Ex, Lies and Videotape

Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (the film's publicity materials always display the title in lowercase letters) is a 1989 independent film that brought director Steven Soderbergh to prominence. It tells the story of a man who films women discussing their sexuality, and his impact on the relationship of a troubled married couple.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape was influential in revolutionizing the independent film movement in the early 1990s. In 2006, Sex, Lies, and Videotape was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Synopsis

Ann and John Millaney are a troubled married couple in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Graham Dalton is an old college friend of John's and a seeming drifter who, after nine years, returns to live in Baton Rouge. He is a temporary guest of the Millaney's until he can find an apartment. Graham arrives to find Ann alone, and his conversation style with her is very casual and open. When John arrives home, Graham's demeanor becomes remarkably more guarded, due in large part to John's overt opposition to Graham's bohemian persona. Graham does not conform to the "fratboy" role they played as young men, nor the yuppie role to which John obviously graduated. At dinner, John derides Graham by remarking upon his clothing and asking him if he pays taxes. They also discuss the fact that Graham's college girlfriend, Elizabeth, is also living in Baton Rouge.

John is committing adultery. John rationalizes it by blaming Ann's sexual repression and frigidity. He frequently leaves his law office mid-day for a tryst, instructing his secretary to reschedule clients who are already in the lobby waiting to see him. He lies to cover himself. Of all the women he could choose as a sex partner, his adulterous relationship is with Ann's sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). She is not devious, like John, but merely a "free spirit."

Ann makes an impromptu visit to Graham's apartment, where she notices stacks of camcorder tapes around the television and will not take Graham's hint to ignore them. When pressed, Graham explains that he interviews women about their sexual experiences and fantasies, on videotape. Ann is overcome with shock and confusion, and flees his apartment. Within a day, Cynthia appears at Graham's apartment and introduces herself. In conversation, they learn that neither thinks very highly of John. Cynthia presses Graham to explain what "spooked" Ann the preceding day. Graham explains the videotapes, and admits to Cynthia his sexual dysfunction: that he is impotent when in the presence of another person, and that he achieves gratification by watching these videos in private. Graham propositions Cynthia to make a tape. He assures her that no other soul is allowed to see any of the tapes. She believes him, and agrees. Cynthia reports back to Ann, who is horrified. Cynthia also tells John.

Ann discovers Cynthia's pearl earring in her bedroom, and realizes that John is not only cheating on her, but that the other woman is her own sister. As a method of coping, she returns to Graham's apartment with the intent of making a videotape. Graham objects, telling her it is something she would not do in a normal frame of mind. She asks, "What would you know about a normal frame of mind?", thus convincing him to participate.

Afterward, Ann returns home and, rather than addressing John's adultery, simply states, "I want out of this marriage." In the ensuing argument, John gleans that Ann has been to Graham's, and that she made a video. He breaks into Graham's apartment, locks Graham out, and watches Ann's tape. In it, Ann paints a very unflattering portrait of John as a lover. She admits to fantasizing about other men, most notably and recently, Graham. When Graham's response is geared toward the interview and not toward her feelings for him, Ann turns the camera on Graham. She teases from him a confession that he is haunted by Elizabeth, and that his motivation in returning to Baton Rouge is a vague notion of reconnecting with her. He explains that he was a pathological liar, which destroyed an otherwise loving and rewarding relationship with Elizabeth. There is an implication that his friendship with John originated from a kinship in this affliction. He explains that he has since gone to great lengths to keep people at a distance, and avoid relationships, such that he might learn to overcome the condition. Their souls bared, Ann moves toward Graham. He reaches to turn off the camera. It is implied that the two have sex.

John joins Graham on the front patio and, with obvious pleasure, John confesses to having sex with Elizabeth while she and Graham were a couple. As he walks away, John says, "She was no saint. She was good in bed and she could keep a secret. That's all I can say about her." Violated, Graham goes into a rage and destroys all of the tapes.

In the end, John meets with a prospective client, to whom John tells lies about the circumstances of his pending divorce. He attempts to impress the prospective client by calling an existing VIP client, and transacting the call on speakerphone. The call is rejected and John is informed that the VIP has forsaken him in favor of another lawyer. Next, via intercom, John is summoned to his boss's office (It’s implied that he is about to be fired due to his frequent cancellations of meetings with important clients to have sexual trysts with Cynthia). In the next scene Ann and Cynthia reconcile at the bar Cynthia tends, before Ann returns home and joins Graham on the front porch, as they appear to be a couple.

Cast

Production

The film was written by Soderbergh in eight days on a yellow legal pad during a cross country trip (although, as Soderbergh points out in his DVD commentary track, he had been thinking about the film for a year).

Soderbergh's commentary also reveals that he had written Andie MacDowell's role with Elizabeth McGovern in mind, but McGovern's agent disliked the script so much that McGovern never even got to read it. Laura San Giacomo who was represented by the same agency had to threaten to leave that agency in order to be able to play Cynthia. Soderbergh was reluctant to audition MacDowell but she surprised him, getting the role after two extremely successful auditions. The role of John would have been played by Timothy Daly, but delays in completing the financing for the film led to Peter Gallagher getting the role instead.

Principal photography took thirty days in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Awards

The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, with Spader getting the Best Actor Award for that same festival. It also won an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Soderbergh was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay. In 2006, sex, lies, and videotape was selected and preserved by the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Significance

Sex, Lies and Videotape is important in film history for making independent film a widely known genre. In his book Down and Dirty Pictures, Peter Biskind explains that the unprecedented international success of this low-budget film was instrumental in the beginning of the 1990s independent film boom. The film is also important for launching the career of Steven Soderbergh, who became a recognized director of both mainstream and arthouse films, and for launching or boosting the careers of many actors. Prior to this picture leading lady Andie MacDowell was principally known as a fashion model whose entire performance in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes had been dubbed over by Glenn Close. The film was also significant in that it featured James Spader playing the protagonist as in many of his past films he was best known for playing the role of the villain (in particular Endless Love, Pretty in Pink, and Less Than Zero).

DVD

The DVD edition of the film includes a "director's dialogue" between Soderbergh and playwright/director Neil LaBute, recorded in 1998. LaBute's presence leads to conversational tangents unrelated to the film, although most of the tangents are related to the question of what it means to be a director, and are intended, as Soderbergh summarizes at the end, to "demystify" the process of making a film. LaBute's presence prompts Soderbergh to talk about reverse zooms, dolly shots, how actors have varying expectations of their director, the difference between stealing from a film you admire and paying tribute to it, shooting out of sequence, how the role of a director changes as their success (and their budgets) grow, and other filmmaking topics.

Rights

Since the film was released and produced by Miramax Films, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment holds the rights to release it on VHS and DVD.

Popular culture references

Hundreds of newspaper headlines, TV trailers and episode titles, etc. have played on the film's title, usually in the form sex, lies and something else or something, something and videotape. This phenomenon has taken on a life of its own – far beyond the impact of the film itself.

Other references include:

External links

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