One key: “Sex, Lies and Videotape” (1989)

25 May 2011

When I saw this film — in the theater in 1989 — I was on a really early date with the man who became my partner, who (I believed) looked a little bit like James Spader, except not so Hollywood pretty. They both had great hair, truly liked women, and had a bit of softness that gave them immense appeal, especially during those ugly days of George Bush I. My date jumped during the dinner table scene in which Graham (Spader) gets pressured by his old friend John (Peter Gallagher) to get an apartment, and he explains he doesn’t want to have more than one key. “That’s my line!” my date/partner whispered. “I’ve said that a million times!”

The scene is tense. Despite being old college (frat?) buddies, the two men have gone in painfully obvious different directions. I love the way the dialogue progresses to show not just their differences, but how much they discover that they don’t like each other after all those years. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the full film — but that scene (watch the entire sequence here) remains a tight, awkward experience.

Graham. Well, see, right now I have this one key, and I really like that. Everything I own is in my car. If I get an apartment, that’s two keys. If I get a job, maybe I have to open and close once in a while, that’s more keys. Or I buy some stuff and I’m worried about getting ripped off, so I get some locks, and that’s more keys. I just really like having the one key. It’s clean, you know?

John. Get rid of the car when you get your apartment, then you’ll still have one key.

Graham. I like having the car. The car is important.

John. Especially if you want to leave someplace in a hurry.

Graham. Or go someplace in a hurry.

One key. It’s a perfect example of metaphor meeting reality. I have nine keys now — to all the kinds of things Graham eschews. Locks for protection, to a (new) storage space full of things, multiple keys for my job, to anchor me to a house and a car (and my partner’s car too). I’m going to lose some of them for the next year. And while I won’t be able to whittle it down to the ideal one-key life, I’m looking forward to a life that’s clean, you know?

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10 Responses to “One key: “Sex, Lies and Videotape” (1989)”

  1. @Rob Says:

    James Spader looks like a lion with that hair. Love him. Love this film. Must re-watch. I wonder nuggets I will glean watching it almost 20 year later???

    • Didion Says:

      I’m weirdly nervous about seeing the film again — I loved it so much back then. Will I hate it? Will I find its portrayals of women excruciating?

      One thing that makes me immeasurably happy, though, is what Spader has done with his career. I saw him recently in a cameo appearance on The Office as a creepy, overconfident, and slightly portly job candidate — brilliant. Just like in Secretary (2002) he’s gone on to do great things as a character actor. Just as with Alec Baldwin, it makes me happy when actors move beyond their perfect prettyboy lives to show true talent with comedy and character acting.

  2. servetus Says:

    Like “the great purge,” it’s another satisfying metaphor. Giving up all the keys. I’ll have a somewhat similar problem, in that I’ll get a storage key, and won’t be able to give up the car, but it’s also something that I look forward to.


  3. […] been learning about minimalism. It’s so attractive — the idea, for instance, that one could have only one key. Anyone who owns a lot of books can’t really be a minimalist — not least because of the […]

  4. Z Says:

    I will rewatch! I saw it at the Kabuki in SF when it came out, I was on vacation home just after having moved here. My friends that I went with thought it was very exotic and I was acculturated already … I just said oh yeah, that’s BR for sure! I think now I’d “get” it even better.

  5. tam Says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever watched this movie. Although I did steal part of the title for a workshop I co-organized in the ’80s, “Sex, Lies & HIV” 🙂

    I did, however, love him in the compelling two hander he did with Susan Sarandon way back in 1990. White Palace. And as a bonus, it has one of my favourite sex scenes.

    OK, I’m adding it to my library holds list.

    • Didion Says:

      It was amazing at the time … I wonder if it’s dated now? And I really have no idea how I’d respond to the gender politics. 1989 seems, now, like a very long time ago.

  6. Z Says:

    Re gender politics, that film is eternal for Louisiana, can’t get dated.

    • Didion Says:

      I’ve really got to watch it again. My worry is that the James Spader character, who seemed sooooo reformed and sexy and enlightened by the end, will not seem like any of those things to me now. The rest of the gender politics — I remember catfighting between the sisters, misogyny from Peter Gallagher’s character — I agree with you are doubtless still in force in NOLA!

  7. Didion Says:

    Sex, Lies update: I watched it last night and it’s wonderful. Intimate, sexy, surprising, feminist. I hereby rescind all my anxieties.


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