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sex, lies, and videotape (1989)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

In director Steven Soderbergh's landmark, low-budget independent film winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and with a nomination for Best Original Screenplay - without nudity although with considerable discussion of sexual topics; the film featured explicit dialogue in videotaped discussions and revelatory confessions:

  • the four individuals intimately involved together in Baton Rouge in August of 1988 were John Mullany (Peter Gallagher), a college fraternity buddy-turned egotistical, philandering yuppie lawyer; Ann Bishop Mullany (Andie MacDowell), John's neglected, sexually-squeamish, repressed, frigid and frustrated wife; with a genteel personality; John had demanded that she not work, and she felt powerless; Cynthia Patrice Bishop (Laura San Giacomo), Ann's less refined, sexually-adventurous bartender sister; an extroverted and free-spirited artist, and jealous and insecure about her sister's beauty; and Graham Dalton (James Spader), a reclusive chain-smoking drifter, one of John's old frat friends, who came into town on a visit to the Mullanys while relocating to the city

Ann Bishop Mullany (Andie MacDowell)

John Mullany (Peter Gallagher)

Graham Dalton (James Spader)

Cynthia Patrice Bishop (Laura San Giacomo)
  • as the film opened, an upset Ann was in consultation with her therapist (Ron Vawter) and was obsessing about problems she had no control over, such as overflowing amounts of garbage, and families of airline fatalities. She added: "Anyway, being happy isn't all that great. I mean, the last time I was really happy, I got so fat. I must have put on 25 pounds." She admitted that she didn't like sexual touch from her husband John: "I don't want him to touch me...I've never really been that much into sex. I mean, I like it and everything, but, you know, I just don't think it's such a big deal"; with great embarrassment, she admitted that she didn't like masturbation: "I tried once. It just seems so stupid!"
  • infidelity was revealed between womanizing and philandering John and Ann's sister Cynthia. To fulfill one of Cynthia's "perverse thrill" fantasies, she wished to have sex in Ann's bed while she was away. She also added: "I wish I could just come right out and tell everyone Ann's a lousy lay."
  • Graham arrived to visit the Mullanys while looking for an apartment to rent month-to-month (with Ann's assistance). During dinner together, Graham was somewhat at odds with the ultra-successful John, who derided him for his "somber" present condition after nine years.
  • the next day as Ann helped Graham search for an apartment, Cynthia entered the Mullany bedroom where John greeted her with a potted plant hiding his genitals. (It would be an unfortunate decision - she would drop one of her pearl earrings in the bedroom that was later found by Ann.)
  • during a "personal" conversation together after lunch in a restaurant, Ann first offered her views about sex: "I think that sex is overrated. I think that people place far too much importance on it. And I think that stuff about women wantin' it just as bad as men is crap." Then, it was Graham's turn to reveal something personal to Ann: "I'm impotent - I can't get an erection in the presence of another person." When Ann told her sister Cynthia about the new visitor to town, calling him sort of "strange" and "unusual," she was intrigued and wanted to meet him.

A "Personal" Conversation Between Graham and Ann

Graham to Ann: "I'm impotent."
  • Graham had made it his "personal project" to videotape women speaking about their sex lives. Ann visited his "minimalist" apartment and interrupted him naked while watching one of his tapes. Ann asked about his massive collection of categorized videotape cassettes: "Why do these tapes all have women's names on 'em?" She listened as she pressed him with lots of questions and he answered that she couldn't watch them: "I enjoy interviewing women more than men...The interviews are about sex....Everything about sex...What they've done, what they do, what they want to do but are afraid to ask for, what they wouldn't do even if asked....Sometimes they do things...for the camera."
Ann Curiously Asking Graham About His Collection of Videotapes of Sex Interviews with Women
  • she was disgusted, confused, upset and flustered - that he taped women talking about their sexual experiences (some of whom also masturbated on camera) - and she abruptly left.
  • Cynthia became even more interested in visiting Graham after Ann told her he was "strange." Cynthia arrived in Graham's apartment, noticed his large collection of sex tape interviews, put two and two together, and then she responded to his question: "Why don't you let me tape you?" She agreed to be interviewed as she curled up on the sofa and talked about her sexual history and sexual preferences. He openly told her that he 'got off' (masturbated) while watching his tapes. Graham essentially admitted that videotaping was a substitute for his own emotion-less, impotent and dispassionate life.
  • she spoke about her first sexual experience at age 8 and her sexual awakening when she first viewed a penis at age 14:

"I didn't think it would have, uhm, veins or ridges or anything. I just thought it would be smooth, like a test tube...The organ itself seemed like a, a separate thing, um, a separate entity to me. I mean, when he finally pulled it out, and I could look at it and touch it, I completely forgot that there was a guy attached to it. I remember literally being startled when the guy spoke to me....He said my hand felt good....Then I started movin' my hand, and then he stopped talkin'."

  • Cynthia was so sexually aroused that she immediately called John in his office, and demanded that he cancel his important meeting commitments and have sex with her. Meanwhile, Graham was watching the playback of further parts of the over two-hour interview (intercut with the actual interview) - she removed her skirt and revealed she was panty-less to Graham - to self-pleasure herself. She also indirectly admitted on-camera that she was having an affair with Ann's husband John: ("John and Ann don't have sex any more...He doesn't have to tell me").

Graham Watching Cynthia's Sex Videotape Later

During the Interview - Graham Watched Cynthia Masturbate

Cynthia's Post-Interview Sex with John
  • her intense post-interview 'quickie' sexual intercourse session with John led him to compliment her: "You're on fire today." She dismissed him after being satisfied: "You can go now."
  • shortly later, by phone, Cynthia told Ann about her videotape experience with Graham, but assured her that nothing sexual had happened between them, although she hinted that she stripped and then masturbated on camera for him. Ann's reaction was of total shock: "You're in trouble...You can't trust him. He's perverted."
  • throughout the course of the film, John convincingly denied to the very suspicious and paranoid Ann that he was having an affair with Cynthia. He persuasively lied and accused his wife of paranoia and conjecture: "Ann, I'm not f--king your sister. I don't find her that attractive, for one thing."
  • after John discovered that Cynthia had made a videotape with Graham, he became worried that the tape might be too revealing: "What if this tape gets into the wrong hands?" He also rightfully suspected: "Did you have to masturbate in front of him?" And he was also concerned that Ann knew about Cynthia's tape, and feared that his affair with Cynthia would be uncovered.
  • ultimately, the affair came into the open when Ann was vacuuming and she discovered Cynthia's missing pearl earring in her bedroom. It was a dramatic turning point. She drove to Graham's place and confirmed with him what Cynthia had confessed on tape - that she was having an affair with John: ("John and Cynthia have been - f--king"). With internal rage, she spoke out: "My life is s--t. It's just s--t. Nothing's what I thought it was. John's a bastard. Let's make a videotape." He reluctantly began to record her. [Note: The contents of her tape recording would be displayed later.] After the taping, she returned home to demand a divorce from John ("I want out of this marriage") - and he guessed that she had made one of Graham's tapes.
  • John retaliated by beating Graham up and tossing him out on the porch before watching Ann's recent 46 minute long taped recording. He listened to Ann's admission that she never had satisfying sex or an orgasm with her husband, and how she had thought about having sex with Graham: ("I thought about you"). He responded: "I thought about what you would look like having an orgasm," to which she replied: "I'd like to know what I look like havin' an orgasm." When she asked if he could give her an orgasm, he replied simply: "No...I can't because I won't."
Ann's Videotaped Session - Live
  • John also heard Graham's confession that he had major problems in his past: he was a pathological liar and he often scared people with his non-verbal behavior. His reason for coming back to Baton Rouge involved his idealized ex-girlfriend Elizabeth (Alexandra Root) - to find "a sense of closure."
  • then, in one of the film's most memorable segments, John watched as Ann was slowly able to reverse roles with Graham. She grabbed the camcorder and turned it toward him to help him with his impotence "problem" - she asked him: "Why do you tape women talking about sex, huh?" He at first resisted her efforts to help him: "I don't have the slightest idea who I am, and I'm supposed to be able to explain it to you?" But then he admitted: "I've got a lot of problems."
  • Ann wanted to help: "I didn't wanna be part of your problem, but I am." John saw and heard Ann tenderly and lightly caress and kiss Graham as he laid unresistant on a couch. Graham soon decided to shut off the camera filming them, presumably because they were going to have sex together. The tape went blank
  • John's reaction to the tape was to spitefully tell Graham out on the porch that he once cheated and had an affair with Elizabeth while she and Graham were still together in college: "I f--ked Elizabeth. Before you broke up. Before you were havin' trouble, even. She's no saint. She was good in bed. She could keep a secret. That's about all I can say about her." This revelation caused Graham to destroy his entire videotape collection and camcorder.
  • while Ann and Cynthia appeared to reconcile with each other at her place of work, and Ann announced that she had taken a new job, John (now separated-divorced) had been fired for his reckless and irresponsible business behavior during his affair, and Ann and Graham were becoming closer to each other as a couple

John's On-Going Affair with Cynthia

Graham Having Dinner with the Mullanys

Sex on Ann's Bed - John Greeted Cynthia With a Potted Plant on His Genitals

Ann Frigid in Bed with Philandering Husband John

Graham's Collection of Videotape Cassettes of Female Interviews About Sex

Graham Watching One of His Videotaped Sexual Interviews

Cynthia's Visit to Graham's Apartment

Cynthia Curled Up on a Sofa During Her Video Interview

Ann Lied to by John - He Denied That He Was Having an Affair with Cynthia

Ann's Discovery of Cynthia's Pearl Earring in Her Bedroom

Ann to John: "I want out of this marriage"

John Watching Ann's Videotaped Session with Graham

Ann Turning the Tables on Graham With the Camera

Ann Caressing and Touching Graham

Ending: Ann and Graham Together


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