Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Memo to Harvey Weinstein: A Secretary is Not a Toy

Of course the big news out of Hollywood at the moment is Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace. He’s a big man, and his departure is making a big splash. But I certainly can’t feel sorry for someone who apparently spent decades hitting on actresses and company employees, using the power of his position to get women in compromising positions.

Of course the casting couch is nothing new. But I’m happy to say that my years in the film industry were largely untainted by that kind of sexual byplay. Of course there was that meeting (I think there were four of us in the room at the time) when a creepy actor’s agent put his hand on my thigh and just kept it there. Yuck! And yet my boss, Roger Corman, was never less than a gentleman. Cheap, yes, but not one to chase a starlet -- or a story editor -- around the office.

(In fact, some of the weirder moments in my working life took place when I was a professor of English at the University of Southern California. Still, given the news stories coming out of USC of late, I guess that’s not so surprising.)

But I digress. The booting of Harvey, following an inflammatory story about his misdeeds in the New York Times, coincided with my sitting down to watch a movie I’d gotten from my local library. In L.A. you never know WHO you’re going to meet over lunch. At the Brentwood Country Mart I made the acquaintance of a very nice lady who turned out to be playwright and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson. She has been involved with such high profile screen adaptations as The Girl on the Train. But she introduced herself to me as the writer of Secretary, a film I knew only by its reputation as something controversial and kinky. Naturally I wanted to check it out.

Secretary, based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, is the offbeat tale of a troubled young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) given to cutting herself in moments of stress. Newly released from a mental hospital, she tries to remake herself as a super-efficient but humble working gal in the office of a rather ominous young lawyer (the always slightly sinister James Spader). He finds multiple ways to degrade her, then confuses her thoroughly by sometimes being unexpectedly sympathetic to her wants and needs. Their relationship bumps up a notch when his punishment for her misspellings turns physical. (Though perhaps his cruelest act is to force a 21st century office assistant to take care of all correspondence on an old-fashioned typewriter. What? No spell check?)

Secretary is the rare movie that acknowledges the possibility that pain can be a part of pleasure for both women and men. At times it’s darkly funny; at other times merely strange. But, curiously enough, its two central characters are completely credible, and not as off-putting as one might imagine. This is due at least in part to Gyllenhaal and Spader’s no-holds-barred performances, which allow for tenderness as well as cruelty, love as well as sado-masochism. Gyllenhaal in particular evolves before our eyes from a scared young girl to a confident, self-motivated woman. I’ve also got to credit my new friend Erin’s credible writing and director Steven Shainberg’s elegantly visual handling of the action. 50 Shades of Grey -- the obvious comparison – seems both far cornier and more clumsy than this intriguing, thought-provoking film.

But I wonder how Harvey Weinstein would respond to Secretary’s suggestion that power can be sexy. Surely it would make him rise to the occasion, right?