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Steven Soderbergh Month: ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ announces director’s stunning arrival

Steven Soderbergh Month: ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ announces director’s stunning arrival

sex lies and videotape one

sex, lies, and videotape
Written and directed by Steven Soderbergh
USA, 1989

The quiet power of sex, lies, and videotape often gets lost in the cultural influence the film had. It’s often hailed as one of the first real independent films to make an impact and as the movie that announced the arrival of Steven Soderbergh. But beneath all of that is an often challenging film. The characters aren’t particularly likable; the situations they put themselves and others in aren’t pretty. But once you come out on the other side, you realize you’ve seen something unlike anything else.

Soderbergh once said that lies are the “necessary grease to social interaction,” and really, isn’t that the point of the film? For these characters to function, they must lie to everyone. sex, lies, and videotape turns sex, but more importantly for these characters, relationships into a competition. It’s the only way that things can be even remotely interesting for them.

Baton Rouge couple Ann (Andie McDowell) and John Mullany (Peter Gallagher) look perfect, pretty, and successful except she’s bored and he’s having an affair with her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Enter Graham Dalton (James Spader), an old college friend of John’s who now seems to be a drifter and spends his time making videotapes of women talking about their sex lives, the only way he can achieve sexual gratification. It’s not long before he upends all of their lives.

Soderbergh directs the film with a cold, detached eye. We aren’t supposed to like or empathize these people; we are simply observers to their lives. And is there anything more brilliant than James Spader in this film? Soderbergh directs the deeply talented actor to what is perhaps his best performance. In a movie full of empty and desperate people, there is something so powerfully moving and shockingly understandable about his character.

sex lies and videotape two

His casting choice is sheer brilliance on Soderbergh’s part. By this point in his career, Spader had perfected the yuppie scum act, but with this character, he does the unimaginable. He takes a man who, under normal circumstances, would be disgusting and disturbing and could so easily be turned into a cardboard cutout,  but turns him into an emotionally stunted post everything else revolves around.

His confessional scene defines the film and in that one instant, it becomes perfectly clear, that the freak who has to film girls talking about sex is more put together than everyone else in this movie. “You’re right, I’ve got a lot of problems, but they belong to me,” he tells Ann. Ultimately, Graham is just a guy trying so desperately to keep himself safe in the insulated bubble he’s created for himself.

Over a highly impressive career, this film stands as one of Steven Soderbergh’s best. Often challenging, effecting, and powerful, sex, lies, and videotape remains a shining example of what a young filmmaker can do.

— Tressa Eckermann