RopeofSilicon Movie Club: ‘sex, lies and videotape’ (1989)

Andie MacDowell and James Spader in sex, lies and videotape
Andie MacDowell and James Spader in sex, lies and videotape
Photo: Miramax

I‘m not sure what I expected from Steven Soderbergh‘s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I had never seen it and still need to both Kafka and Out of Sight, two other early Soderbergh features that have so far escaped me. But after Sex, Lies, and Videotape, my urge to further my exploration the director’s early works has greatly intensified.

Soderbergh wrote Sex, Lies, and Videotape in less than two weeks, made it on a budget of $1.8 million and the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989 where it won the Audience Award. It was promptly picked up by Harvey Weinstein and Miramax before heading to Cannes where it won the Palme d’Or, FIPRESCI Prize and Best Actor for James Spader. It would end up earning an Oscar nomination (Original Screenplay), a Cesar nomination and win four Spirit Awards including Best Feature. It marked Soderbergh’s feature debut and, for good reason, made him a director to watch.

The story centers on Graham (Spader), a man who videotapes women speaking openly about their sexual preferences, proclivities and experiences. He does this privately, but is not at all ashamed of what he does, particularly because he’s upfront and honest with those he videotapes in a way that leads them to trust him.

His actions, however, soon have an effect on John (Peter Gallagher), an acquaintance of his from college, and John’s wife Ann (Andie MacDowell) whose troubled marriage is crumbling before our very eyes. She tells her therapist she no longer wants him to touch her and, unbeknownst to her, John is having an affair with her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).

Andie MacDowell and James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Andie MacDowell and James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Photo: Miramax

Without ever seeing it, to tell someone you’re going to watch a film titled Sex, Lies, and Videotape instigates an immediate response. The title suggests something erotic and/or forbidden. In today’s world of high definition digital images, the idea of something on videotape also carries a visual reference, something imperfect and something to be looked down upon. Whether you view what Spader’s character is doing as wrong, erotic or worthy of disdain is up to you.

Sex, Lies… is sexually charged, the lies are abundant and the videotape is obvious. But what makes the film so intriguing is the other side of the coin. For as sexually charged as the film is, there is very little sex in it and none of it explicit. For all the lies told there are just as many truths. And for all that is captured and seen on videotape, reality doesn’t set in until the camera is turned off.

This is a brave feature for a first time screenwriter and director. Not only must there be confidence in the ability to tell a story, but for a film so dependent on dialogue, one must have the utmost of confidence in what is written and will be said. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review: “The argument in “sex, lies and videotape” is that conversation is also better than sex – more intimate, more voluptuous – and that with our minds we can do things to each other that make sex, that swapping of sweat and sentiment, seem merely troublesome.

For anyone that spends their time watching classic cinema, the idea that films could be sexy without being explicit is a lost art, an art Sex, Lies and Videotape recaptured in 1989.

James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Photo: Miramax

Ebert’s introduction to his review reminds me of my favorite exchange from the film:


Is this how you get off or something? Taping women talking about their sexual experiences?



The blunt response with no guilt struck me like a hammer and I could immediately understand how someone could be willing to sit down with Graham. His reaction suggests there is nothing wrong with what he’s doing, the idea of being open about sexuality, free to express yourself however you wish with no dependence on physical contact. With such honesty and in the way we see him use the videos, who’s to say there is anything wrong with it. Who is he hurting?

James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Photo: Miramax

Spader’s performance, along with San Giacomo, is excellent. Spader, for me, has always been an actor that has been able to tap into that creepy, slimy factor. He has an uncanny ability to portray characters I never quite trust. Here, he taps into my initial distrust, but he also begs for sympathy and he gets it, but is it a form of manipulation?

I loved the description of Graham given by Caryn James in her New York Times review in 1989 when she wrote:

But Graham is Mr. Soderbergh’s most disturbing, provocative and perceptive creation, the video generation’s nightmare child. Impotent whenever he is with another person, Graham’s only physical satisfaction comes when he watches the tapes he has made of women answering his questions about their sexual histories and tastes.

Ebert refers to what Graham does as “a form of sexual assault” while James calls him “the video generation’s nightmare child.” The question here is to wonder if what Graham is doing is sexually perverse or simply the only way he can achieve sexual satisfaction? Do you perceive what he’s doing as wrong? He isn’t hiding anything, but I can’t help but wonder, is he taking advantage of the women that eventually agree to speak on camera? Remember, he initially tells Cynthia recording her wouldn’t be a good idea.

I also found myself drawn to and fascinated by Ann. Perhaps because I am a man, I found Ann to be incredibly compelling, moving from something of an angelic housewife who shies from the mere mention of the word “sex”, to a woman willing to sit down in front of Graham’s camera and reveal all.

She reaches a level of deserved malevolence toward John. I loved it when she found the nerve to say , “Fuck you!” I also loved John’s reaction to what she was saying and the decision in the screenplay to not have him strike Ann, but to confront Graham in a scene I found incredibly powerful.

Peter Gallagher in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Peter Gallagher in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Photo: Miramax

All performances, direction and execution aside, what I keep coming back to is the overall story and it’s themes in relation to the film’s title. This film is presented with such honesty, the lack of narrative tricks help in maintaining the initial impression you get when you read the words “sex”, “lies” and “videotape” and help forward your interpretation of the story itself and the way it changes shape over the course of its running time.

Sex is at the center of the story, but it’s not a film about sex as much as it’s a film about connecting with someone beyond the physical. Oddly enough, for as blunt an object as John is, he is the one character that immediately seems to get that fact as he not only becomes enraged at the idea of Cynthia being videotaped by Graham, but explodes at the idea that Ann did so as well. He realized the intimacy in sharing these private details and when he saw his wife on the video he finally realized at that moment his marriage was over.


Did you find yourself judging the characters, and if so, did that judgment affect your overall impression of the film?

Do you hold Ann just as guilty as John? For that matter, do you believe Graham and Ann had sex after the videotape was shut off?

Is Ann as innocent as she makes herself out to be in the first half of the film, or do you believe she is repressing part of her personality that is more in line with her sister?

Ebert refers to what Graham (Spader) does as “a form of sexual assault”. Do you agree?


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Based on last week’s poll, the November 19, 2012 Movie Club selection is David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster (1996) starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Téa Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin

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BY THE WAY: Based on voting habits in these polls it would appear you only want to discuss English-language movies. I’m wondering do I need to resort to a foreign language-only poll in the future?

Next week’s film will be Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express. For more information and an updated schedule, visit the Movie Club homepage.

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