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Summer Film Club: Mary Gaitskill

22 Jul

In this weekly series, intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, reviews popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.


(Left) SECRETARY, dir. Steven Shainberg. Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader. 2002. (Right) "Secretary," Mary Gaitskill. From BAD BEHAVIOR, Vintage, 1989.


This week: sexual fetishes and a Hollywood scandal!

Mary Gaitskill once described “Secretary” as “a sad story for humorous people.” “It’s actually very funny,” she told Michael Martin in an interview for “But you have to feel the pain of it before you can laugh at it.”

Indeed, “Secretary” and the movie it inspired are both about “feeling the pain.” In Gaitskill’s story, a depressed young woman named Debby begins to work as a secretary (surprise!) for a lawyer with an S/M fetish (surprise! For real). When Debby stops going to work after the lawyer “punishes” her for some typos, he sends her a letter bearing hush money and the promise of good recommendations. Class act!

I’m a huge fan of Gaitskill’s short fiction, so I’ll try to be objective rather than effusive in my assessment of why “Secretary” works: Debby’s blunt, honest, cynical (and often funny) voice. Of the first time her boss spanks her, Debby says, “The word ‘humiliation’ came into my mind with such force that it effectively blocked out all words. Further, I felt that the concept it stood for had actually been a major force in my life for quite a while.” Debby describes her predicament with a detachment we don’t often see in fictional characters—especially female characters, and especially female characters in highly charged, provocative, sexual situations. So all of Debby’s reactions—her confusion over her own arousal, the depression that renders her inert and bedridden, the detached disgust she feels for the lawyer in the end—feel believable, compelling, and shocking in their candor.

And that’s what elevates “Secretary” beyond surface-level shock value. Yes, its subject matter is shocking: S/M, sexual harassment, depression, bribery, political scandal. But what’s more shocking is the frankness with which Gaitskill writes.

And then there’s the movie.

This all makes sense.

Just another day at the office!


Uh, what?

Gaitskill said she thought the rough cut of the movie was “the stupidest thing [she’d] ever seen.” And, well, it’s very. . .  different, to say the least! Which I’m sure you can deduce from the still above. And you can probably guess that the biggest difference is that Debby—or, actually, Lee, in the film—and the lawyer live happily ever after. And that, for me, definitely doesn’t work!

It didn’t for Gaitskill, either. They gave her story the Pretty Woman treatment.* And then there was an issue with money, which she later said was her main problem with the adaptation. But there is no mistaking the fact that director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson ended up telling a different story from the one that Gaitskill originally crafted.

Let’s cite some differences: In the film, Debby is Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and she’s just been released from a mental institution, where she was treated for engaging in deliberate self-harm. And she has a boyfriend! It’s Daniel Faraday, the cute time-travelling physicist from LOST:

Jeremy Davies as Peter in SECRETARY

The mullet is Jeremy Davies's constant.


Except in this timeline, his name is Peter (Jeremy Davies), and he works in retail. “Peter has a very stable job at JCPenney,” his mother tells Lee. “They even gave him a cell phone.”

Lee goes to work for that jerk from Pretty in Pink (James Spader) in his quirky, colorful law office:

Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in SECRETARY

A different, more ordinary day at the office.


He spanks her and cures her of her self-harm habits (right), and she falls in love with him, but he feels guilty so he fires her, but then she dumps Peter on their wedding day and stages a hunger strike in the lawyer’s office until he carries her home and bathes her and they live happily ever after.

I’m being much harder on this movie than I should be. Really, I did enjoy the first hour and a half, but the preposterousness of the final fifteen minutes loses me. The first hour and a half is pretty preposterous, too, but it works for a few reasons.

Shainberg establishes this unreal, timeless atmosphere that evokes the snow globes Lee collects. We assume it’s the twenty-first century, because the hair and clothes look contemporary enough, but nobody uses computers, and people still teach classes on how to use typewriters. The colors are so vibrant and the sets are so strange that the movie feels like a fantasy, and somehow we can suspend our disbelief enough to accept that, yes, of course Mr. Gray has a plot of grass and a saddle (you’ll see) in his office. What respectable lawyer doesn’t?

Although quirk can often come across as a smug affectation in indie movies, Shainberg uses it well, with enough wit and wink to win over his audience. Take, for example, the montage that features the development of Lee and Mr. Gray’s working relationship, in which we see Lee spit her gum into Mr. Gray’s open hand, apologize to a bewildered client for her typos, and excitedly take Mr. Gray’s orders on what to eat for dinner. Gyllenhaal’s “aw, shucks” guilelessness and Spader’s shyly smoldering intensity certainly help, too.

Still, it strikes me as odd that I felt more uncomfortable watching Mr. Gray wash Lee’s hair than I felt watching him spank her in his office. That romance felt so contrived it embarrassed me.

Incidentally, Gaitskill saw the movie a second time and changed her opinion: “I actually enjoyed it! It’s not what I would have done but it’s kind of sweet. My actual character in the story, Debby, she would have loved it.”

Next week: “Memento Mori,” by Jonathan Nolan, and Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

Stray observations:

  • Lee may have her snowlglobes, but Debby has a ceramic poodle that changes color depending on the weather.
  • For some reason, Lee really likes submerging herself in bodies of water.
  • For some reason, Steven Shainberg really likes drowning his viewer in slow motion.
  • Debby reads Cosmopolitan for advice on landing her lawyer.
  • Debby’s dinner, per Mr. Gray’s orders: “Just a scoop of creamed potatoes, with lots of butter, four peas, and as much ice cream as you’d like to eat.”
  • “Secretary” is a sad story for humorous people, and Secretary is a ____ movie for ____ people. Fill in the blanks!

*In the original script for Pretty Woman, Edward dumps Vivian, who “returns to the streets in a crack-fueled rage,” according to this article. I learned about this lost ending from Mary Gaitskill herself, when she spoke at the University of Texas a few years ago. Hollywood!

4 Responses to “Summer Film Club: Mary Gaitskill”

  1. Esme 29. Jul, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    First of all, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, and even longer since I’ve read this particular Gaitskill story. But I agree completely with your analysis. I’d never thought of the film as a kind of post-modern, stylized, edgier version of Pretty Woman, but I think your comparison rings true. That being said, I liked the movie! I also find the ending preposterous, so maybe my own desire to live happily ever after with James Spader clouds my judgement? And I do love Shainberg’s stylish direction and the note perfect performances by all three leads. But I definitely dislike the disconnect between him “saving” her in the film, and her saving (?) herself in the the book. In conclusion: “Secretary” is a sad story for humorous people, and Secretary is a fairytale for people who believe no one understands them?

  2. Katie 29. Jul, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    Hi, longtime reader first time commenter. I haven’t seen the film yet but I can see how contrived the romance could be in it. I love that you’re doing this!

  3. Annie 29. Jul, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    I absolutely adore Gaitskill’s short stories as well. She manages to create female characters who are both relatable and tragic (in that subtle, heart-wrenching way).

    In regards to the movie: meh. How hard is it really to create a stimulating film about a pretty and tortured young woman learning to engage in her secret sexual fetish? That’s a guaranteed audience right there.

    Most of all, I think that this is a fantastic series of blogs. I even plan to read Momento Mori in preparation for your next one!

  4. Isabelle 12. Feb, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

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