There’s little in the way of sex, lies, or correction tape in Steven Shainberg’s 2002 movie Secretary.


There is, however, plenty in the way of typewriters. A typewriter typeface is used on the DVD sleeve, for example, and even the setup pages on the DVD menu are set against a backdrop of an IBM Selectric golf ball …


… a golf ball which also spins and whirs its way through the movie’s opening title sequence …


In the course of the movie I counted four different typewriters – and that’s not counting multiple beige Selectrics in an early classroom scene …


Another beige Selectric II makes a bizarre one-off appearance at the start of the movie, as we see Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) use her mouth to remove paper from the platen while her arms and hands are cuffed to a metal bondage pole …


Sexy right?

Well yes and no. There’s sex in this movie but its a Hollywood-style, sanitised and self-censored, mostly masturbatory kind of sex that (probably) still manages to offend America’s Christian Right, yet not offend them enough to provoke a ban, or prevent the movie’s distribution in mainstream cinemas.

Lee Holloway is a girl with a masochistic personality disorder. No sooner has she been released from psychiatric care and back into the arms of her loving but dysfunctional family, than a behavioural pattern of self-mutilation continues, and her mother is forced to put the kitchen knives out of harm’s way in a padlocked cupboard.

What Lee needs is a job, so she learns to touch type. What she also needs, she discovers after answering a “secretary wanted” ad, is a domineering boss.


Interviewed by a lawyer,  Mr E Edward Grey (played by James Spader of Sex, Lies, and Video Tape fame), Lee gets the job and is soon putting her typing skills to the test on a blue Selectric II typewriter …


Anxious to please, Lee makes a series of typos that the obsessive-compulsive-sadistic Mr Grey just can’t let go unpunished.


Lee doesn’t just take her punishment like a man, she takes it like a woman sexually awakened!  Hoping that more spankings will be meted out, she deliberately leaves her typing errors uncorrected – even going so far as to dispose of her employer’s entire supply of white-out in a dumpster at the back of the office.


Lee is engaged to Peter, a boy in her neighbourhood who fails to excite her intellectually or sexually. She’s more interested in, and excited, by her new boss. But since Mr Grey shows little sign of wanting a romantic involvement, Lee seems doomed to end up with her feckless suitor.


The plot traverses the peaks and troughs of a typical Hollywood movie. There’s an obligatory “honeymoon period” during which the sado-masochistic relationship between Lee and Edward is allowed to flourish.


Strangely, this change in working relationship sees a change in typewriter as Lee moves into the inner sanctum of Mr Grey’s office and is “upgraded” to a blue plastic (Adler?) typewriter  …


Plot-wise, the honeymoon period can’t last forever and it doesn’t. Grey loses interest in spanking Lee and she soon finds herself back at her desk in the outer office (albeit back to a better typewriter).


Unfortunately, Lee is just the latest victim of what is a recurring cycle of abusive behaviour by Grey – each iteration culminating in a breakdown triggered by his self-disgust.


He types a letter of apology to Lee on an Adler typewriter that matches the colour of his shirt (and his surname) …


But Lee never receives the letter. Grey shreds it and Lee is dismissed on the grounds that “this kind of behaviour can’t be allowed to continue”. Lee asks him outright why it can’t be allowed to continue, but to no avail, and she’s sent packing.

That’s not the end of it, of course. Hollywood movies aren’t (generally) allowed to have an unhappy ending (belated spoiler alert) so there’s another upward spike in the plot.

Lee runs away from feckless Peter during the fitting of her wedding gown. She calls on Grey and tells him that she loves him. But this isn’t enough for Grey. Lee must prove her devotion to him by showing complete obedience and subservience.

At this point the plot goes completely awry. Grey orders her to sit and wait for him (for an indeterminate time) at her work desk with her hands on the table and her feet planted on the floor. Lee obeys his instructions to the letter, and refuses to budge even to take a toilet break, or when Peter shows up (after Grey has alerted him to her whereabouts).

Inexplicably, members of the public hold a vigil outside Grey’s office, TV cameras roll up to report on Lee’s hunger strike. A procession of visitors call on the runaway bride: Lee’s former psychiatrist, her parents, an Aunt who wants her wedding dress dry cleaned and returned, and a feminist with a recommended reading list (nice touch that).

Finally, Grey runs the gauntlet of the waiting media, sweeps Lee off her feet and carries her across the threshold of his private quarters (conveniently he lives above the office).


It’s a happy but odd ending to what is an odd movie. Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader put in good performances, but I can’t help thinking the French would have handled the S & M subject matter with a lot more style and spice.

Not that I’m into that sort of thing, you understand …