Movie Review


The story of a demanding boss and the woman who loves his demands.
Secretary Movie Poster

US Release Date: 09-20-2002

Directed by: Steven Shainberg


  • James Spader
  • Mr. Grey
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Lee Holloway
  • Jeremy Davies
  • Peter
  • Lesley Ann Warren
  • Joan Holloway
  • Stephen McHattie
  • Burt Holloway
  • Amy Locane
  • Lee's Sister
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: September 16th, 2010
James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

I have become hesitant when reviewing movies that have been recommended to me.  Often it is someone's favorite film and I do not want to trash it if I do not like it.  Secretary was a film that looked gimmicky and odd, but now that I saw it, it is actually a very honest and unique love story.   Most importantly, it justifies the leads need for each other better than almost any romantic comedy I have ever seen.

Lee is a young woman just released from a mental facility. She is into cutting herself whenever she feels stress.  Her family is a bit dysfunctional with her father being an alcoholic.  She starts dating a boy from high school who is not very aware.  She also gets a job as a secretary for a lawyer, Mr. Grey.   She finds herself attracted to him, even though he clearly has a temper and is very controlling.  The stress of her life has her continue her self mutilation.  

Mr. Grey on the other hand notices Lee's scars and how obedient she is.  He has her change the rat traps and climb into a garbage bin after some paperwork he thought he threw away.    She never complains. Their relationship hits a new level when he punishes her for having too many typos.  She leans over a desk and he spanks her.

She loses interest in her boyfriend and in cutting herself.  They begin a relationship of him controlling her and she loving every minute.  She looks forward to him reprimanding her.  It goes beyond the sexual as he starts controlling every aspect of her life.  Before eating her mother's dinner she calls Mr. Grey who allows her, "One scoop of creamed potatoes. A slice of butter. Four peas. And as much ice cream as you'd like to eat."

At first their dominant/subordinate games seem to suit both participants, but then it begins to scare Mr. Grey.  "Look, we can't do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week."  He says to Lee at one point, who responds, "Why not?"  He does not trust himself and fires Lee.  He is not sure how far he might take things.  "I'm so sorry for what happened between us. I realize what a... terrible mistake... I made with you. And I can... only hope... that you... understand. Be assured you can count on me for excellent references."

She turns to her boyfriend, but he is by no means a dominant figure.  Feeling again like a lonely outsider, she is given advice by her father, who says, "You are the child of god's holy gift of life. You come from me. But you are not me. Your soul and your body are your own, and yours to do with as you wish."   Lee sets out to get Mr. Grey back, by proving she is the one for him.

Secretary is about the compatibility of two people who truly need each other, and are lucky to have found each other.  Although at first it seems strictly sexual, and Maggie Gyllenhaal does a full frontal nude scene, the point of their relationship goes well beyond sex, and into a place of understanding, "Is it that sometimes the pain inside has to come to the surface, and when you see evidence of the pain inside you finally know you're really here? Then, when you watch the wound heal, it's comforting... isn't it?"  Mr Grey says to her at one point about her cutting.   At another point Lee explains, "Each cut, each scar, each burn, a different mood or time. I told him what the first one was, told him where the second one came from. I remembered them all. And for the first time in my life I felt beautiful. Finally part of the earth. I touched the soil and he loved me back."

Whereas Lee is very well fleshed out, Mr, Grey is just that.  We are given little of his background, or just why he has to be in charge.  He is just a sadist to Lee's masochist.  Their relationship is very well explained, but he remains a bit vague.  Spader does a great job with some nuance moments of staring at Lee, but he should have been given a bit more development. 

I had no interest in seeing Secretary when it first came out, but I am now glad that I did.  I have had my brothers, as well as friends and threemoviebuffs readers recommend films for me.  Although I have not liked all of them, it does expand my tastes, and for that I am grateful.

Reviewed on: December 29th, 2011
Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in Secretary.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in Secretary.

I only knew of this movie because it made waves when it was released, gaining notoriety as the spanking movie. Like you said Eric, it was easy to dismiss the whole concept before seeing it as just a gimmick or exploitative or strictly for titillation's sake, but there's actually more to it than that. It's a full fledged love story about two people who are perfect for each other.

Mr. Grey is definitely less clear than Lee, who is more fully fleshed out as a person. We never learn about his past or the origin of his fetish. Given his name and how the movie ends I have to assume that this was deliberate by the filmmakers. What we do learn about him is that while Lee begins to embrace her submissive nature, Mr. Grey is ashamed of his dominant one. Although we aren't given details of his life, it's easy to surmise that Lee is the latest in a long line of secretaries who he has dominated before firing them after becoming disgusted with himself for the way he treats them. He can only begin to have real feelings for Lee when he accepts that she loves him for the way he really is.

Eric, I assumed the scene where her father gives her the advice you quote was strictly inside her head, just as I assume most of that scene was. I don't really believe a news crew came and kept watch while she waited for Mr. Grey to come back.

There are some sexually charged moments and Maggie is quite cute, getting cuter as the story progresses, but really only the last scene is played intentionally erotic when Mr. Grey and Lee truly open up to each other for the first time.

Although there are other characters, this is really a two person movie and both Spader and Gyllenhaal do good jobs in their parts. This was her first starring role and this is the movie that really launched her career and it's easy to see why.

Beneath the S&M wrapping this is a love story and a very good one.

Reviewed on: April 5th, 2012
James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary.

James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary.

What an interesting movie with two indelible central characters. The evolving relationship between Lee and Mr. Grey is quirky and compelling. The script is quite intelligent, as the various lines of dialogue Eric quoted in his review attest. I also found the direction to be inspired, most notably with the climactic sequence Scott mentioned. Although I think it took place in both their imaginations. Lee yearned for her father's approval, while Mr. Grey, being more concerned with how society will view them, imagined the news crew.

With her determined actions, Lee is out to prove just how committed she is to Mr. Grey and to their sexual fantasy. To the point of not caring who else knows about it. She breaks up with her fiance and even pees on herself (wearing a wedding gown) while resolutely refusing to move from the position at his desk that Mr. Grey ordered her to stay in. This act of obedience (love) proves cathartic for Mr. Grey, peeking in at the window. It allows him to come to terms with the shame he feels over their sexual role playing. It's a test, which Lee passes with flying colors. Thus enabling them to begin a genuine romantic life together.

Although the subject matter probably alienated some, I thought it a sweetly romantic movie wherein two desperately lonely souls find each other. The healing effect Mr. Grey has on his secretary happens quickly. Lee stops cutting herself immediately after her first spanking session. Mr. Grey's emotional baggage is heavier and the scars of his sexual shame run deeper. The repulsion he feels at his urges blind him to the fact that Lee's feelings for him go far beyond just the sexual.

I think Scott is correct that Mr. Grey is kept intentionally vague. We learn only the things about him that Lee learns. At the end she begins to gush questions at him about his life, since he has finally let down his walls to her. Secretary is a beautifully crafted love story featuring two wonderful performances from Spader and Gyllenhaal.

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