RopeofSilicon Movie Club: 'sex, lies and videotape' (1989)

Andie MacDowell and James Spader in sex, lies and videotape
Andie MacDowell and James Spader in sex, lies and videotape
Photo: Miramax

I'm not sure what I expected from Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I had never seen it and still need to both Kafka and Out of Sight, two other early Soderbergh features that have so far escaped me. But after Sex, Lies, and Videotape, my urge to further my exploration the director's early works has greatly intensified.

Soderbergh wrote Sex, Lies, and Videotape in less than two weeks, made it on a budget of $1.8 million and the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989 where it won the Audience Award. It was promptly picked up by Harvey Weinstein and Miramax before heading to Cannes where it won the Palme d'Or, FIPRESCI Prize and Best Actor for James Spader. It would end up earning an Oscar nomination (Original Screenplay), a Cesar nomination and win four Spirit Awards including Best Feature. It marked Soderbergh's feature debut and, for good reason, made him a director to watch.

The story centers on Graham (Spader), a man who videotapes women speaking openly about their sexual preferences, proclivities and experiences. He does this privately, but is not at all ashamed of what he does, particularly because he's upfront and honest with those he videotapes in a way that leads them to trust him.

His actions, however, soon have an effect on John (Peter Gallagher), an acquaintance of his from college, and John's wife Ann (Andie MacDowell) whose troubled marriage is crumbling before our very eyes. She tells her therapist she no longer wants him to touch her and, unbeknownst to her, John is having an affair with her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).

Andie MacDowell and James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Andie MacDowell and James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Photo: Miramax

Without ever seeing it, to tell someone you're going to watch a film titled Sex, Lies, and Videotape instigates an immediate response. The title suggests something erotic and/or forbidden. In today's world of high definition digital images, the idea of something on videotape also carries a visual reference, something imperfect and something to be looked down upon. Whether you view what Spader's character is doing as wrong, erotic or worthy of disdain is up to you.

Sex, Lies... is sexually charged, the lies are abundant and the videotape is obvious. But what makes the film so intriguing is the other side of the coin. For as sexually charged as the film is, there is very little sex in it and none of it explicit. For all the lies told there are just as many truths. And for all that is captured and seen on videotape, reality doesn't set in until the camera is turned off.

This is a brave feature for a first time screenwriter and director. Not only must there be confidence in the ability to tell a story, but for a film so dependent on dialogue, one must have the utmost of confidence in what is written and will be said. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review: "The argument in "sex, lies and videotape" is that conversation is also better than sex - more intimate, more voluptuous - and that with our minds we can do things to each other that make sex, that swapping of sweat and sentiment, seem merely troublesome."

For anyone that spends their time watching classic cinema, the idea that films could be sexy without being explicit is a lost art, an art Sex, Lies and Videotape recaptured in 1989.

James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Photo: Miramax

Ebert's introduction to his review reminds me of my favorite exchange from the film:


Is this how you get off or something? Taping women talking about their sexual experiences?



The blunt response with no guilt struck me like a hammer and I could immediately understand how someone could be willing to sit down with Graham. His reaction suggests there is nothing wrong with what he's doing, the idea of being open about sexuality, free to express yourself however you wish with no dependence on physical contact. With such honesty and in the way we see him use the videos, who's to say there is anything wrong with it. Who is he hurting?

James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
James Spader in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Photo: Miramax

Spader's performance, along with San Giacomo, is excellent. Spader, for me, has always been an actor that has been able to tap into that creepy, slimy factor. He has an uncanny ability to portray characters I never quite trust. Here, he taps into my initial distrust, but he also begs for sympathy and he gets it, but is it a form of manipulation?

I loved the description of Graham given by Caryn James in her New York Times review in 1989 when she wrote:

But Graham is Mr. Soderbergh's most disturbing, provocative and perceptive creation, the video generation's nightmare child. Impotent whenever he is with another person, Graham's only physical satisfaction comes when he watches the tapes he has made of women answering his questions about their sexual histories and tastes.

Ebert refers to what Graham does as "a form of sexual assault" while James calls him "the video generation's nightmare child." The question here is to wonder if what Graham is doing is sexually perverse or simply the only way he can achieve sexual satisfaction? Do you perceive what he's doing as wrong? He isn't hiding anything, but I can't help but wonder, is he taking advantage of the women that eventually agree to speak on camera? Remember, he initially tells Cynthia recording her wouldn't be a good idea.

I also found myself drawn to and fascinated by Ann. Perhaps because I am a man, I found Ann to be incredibly compelling, moving from something of an angelic housewife who shies from the mere mention of the word "sex", to a woman willing to sit down in front of Graham's camera and reveal all.

She reaches a level of deserved malevolence toward John. I loved it when she found the nerve to say , "Fuck you!" I also loved John's reaction to what she was saying and the decision in the screenplay to not have him strike Ann, but to confront Graham in a scene I found incredibly powerful.

Peter Gallagher in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Peter Gallagher in Sex, Lies and Videotape
Photo: Miramax

All performances, direction and execution aside, what I keep coming back to is the overall story and it's themes in relation to the film's title. This film is presented with such honesty, the lack of narrative tricks help in maintaining the initial impression you get when you read the words "sex", "lies" and "videotape" and help forward your interpretation of the story itself and the way it changes shape over the course of its running time.

Sex is at the center of the story, but it's not a film about sex as much as it's a film about connecting with someone beyond the physical. Oddly enough, for as blunt an object as John is, he is the one character that immediately seems to get that fact as he not only becomes enraged at the idea of Cynthia being videotaped by Graham, but explodes at the idea that Ann did so as well. He realized the intimacy in sharing these private details and when he saw his wife on the video he finally realized at that moment his marriage was over.


Did you find yourself judging the characters, and if so, did that judgment affect your overall impression of the film?

Do you hold Ann just as guilty as John? For that matter, do you believe Graham and Ann had sex after the videotape was shut off?

Is Ann as innocent as she makes herself out to be in the first half of the film, or do you believe she is repressing part of her personality that is more in line with her sister?

Ebert refers to what Graham (Spader) does as "a form of sexual assault". Do you agree?


The rules are simple and, if necessary, will update as we go along.

  1. No topic is off limits as long as it pertains to the movie of the week or comes as a natural progression of the conversation.
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  4. Suggestions for future Movie Club titles must be emailed to Comments on actual Movie Club articles pertaining to future discussions and not the film being discussed will be deleted to make sure we remain on topic.


Based on last week's poll, the November 19, 2012 Movie Club selection is David O. Russell's Flirting with Disaster (1996) starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Téa Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin

Use the following poll to vote for the November 26, 2012 Movie Club selection and to suggest films for future entries direct all your emails to

BY THE WAY: Based on voting habits in these polls it would appear you only want to discuss English-language movies. I'm wondering do I need to resort to a foreign language-only poll in the future?

Vote for the November 26, 2012 Movie Club selection

  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman) (52 Votes)
  • Catch-22 (Mike Nichols) (48 Votes)
  • The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel) (32 Votes)
  • Les Enfants Terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville) (20 Votes)
  • L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni) (8 Votes)

Total Voters: 160

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Next week's film will be Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express. For more information and an updated schedule, visit the Movie Club homepage.

  • Liathach

    One small quibble: the title is sex, lies and videotape all in lower case.

    I saw this years ago and found it over-hyped, underwhelming and implausible - and that's just about all I can remember about it.

    • Brad Brevet

      "One small quibble: the title is sex, lies and videotape all in lower case."

      That's why I presented it that way in the headline, but for clarity sake put it in caps in the article.

      Otherwise, thanks for not watching the movie and kicking things off with a dismissive start to the conversation. It really helps get the ball rolling and is exactly the kind of effort I guess I should expect from the Internet. Glad I try.

      • Susan

        Yes to this.

  • Susan

    Glad you liked the movie so much Brad; it's a stimulating one. While I love McCabe and Mrs Miller, it would be nice to see something foreign sneak in as a winner soon.

  • Timothy

    Personally, when I first heard of the film, I thought that it was some kind of porn, albeit intelligent porn. When I looked into it more, I realized I had missed the mark completely, then when I saw the film I realized how wrong I was. My confusion has undoubtedly been shared by others. This film was playing in a West German theatre when the Berlin Wall fell, and a bunch repressed East Germans hurried into the the cinema, hoping to watch some kind of American porn. They were sorely disappointed.

    Personally the thing that surprised the most was Andie MacDowall, who I had seen in other things, except she wasn't very good in them. Here she is very good, and I thought her performance was great. Personally I think that the main theme in the film is not Sex or Videotape, but Lies.

    Ann lies to herself, pretending she is happy, while John's lies are most obvious, I think that he is using sex and lies as a way to fight some kind of inner sadness. Graham lies to himself that he is impotent, using the word as a way to block out the world. And Cynthia also lies to herself that she is satisfied with having sex with John, with no emotions, when in fact she yearns for something much more.

    To answer your questions, Brad, I did find myself judging John, and it did impact my viewing experience. I found him despicable and just an all round terrible person, it was only later that I began to analyze the character more. He is not as bad as he seems, and in the end he realizes exactly what an impact his infidelities have had on his life.

    I don't find Ann to be as "evil" as John, but she was just suppressing her inner desires through multiple layers of childhood and trying to the opposite of what her sister was. Personally, I thought that while Ann and Cynthia seem to not be great friends, they both are suppressing their desires to live each others lives. Ann wants to be able to be reckless and wild, where Cynthia wants to be like Ann and have a "stable" life, but they both don't want to admit it.

    Personally, I don't think that Graham and Ann had sex after the videotape. I think they just stared at each other, analyzing each other perhaps, or maybe just drifting, Ann realizing that her marriage has come to an end, and Graham realizing that he can still feel.

    Yes, Ann is definitely repressing herself, shutting her emotions out and set with continuing a marriage that failed a long time ago. She doesn't realize that but shutting out these emotions she is isolating herself from the rest of the world. When she finds the earring under the bed, the emotions come flowing out. She realizes that she knew that this would happened, and instead of feeling mad, she is just emotionless.

    I am not sure what Ebert meant to say, but what I believe is that Graham is shutting out his emotions due to the long lasting pain following his break up. He traveled the country to find some kind of way to soothe the pain, but the only way he could was by completely losing his emotions, and being totally sexually turned off. The videotapes turn him on because they are not reality, they are a detached form of reality, without emotions, and no real commitment or "love" involved.

    As a whole I found the film as a whole to be very well done, and engrossing. It was Soderbergh's breakout film, and it remains one of his best.

    Any way's that's just one man's opinion, it would be great to see how other people reacted to the film.

  • Mikey

    I have to be brief as Sandy might take my power again at any minute.

    First, I loved this movie. Easily my favorite from the RopeofSilicon movie club so far. All the acting was great with Spader and Giacomo in particular both giving knockout performances. I also loved the flow of the editing and the way dialogue from one scene would continue over into the next scene.

    Secondly, I think the film is ultimately about intimacy and how in a lot of cases the sexuality has been taken out of sex. Whether its the boy wanting to see Cynthia pee and then running off, Ann not wanting to be touched by her own husband, or the affair between John and Cynthia, the film repeatedly shows people who are confused about their sexual desires. This is contrasted with Graham who is completely honest about what he wants sexually and as such can be the most intimate with women as well as being content with his life. I realize this is a little disjointed but my lights just flickered so no time for editing!

    Thirdly, you gotta love that late eighties hair.

  • Susan

    I wonder why none of the actors in this, at least that I can remember, returned for late Soderbergh films? He tends to use a certain group of actors regularly, though not for everyone film. Damon, Clooney, Cheadle, Douglas are but a few and I'd love to see what Spader could do in the right hands once more.

  • maja

    Brad, I'm glad you picked this movie for us to watch. I've been meaning to watch it for a couple of years now but for one reason or another it kept getting put off and thanks to the movie club i finally managed to watch it last week. I love exploring great directors first feature films as it really does show how good a director is at storytelling when they have no budget to do anything but this...and for me this up there with Soderbergh's best.

    Spader is excellent in this but I have to say that the whole cast is fantastic. The intimacy in the way this film is shot really sets the tone. The movie builds up really well to a really solid third act. I think so far this is the best film of the movie club so far.

    • Brad Brevet

      "I think so far this is the best film of the movie club so far."

      I would tend to agree with that statement, I was really knocked over by this one.

      • Susan

        Not that comparing art is always the best way to go, but have you thought about a vote for favorite films in this series at some point?

  • Criterion10

    It's been a while since I've seen Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and unfortunately I wasn't graced with the time to rewatch the film recently. I do, however, remember it being a very good film, and after reading through this article, I now have the sudden urge to watch this one again.

    I do remember the film quite well, and there are two things that did stick out to me. The first being the sequence where Cynthia is sexually charged after her she allows Graham to videotape her. It was as if being able to let loose all of those sexual feelings and emotions to someone she wasn't very close with allowed for her to better connect with her lover.

    I also found the ending quite interesting, where Ann and Graham reach some sort of breakthrough after she becomes significantly angry at him for his habit. I remember there being some sort of look on his face, almost a look of happiness, relief, pleasure, etc. I found that moment to be quite important.

    *I apologize in advance if I mistook some of the facts of these scenes, it's been a while since I've seen the film.

    Being an avid movie watcher, I have no problem with a foreign language film being selected. I was really rooting for Cries and Whispers last time around as I quite like Bergman and haven't seen enough of his films yet. But, it'll still be interesting to see Flirting with Disaster.

    That about does it for now. I'd add more, but something tells me that I may be losing power very soon due to Sandy. *fingers crossed otherwise*

    • maja

      Stay safe during Sandy, criterion10!

  • Beautifulm

    I also enjoyed the film as for your question about judging the characters. I did find my self judging John and Cynthia a bit more than the other characters. I don't think it influenced my thoughts on the film as a whole. I did view them more negatively than the others.

  • Aleonardis

    I guess I'm just gonna watch this now and hopefully be back with an interpretation and critique if Sandy doesn't blow me away...

  • Gautam

    Share the feeling, of being bowled over the first time I watched sex, lies and videotape. And the film just catches you completely unaware. Though the title gives away to an extent what the movie is about and hence you know that at some point of time all the three words will be key to the story. On the other hand the title is also titillating in way where you think that the film is about sex, which basically it's not.
    I think if I had pick one word out of the three, I would say the film is more about lies. Lies in relationship. Lies that one tells others and most importantly, Lies that one tells to oneself.

    I didn't judge Ann, and I don't know why. Probably because I was attracted to her mystery and her charm, and didn't want to spoil that by judging her whether she's wrong or right on what she was doing.

    Graham's character is also kind of abhorable and adorable, both at the same time. You might hate him for what he's doing, but you tend to like him for how he's doing what he's doing.

  • Brian Zitzelman

    Another good one Brad. This is a stellar film and a wonderful example of the talent Soderbergh would display for more than two decades.

    As for the question of judging the characters, I can't say I did. It's tone and character remind me of Noah Baumbach's. They are displayed bluntly, with all of their flaws and foibles.

  • AS

    I'm a little late to the party but I don't really have much to say about it anyway. I didn't re-watch it (I saw it for the first time about 2 years ago). It's a very good film, but it's not something I'll probably watch again. If I had to rank the films of Steven Soderbergh, here's how it would look:

    1. Che
    2. Contagion
    3. The Oceans Trilogy (I like them all equally)
    4. Erin Brockovich
    5. Magic Mike
    6. The Informant!
    7. Out of Sight
    8. Traffic
    9. Sex, Lies and Videotape
    10. Schizopolis
    11. Solaris
    12. King of the Hill
    13. The Limey
    14. The Good German
    15. Underneath
    16. Full Frontal
    17. The Girlfriend Experience
    18. Bubble
    19. Kafka
    20. Gray's Anatomy

    • maja

      Surprised by how low you ranked Bubble. Granted i've only seen around 10 of the movies you ranked but I'd place Bubble top followed by Contagion and Sex, Lies..

      • AS

        It's an interesting movie, but there just isn't any replay value (IMO).

    • jamie

      good list! my only differences would be moving magic mike down, as i really wasn't as impressed with it as i thought i'd be, and moving traffic and out of sight up. out of sight is easily my favorite of his films. i've probably seen it 6 times now. i'm actually really surprised that brad hasn't seen it yet, and would be very interested to hear his views on it.

      love the 1st oceans, much more than the other ones. i hadn't noticed how many of his films i've actually seen. the only ones i'm missing from your list are grays, kafka, underneath, king of the hill, and schizopolis.

      • jamie

        oh...and sorry that wasn't bringing anything to the discussion at hand, brad. i hadn't watched sex, lies since it was released. i was trying to get a viewing in before...but i seem to be a step behind. i'm actually finishing the ice storm tonight!
        from what i can remember of it though, i remember it being hyped an adequate amount, overwhelming, and completely plausible.

        love the movie club!

  • Fan

    I love Che. Steven Soberbergh very underappreciated film. It's definitely my favorite Soberbergh film too.

    • Fan

      Awww... mobile is messing up... I got to get me a new phone. Meant to reply to AS.

  • JaneD

    I initially saw sex ,lies, and videotape on the big screen when it was released in 1989. I went with a group of friends after hearing about this young director who came out of nowhere to win the big prize at Cannes. And on top of that there was that titillating title and talk that it was pornographic. We were not a very sophisticated group of filmgoers so I believe that we were somewhat under whelmed after seeing it.

    However watching all these years later, I found the movie compelling and thought provoking. All the performances are excellent, the script is smart, and the film is well crafted.

    From my perspective it seemed like Soderbergh wrote John as a scumbag. When we are introduced to him, he is bragging to a friend about how great being married is because it is so easy to cheat on Ann. In John’s final scene, he gets the bad news that a client has dropped him. It is the same client he had been brushing off to have his trysts with Cynthia. For me there was nothing redeeming about John and Soderbergh wanted the viewer to see him that way. His adultery cost him his marriage and his climb up the corporate ladder. Karma bit him in the butt.

    I found the other three characters more complex. Spader’s portrayal of Graham is especially compelling. Graham is honest, vulnerable, charming, lonely and yet a bit creepy. Graham kind of broke my heart.

    I am not sure that it matters what happened between Graham and Ann after he shut off the videotape. But what is apparent to John as he viewed the tape, is that his wife and his old friend have discovered a level of intimacy that he has probably never experienced with anyone…ever. In my mind this is the crux of the film – intimacy is more than just sex. Intimacy is honesty with your partner and knowing yourself, what you both need out of the relationship, and expressing those needs.

    • Brad Brevet

      Your last paragraph is spot-on and, to me, a major aspect of what makes the film so fascinating. The major thematic revelation in the film is made by John, whom based on your description (which I agree with) would be the last one we'd expect to make such an enlightening discovery. Interestingly enough, I find it is a learning moment for him as well and could serve as a turning point in his life.

    • Will-E

      Good film. Just thought I'd add to the thought of intimacy. sex, lies, and videotape are all shown as devices used by the characters to distance themselves from their partners. At the end at least Graham and Ann have found the intimacy they so desparately needed.

  • Elijah

    Perhaps because I'm so desensitized by the internet, besides a really solid James Spader performance I'm not a huge fan (7/10). It reminds me of Easy Rider which I wasn't a big fan of, but I can appreciate how both films really made a splash. I prefer something along the lines of "Shame", glad it catapulted Soderbergh into fame at least

  • tombeet

    I agree that majority of audience who watched this film based solely on the title mostly turn off by the film... One of my friend even think it's an 80s film version of American Pie. So the title is kind of misleading in a way (not that it's Soderbergh's fault though)

    Judging characters I think is one of the point of this film. All the characters provided are multilayer, somewhat twisted, but yet fascinating. I never think Graham and Ann would have sex afterward because it's basically against the theme of the film. Like JaneD said the film is more about intimacy, they achieved something more than just physical sex.

    From what I understand from Graham's action, he taped them and get off with the videotape because the videotape is both fake (which I think suggests that he afraid of any real commitment) and at the same time most honest (in the way they speak from their heart everything about their sexual experience). He used them to get off just because he does not know other ways to express his emotional, his feeling towards those "real" feeling. It's his safe way to receive some human emotional from other people without actually have to engage in any real relationship.

    I think it's a great addition for Movie Club. But I'm sad for Cries and Whispers, a film which I REALLY WANT to get people see it. One of the deepest film I've ever seen in just shy 90 min.