become pregnant suitable material for a job interview.
Edward Grey becomes increasingly more exacting and idiosyncratic in his demands around the workplace. (There are only two staffers: Lee and a mysterious paralegal. The firm’s client base seems equally sparse.) Lee accepts each of Edward’s commands or admonishments, no matter how minute or humiliating, as a valid challenge that, if properly answered, will result in the disturbingly deep satisfaction of a job well done. Though confined to the office, Lee and Edward’s exchanges naturally expand beyond the commonly accepted boundaries of administrative assistance, much less professionalism. I’m being deliberately vague here because, even for those of us who have dabbled or more in a bit of risk-aware consensual kink, the turning point of Lee and Edward’s relationship remains as steamy and, er, impactful as it did in 2002 when the movie first came out:
Things get rocky when Lee tries to get her Mr. Grey to take his work home with him. That is to say, love of a sort enters the picture and Edward gets cold feet. (By the way, his only rival for Lee’s affections are a squirming, hairy tadpole of a man played by Jeremy Davies and a handful of — essentially — deviants who appear briefly.) It is surprising how, from then on, director Steven Shainberg is able to both mirror and subvert the standard beats of the typical romantic comedy — right down to the appearance of the obligatory wedding dress. And, on that note, it is comedy that lends Secretary its additional watchability — particularly in the first act before the pairing heats up. Spader’s initial awkwardness is even funnier and more sympathetic than Gyllenhaal’s childlike innocence.
From the beginning, Secretary is noticeably problematic, if not predictable, in the way that it emphasizes a nearly one-to-one correlation between Lee’s desire for pain and her painfully explicit daddy issues. Papa Holloway’s alcoholism exerts itself in a particularly schlocky and ham-fisted fashion, with tirades that seem like some something out of an old Madonna or Cyndi Lauper video. The point is lost on no one — certainly not BDSM enthusiasts — that Gyllenhaal’s character goes pretty much directly from a mental institution to a 24/7 dominant-submissive relationship. During one moment, Spader’s Grey even seems ready to accept that his predilections are some kind of incurable sickness. You think he might chop off his spanking hand.
That said, Secretary is more wedded to its love story fundamentalism and the belief that there is someone for everyone than it is to its momentary judgey-ness. That’s obvious from the exotic, fantasy-like furnishing of E. Edward Grey Esq.’s law practice: This is a place where the strange are nourished and miraculous things grow. The movie’s ending is, therefore, more saccharine than sadistic, but it’s the nuance buried in the getting there that makes it a keeper.
Spader’s Grey is a dominant who exhibits so many submissive tendencies that any student of the lifestyle watching is just waiting to hear the word “switch” come out of somebody’s mouth. As the film’s protagonist, Lee’s journey is toward accepting and embracing her desire for a firm hand. But once that preferred situation is threatened, she flips into a formidable aggressor, even if that means squaring off against the one she would have reign over her. The filmmakers behind Secretary understood the fluid nature of the dominant-submissive relationship and strove to get it up on the screen accurately.
In short, they got the grey.