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Theatrical release poster
Directed bySteven Shainberg
Screenplay bySteven Shainberg
Story byErin Cressida Wilson
Produced byAndrew Fierberg
Amy Hobby
Steven Shainberg
StarringJames Spader
Maggie Gyllenhaal
CinematographySteven Fierberg
Edited byPam Wise
Music byAngelo Badalamenti
Twopoundbag Productions
Double A Films
SloughPond Co.
Distributed byLions Gate Films
Release date
  • January 11, 2002 (2002-01-11) (Sundance)
  • September 20, 2002 (2002-09-20) (limited)
Running time
111 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$4 million
Box office$9.3 million

Secretary is a 2002 erotic romance film directed by Steven Shainberg and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee Holloway and James Spader as E. Edward Grey. The film is based on a short story from Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill,[1] and explores the relationship between a sexually dominant man and his submissive secretary.


Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the socially awkward and emotionally sensitive youngest daughter of a dysfunctional family, adjusts to normal life after having been hospitalized following an incident of dangerous self-harm. She learns to type, and begins to work as a secretary for an eccentric attorney, E. Edward Grey (James Spader), who hires her despite her stilted social skills, unprofessional appearance and scoring higher than anyone he's ever interviewed, therefore being overqualified. Edward explains that it's dull work and they don't use computers; however, Lee remarks that she is okay with these conditions.

Though at first Edward appears highly irritated by Lee's typos and other innocuous mistakes, it soon becomes apparent that he is sexually aroused by her obedient behavior. After he confronts her about her propensity for self-injury and commands that she never hurt herself again, the two embark on a BDSM relationship. Lee experiences a sexual and personal awakening, and she falls deeply in love. Edward, however, displays insecurity concerning his feelings for Lee, and he shows shame and disgust over his sexual habits. During this period of exploration with Edward, Lee has also been attempting to have a more conventional boyfriend in Peter (Jeremy Davies), even engaging in lukewarm sex with him. After a sexual encounter in Edward's office, he fires Lee.

After Lee is fired from her job, Peter proposes to Lee, who reluctantly agrees to marry him. However, while trying on her wedding gown, she leaves and runs to Edward's office where she declares her love for him. Edward, still uncertain about their relationship, tests Lee by commanding her to sit in his chair without moving her hands or feet until he returns. Lee willingly complies. Hours pass, as several family members and acquaintances individually visit Lee to alternately attempt to dissuade or encourage her while Edward watches from afar, completely taken by Lee's compliance. Because of Lee's refusal to leave the office, she has gained news coverage from the media, which they believe to be a hunger strike. After three days, Edward returns to the office and takes Lee to a room upstairs where he bathes and nurtures her. The pair marry and happily continue their dominant-submissive relationship.


  • James Spader as E. Edward Grey, Lee's employer and sexually dominant lover
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee Holloway, the eponymous submissive secretary
  • Jeremy Davies as Peter
  • Lesley Ann Warren as Joan Holloway
  • Stephen McHattie as Burt Holloway
  • Jessica Tuck as Tricia O'Connor
  • Patrick Bauchau as Dr. Twardon
  • Amy Locane as Lee's sister
  • Oz Perkins as Jonathan
  • Michael Mantell as Stewart
  • Sabrina Grdevich as Allison
  • Ezra Buzzington as Typing teacher


Many changes were made from Mary Gaitskill's original short story, which was significantly expanded and given greater depth in order to be made into a feature-length film. Lines of dialogue were changed; Lee's statement, "I'm so stupid" became a fantasy-sequence cry of "I'm your Secretary," which the director thought far more "celebratory."[2] Additionally, the ending of the story was changed to give a more positive outcome to the relationship. Steven Shainberg stated that he wished to show that BDSM relationships can be normal and was inspired by the film My Beautiful Laundrette, which he feels normalized gay relationships for audiences in the 1980s.[3]

A central component to the film, the office spaces of Edward and Lee, took form after two years of planning by Shainberg and production designer Amy Danger, who had collaborated with Shainberg on several projects.[4] The desire to have the office feel homemade and express Edward's interest in the growing of plants led Danger to juxtapose a natural decor in the office with a predominantly artificial outside world.[4] Speaking of her choices Danger compares the office with the rest of the film's locations: "All the materials I used [in the office] were natural: natural wood, bamboo, ironwork ... If I wasn't using natural materials, it was natural colors, like [in] the botanical wallpaper." In contrast, "everything [in the larger world] was fake ... I covered Lee's house in plastic sheeting, and used artificial, manufactured colors."[4] Although the interior sets were carefully constructed, the filmmakers did face some location-related challenges. Notably, in one instance the filmmakers accidentally obtained shooting rights for the wrong park. Gyllenhaal encouraged them to hastily shoot the required park scene anyway, without permission, while crew members distracted the local police.[2]

Speaking about Secretary's tone and atmosphere, Danger says "With this S&M material, we could go into a dark place... Steve and I wanted the total opposite: that the nature of this relationship freed [the characters] to be their natural selves."[4] Because of this atmosphere, Danger says "Everybody kept saying, 'When are we going back to the office?' It was funny, because the rooms weren't any smaller in the house, and it wasn't any more difficult to shoot. It was because you wanted to be in that space."[4]


The film was initially screened at several 2002 film festivals and had its domestic theatrical release on September 20, 2002, and in various foreign markets in 2003 and 2004.[citation needed]

Home release[]

The film's region 1 DVD was released on April 1, 2003. In the UK, a version by Tartan Video was released on January 5, 2004, followed by a budget edition by Prism Leisure on February 7, 2005. A UK Blu-ray Disc release was scheduled for September 13, 2010.[citation needed]

Special editions of the DVD include the film's trailer and TV spots, cast and director interviews, a behind-the-scenes documentary, cast and director "Curricula Vitae" and an audio commentary by director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson.[citation needed]



The film was generally received positively by critics. As of January 2016, it has a rating of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 146 reviews.[5] Many critics noted the film's original take on themes of sadomasochism, with Roger Ebert saying that the film "approaches the tricky subject...with a stealthy tread, avoiding the dangers of making it either too offensive, or too funny".[6] Ain't It Cool News commented: "Perhaps there is something bold about saying that pain can bring healing as long as it's applied by the right hand, but even that seems obvious and even normal thanks to [Gyllenhaal]."[7]

Box office[]

Secretary grossed $4,059,680 domestically and $5,244,929 internationally, to a total of $9,304,609.

Awards and nominations[]

Secretary was nominated for a number of awards and won several, with numerous wins for Maggie Gyllenhaal's breakthrough performance.

Year Ceremony Category Recipients Result
2002 7th Satellite Awards Best Actress - Musical or Comedy Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
9th Empire Awards Best Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
18th Independent Spirit Awards Best Feature Secretary Nominated
Best Female Lead Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
Best First Screenplay Erin Cressida Wilson Won
60th Golden Globe Awards Best Actress - Musical or Comedy Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
2002 National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
2003 MTV Movie Awards Best Breakthrough Female Performance Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards 2002 Best Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Won
Central Ohio Film Critics Association Best Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Won
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards 2002 Most Promising Performer Maggie Gyllenhaal Won
Florida Film Critics Circle Awards 2002 Pauline Kael Breakout Award Maggie Gyllenhaal Won
Gotham Independent Film Awards 2002 Breakthrough Performer Maggie Gyllenhaal Won
Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards 2002 Best Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
Locarno International Film Festival Golden Leopard Award Steven Shainberg Nominated
National Board of Review Awards 2002 Breakthrough Performance - Female Maggie Gyllenhaal Won
Online Film Critics Society Awards 2002 Best Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
Best Breakthrough Performance Maggie Gyllenhaal Won
Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards 2002 Best Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
Best Newcomer Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
San Diego Film Critics Society Awards 2002 Best Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize - Originality Secretary Won
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards 2002 Best Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
Vancouver Film Critics Circle Awards 2002 Best Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association Awards 2002 Best Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Nominated


File:Secretary Soundtrack.jpg

The pulp fiction–style cover art for the Secretary soundtrack album

The film's soundtrack album was released on CD on October 8, 2002, with an MP3 download version released on July 11, 2006. The soundtrack album contains Angelo Badalamenti's score as well as two songs that were notably featured over erotic montages in the film: Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man" and Lizzie West's "Chariots Rise".[citation needed]

The song "Chariots Rise" was changed slightly for the film, with the lyric "what a fool am I, to fall so in love" changed to "what grace have I, to fall so in love".[citation needed]

Track listing

All tracks by Angelo Badalamenti unless otherwise stated.

  1. "I'm Your Man" – Leonard Cohen
  2. "Main Title"
  3. "Feelin' Free"
  4. "Snow Dome Dreams"
  5. "Bathing Blossom"
  6. "Seeing Scars"
  7. "Loving to Obey"
  8. "Office Obligations"
  9. "The Loving Tree"
  10. "Orchids"
  11. "Secretary's Secrets"
  12. "Chariots Rise" – Lizzie West

See also[]

  • Sadism and masochism in fiction
  • Nudity in film


  1. Bad Behavior (1988), by Mary Gaitskill, ISBN 978-0-679-72327-1.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Shainberg, Steven (2004), audio commentary to Secretary.
  3. Shainberg, Steven, Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby, Erin Cressida Wilson, James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, et al. 2003. (Secretary) "Behind the Secretary". [United States]: Studio Home Entertainment.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 John Calhoun. (2002, October). Spank You Very Much. Entertainment Design, 36(10), 8-10. Retrieved April 1, 2011, from Research Library Core. (Document ID: 204894041).
  5. Secretary at Rotten Tomatoes
  6. Ebert, Roger (September 27, 2002). "Secretary". Chicago Sun-Times.
  7. "Moriarty" (September 10, 2002). MORIARTY Pretends To Be In TORONTO!! Reviews SECRETARY!!

Further reading[]

External links[]