Okay, so yes, the Fifty Shades movie was better than the Fifty Shades book. But, like we said, the bar wasn’t exactly set high for that. And yes, the movie may help to make BDSM even more mainstream, just as the book did. (Now everyone and their grandmother knows what a safe word is!) It will also likely increase sex toy sales, and hopefully improve the sex lives of at least a handful of long-married couples who could use a little more kink in their lives. And lovers all over the world may now find themselves associating the smell of buttered popcorn with handcuffs and paddles. On the other hand, the movie may also create tension in relationships… a woman finds herself suddenly annoyed that her man doesn’t own his own helicopter… or a man is suddenly annoyed that his woman doesn’t bite her lip and say “sir.”
But none of this means that the Fifty Shades movie is even close to the best cinematic depiction of a BDSM relationship out there. In fact, the 2002 indie film Secretary, a Sundance favorite, blows Fifty out of the water, if you ask us. Here’s why:
Grey was here first. E. Edward Grey is the name of the dominant boss played by James Spader in Secretary. Almost ten years later, E.L. James names her dominant lover Christian Grey — and three years after that, Jamie Dornan gets the worst haircut ever to play Christian Grey on screen. Perhaps it was an homage.
It’s actually good. The Fifty Shades books may be a record breaker (it’s the fastest-selling paperback of all time) and a crazy money maker (E.L. James’s net worth is apparently a cool $80 mil), but they’re never going to win any literary awards — and, likewise, while the movie broke all sorts of records for advance ticket sales and drunken women renting limos for screenings, we don’t see any Oscars in its future. Secretary was nominated for a Golden Globe (best actress in a musical or comedy) and three Chlotrudis Awards (best actor, actress and adapted screenplay), among others; and it won an Independent Spirit Award (best first screenplay) and a Gotham Award (breakthrough performance, Maggie Gyllenhaal), among others. Sorry, Jamie and Dakota, don’t start working on any awards speeches… unless it’s for the Razzies.
More likable protagonist. Yes, Dakota Johnson is about a hundred times more likable than Ana-Steele-on-paper, with all her Oh my!s and the countless Holy shit!s and that irritating inner goddess. But Dakota Johnson’s Ana is nevertheless a bit of a lip-biting blank space who submits a little too easily to the whims of her controlling stalker boyfriend. (She doesn’t even ask him how he managed to break into her apartment!) The flaws of Secretary‘s Lee Holloway, on the other hand, are not only believable, but relatable (to a certain extent), and make her a sympathetic, grownup character.
More believable love interest. A 27-year-old gazillionaire with impossible abs and a million obsequious employees who has time to get a pilot’s license and shop for his own hardware supplies? Who deflowers a virgin and wins her over with extravagant gifts like rare books, a new computer, and a new car? (Who does he think he is, Oprah?!) Yeah right. Much more realistic is the socially awkward, emotionally sensitive Lee and her creepy-seeming and ultimately conflicted love interest — both of whom are pretty normal looking. Plus, this Grey actually does sit-ups. And he has way better hair than Jamie Dornan in the movie.
We actually see Grey working in Secretary. Over the course of the entire film, you see Christian Grey take a single “urgent” business phone call, and when he talks into his phone he sounds like a little kid impersonating his working father. Or like a trust fund baby who is allowed to pretend that he runs a business, while the real grownups actually get the work done. (Sure, we see Ana working in the hardware store, but it’s just a setting for her to blush and stammer.) Admittedly, it’s been a while since we saw SECRETARY, but we’re pretty sure some actual work takes place there, along with all the kinky dictation.
More honorable origins. Secretary was based on a short story by literary power house Mary Gaitskill. Fifty Shades, on the other hand, was based on the cliche-ridden book of the same name, which in turn was originally online fan fiction, based on the Y.A. Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers. Yup.
A sense of humor. Erotica and romance, almost by definition, have to take themselves extremely seriously. The sex is earnest to keep up the fantasy, and the Fifty Shades books are as earnest and unfunny as it gets. As an indie film, Secretary didn’t have those restraints, and therefore could wade into the waters of black comedy. Can you imagine a scene in Fifty Shades where Jamie Dornan covers his desk in hay and has Dakota Johnson kneel upon it on all fours with a carrot in her mouth and saddle on her back? Didn’t think so. But that’s the kind of scene that made Secretary awesome — and funny. There are a smattering of funny moments in the Fifty Shades movie, but most of the humor is unintentional. Sadly, we have a feeling that director Sam Taylor-Johnson would have included a lot more humor, if it wasn’t for the heavy hand of “consultant” and earnest erotica peddler E.L. James.
Better writing. Actually, there is something kind of funny about the Fifty Shades books — the writing! The repetition of phrases, the cultural anachronisms, the offensive overuse of adverbs, the misuse of the word “subconscious.” If you didn’t laugh you’d cry, because you’d be so sad about the fact that you couldn’t put down something so poorly written. And while, happily, most of those adverbs didn’t make it into the Fifty Shades screenplay, a lot of the bad dialogue did. You can almost see Jamie Dornan cringe when he has to utter the line, “I’m fifty shades of fucked up.” Secretary, on the other hand? It won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.
BDSM is freeing, not the other way around. In Fifty Shades of Grey, both the book and the movie, Grey beats the shit out of women because he had a literal “crack whore” for a mom who didn’t love him enough — it’s an obsession that haunts him and that he feels great shame about (okay, so in the movie he calls her a “crack addict”… but still). In Secretary, Lee is a troubled self-cutter, but it’s the BDSM relationship that frees her. Production designer Amy Danger said of the story: “With this S&M material, we could go into a dark place… Steve [Shainberg, the director] and I wanted the total opposite: that the nature of this relationship freed [the characters] to be their natural selves.”
Secretary didn’t need wealth to make the kink acceptable. One of the reasons, in our opinion, that so many millions of readers and, now, viewers find the Fifty Shades kink acceptable is that Christian Grey is a billionaire. It’s the same with luxury high-end sex toys encrusted with diamonds: for some people, the more they spend on a sex toy, the less dirty it feels. Sure, it’s okay for Christian to spank Ana and ask her to do unspeakable things, so long as he also takes her out in a glider and buys her a new car. Secretary, on the other hand, manages to make the BDSM totally relatable — romantic, even! — without a single helipad in sight.