Classic Movie 2019

Classic Movie Of The Week: Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)

Starring: James Spader, Andie McDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Ann (McDowell) is struggling to understand relationships and sex and goes to see a therapist. While she avoids sex with her husband John (Gallagher), a successful lawyer, he is sleeping with her sister Cynthia (San Giacomo) who resents her older sister. When one of John’s friends, Graham (Spader) needs a place to stay, he upsets the delicate balance of their relationships because ever since a recent bad break up he has only been able to enjoy sex through taping women talking about their sexual experiences.

This film was an indie that took the world by storm, at the time. The title seemed to alude to some steamy scenes and the R rating backed that up: A man with a weird fetish and a man cheating on his wife…. People were drawn in. While a lot of this is marketing, and the film is a drama about relationships and sexuality more than steamy sex scenes, the film won big at Cannes and started a craze of distributors having bidding wars over indie films. On the one hand, this meant that indie films got to be seen by a wider audience and made the careers of some writers, directors and actors, but it also often meant small films and film makers got screwed over by bad deals and unscrupulous distributers (we’re looking at you, Weinsteins) who made big bucks off these films and sometimes buried them. (A great book about this is Down And Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind)

Something great this film does is subvert some interesting ideas about sexuality. While John is the “normal” guy, who has a career and a beautiful wife, his affair really rules his life. He’s not really in control and he’s not really a very good person at all. He lets down everyone from his wife to his work, and also his friend, Graham, who he looks down on. Meanwhile, Graham is the weird one, struggling to get over the ex who broke his heart and left him unable to have sex with women, and yet, when he tapes women, they’re just talking. They end up feeling heard and admired, because he’s not asking them to perform in any way, but rather listening to them share intimate stories about themselves. So, the man that conventional society would say is the creep, is actually a good guy, and the guy that society says is a good guy, is actually a complete selfish jerk, once you get to know him.

I guess what makes this film so great is that it’s about sensuality and relating as well as sex. While Ann is sexually repressed, she ends up feeling safe with Graham and losing that inhibition, perhaps implying that John’s selfishness was an unconscious turn off, where Graham’s interest in her is more than skin deep. Cynthia also finds herself feeling more sensuality after spending time with Graham, which leads to her changing her relationship with John. Every move in this film effects another person, since they’re in so linked and all in key relationships with each other. This works so well because the performances are so good, and the direction is just right. The dialogue feels raw and honest, and even though all these people are perhaps nothing like you, they all feel human and relatable. (Well, except maybe John, but I think we’ve all met someone like him) I wasn’t sure if I would like this film, but I found myself getting into it and caring about the characters more than I thought I would.

See It If: down to earth and sensual, this film explores our notions of sex and sensuality through the lens of four people inextricably linked and all needing to reconnect to that sensual, feeling, vulnerable part of themselves. It’s a really strong drama, and it is sexy, but not shocking, not gratuituous. Well worth a watch.

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3 thoughts on “Classic Movie Of The Week: Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)”

  1. Soderbergh’s record, as a director and scriptwriter especially, is incredibly diverse. SL&VT isn’t one I’ve seen (yet), but watch Contagion and Schizopolis together. The tone for each is appropriate despite their having nothing in common.

    Liked by 1 person

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