Updated: Feb 13, 2022
James Spader is an intriguing person. I don’t think anyone will disagree that, particularly in the 80s and 90s, the combination of his modulated voice, intense eyes, and righteous head of hair made for someone that you just wanted to learn more about. He’s a curious sex symbol, and it’s fully understandable why some may find his attributes unnerving. His douchiness as Steff in 80s teen classic Pretty in Pink is magically counteracted by his sure-footedness and general magnetism, his terrible intentions justified by blunt confidence and poise. I have yet to see Cronenberg’s Crash but I have a feeling its bizarre psychosexual premise delivers on the Spader effect. Steven Soderbergh’s Palme d’Or winning Sex, Lies, & Videotape would not be what it is without this effect, making its would-be creep into a rational, empathetic being who should get the girl.
In the 2018 documentary Shirkers, Sandy Tan’s cryptic, pathological liar-of-a-mentor George Cardonas alleged that James Spader’s character Graham in Sex, Lies, & Videotape was based on him. I thought this was weird at the time, without even having seen the 1989 movie. Knowing the full context now, I can confirm that Cardonas is both ridiculously arrogant and a total weirdo. Cardonas may have been joking, and Tan was just too naive to understand, but with his position as an advisor to two precocious young girls, it is wildly inappropriate that he claimed to be the inspiration for a man whose fetish is recording women confess the deepest, darkest secrets of their sex life. And who, additionally, is a self-proclaimed pathological liar. And who, eventually, comes out on top.
I wanted to include this anecdote to show just how critical Spader is to the success of this role. With any other actor, I might’ve vehemently despised this movie and how casually it brushes over nine years of incel-like behavior as a “mistake in reasoning.” Yet, because of how compelling he is, I empathize not only with him but also with the women who decided that they would approach him to have a secret audience to their innermost turmoil. It also doesn’t hurt that the other characters in the movie are perpetual cheaters, with Spader being the complex case of a liar telling the truth.
Soderbergh should be credited for his unique decision to not actually feature any sex in the movie, only discussions about it. This avoids the sensationalism that might come with a movie so focused on infidelity and depicting the varying levels of sexual openness, and it also helps to hone in on the characters' distinct perspectives. It works for Andie MacDowell’s reserved, sweet-as-pie Ann in demonstrating that sex isn’t all that life is about, and at the same time, it disproves her theory, as she ends up with someone who has spent the past decade exclusively thinking about sex. The difference in these relationships is the depth of connection: her husband has been a cheating bastard for his whole life, and naturally, whether it be by pheromones or by instinct, Ann wasn’t able to forge as trustful a relationship with him. The movie hinges on one particular quote, said early on by Graham:
“Men learn to love the woman they are attracted to. Women learn to be attracted to the man they love.”
Whether you think this oversimplifies things on a gender basis or not, it rings true for Ann in her crisis. She has to evaluate whether her love for her husband John (a slippery Peter Gallagher) is enough to generate a bona fide attraction. In finding out about his affair with her sister, she realizes she doesn’t know enough about him to love him OR be attracted to him. She resolves to run to Graham to indulge herself in her own videotape, acknowledging that her life is “just shit.” But, having nothing to lose, and recognizing his affection for her, she turns the camera on him. A grandiose epiphany aids her to crack Graham’s line of reasoning for his behavior, his odd hobby identified as being propelled by his own insecurities and failure in love. Both at a loss for direction with their lives, Ann and Graham finally understand transparency, and its criticality to love and attraction. Their strange, profound revelations give them the freedom to surrender willingly to the forces of nature.
Spader showing vulnerability is a rare sight to behold, and when it finally happens, its truthfulness is overpowering. Their chemistry is anomalous and effortless, and yet the climax doesn’t exploit this. Instead, they share the simplest, most modest touch: that of the face. Seeing one another clearly, eye to eye, in a moment of pure connection. Then she turns the camera off. Whatever happens after is of no interest, not even the faintest comparison to the mutual understanding shown through that delicate encounter. It's difficult to fake that type of intimacy.
Not to undercut Andie MacDowell's performance in this scene, as it is essential to the believability of the extended exchange on tape, but my mind always comes back to Spader. It’s a perfect paradox that, even with all the charm that comes with his conviction and chemistry, it is his crumbling that renders him the most alluring of all. Maybe his actions require some concern, but of all the fetishes to have, just watching people talk about sex is surprisingly demure. I believe it's the physical nature of the videotapes that adds to their elemental eeriness, with the handwritten labels and perfectly organized stacks. The conversations do happen to be consensual, and Graham isn’t sharing them with anyone else. It certainly stretches the mind’s tolerance of sex positivity, as he doesn’t show any affinity for violence or danger.
What he craved, and what we all crave, is vulnerability. That is what he saw in the tapes. The only place he had yet to find it was within himself. By letting his guard down, Graham was once again able to experience a raw human bond at its most sincere, the closeness required to love and be loved. There has never been a more fulfilling instance of “turning a new leaf” as his decision to destroy the tapes and embrace his newfound connection.