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Top Ten Reasons “Secretary” Beats “50 Shades of Grey”

You’ve got to give the Fifty Shades of Grey books credit. The erotic trilogy by E.L. James has single-handedly made BDSM mainstream (now everyone knows what a safe word is), been a boon to the sex toy industry (hello, love beads!), and improved the sex lives of many a long-married couple (a chapter a day will keep the couple’s therapist away!). But that doesn’t mean the series is without its faults, or that there aren’t better depictions of BDSM relationships in popular culture—or at the very least, one better depiction. The 2002 indie film Secretary blows Fifty out of the water, if you ask us. Here’s why.

1. E. Edward Grey Was Here First
Grey is also the name of the dominant boss played by James Spader in Secretary. Almost ten years later, E.L. James names her dominant lover Christian Grey. Perhaps it was an homage.

2. It’s An Award Winner
Fifty may be a record breaker (it’s the fastest-selling paperback of all time) and a crazy moneymaker (E.L. James’s net worth is a cool $15 mil), but it’s never going to win any literary awards. Secretary was nominated for a Golden Globe (best actress in a musical or comedy) and three Chlotrudis Awards (best actor, actress and adapted screenplay), among others; and it won an Independent Spirit Award (best first screenplay) and a Gotham Award (breakthrough performance, Maggie Gyllenhaal).

3. More Likeable Protagonist
With every “Oh my” and countless “holy shit” provoked by the whims of her controlling stalker boyfriend, Ana Steele can get a little cloying. Without any magical qualities (like a scent, only detectable to vampires, that makes them swoon), Ana just isn’t convincing as The One to turn a control freak (in and out of the bedroom) into the marrying kind overnight. The flaws of Lee Holloway, on the other hand, are not only believable, but relatable (to a certain extent), and make her a sympathetic character. Plus, it’s really hard not to like Maggie Gyllenhaal.

4. More Believable Love Interest
A 27-year-old gazillionaire with impossible abs (and ne’er a single crunch to be found in all three books), a million employees, a sailing certification and a pilot’s license falls head-over-heels in love with a naive, dorky virgin utterly devoid of charm and can give her her first orgasm ever from nipple play alone? Yeah, right. Much more realistic is the socially awkward, emotionally sensitive Lee and her creepy-seeming and ultimately conflicted love interest—both of whom are pretty normal looking. Plus, this Grey actually does do sit-ups.

5. No Gratuitous Product Placement
Fifty Shades is a marketing agent’s wet dream: Apple, Audi, Blackberry, Converse, Louboutins, Neiman Marcus, Twinings … we could go on (E.L. James sure does). It’s the most shameless thing about the books! (And these brand names aren’t dropped in a knowing, ironic way, a la Bret East Ellis. Nope, just lazy writing. Either that or E.L. James figured that these brand names would be comforting and homely and relatable amidst all those butt plugs and spreader bars.) The only brand we can recall from Secretary is Cosmopolitan magazine, and it’s referenced in a characteristically cheeky way.

6. More Honorable Origins
Secretary was based on a short story by literary power house Mary Gaitskill. Fifty was based on online fan fiction, which was based on the Y.A. Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers.

7. A Sense of Humor
Erotica and romance, almost by definition, have to take themselves extremely seriously. The sex is earnest to keep up the fantasy. As an indie film, Secretary didn’t have those restraints, and therefore could wade into the waters of black comedy. Can you imagine a scene in Fifty where Grey covers his desk in hay and has Ana kneel upon it on all fours with a carrot in her mouth and saddle on her back? Didn’t think so. But that’s the kind of scene that made Secretary awesome—and funny.

8. Better Writing
Actually, there is something kind of funny about Fifty—the writing! The repetition of phrases, the cultural anachronisms, the offensive overuse of adverbs, the misuse of the word “subconscious.” If you didn’t laugh you’d cry, because you’d be so sad about the fact that you couldn’t put down something so poorly written. Secretary on the other hand, won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.

9. BDSM is Freeing
And not the other way around. In Fifty, Grey beats the shit out of women because he had a literal “crack whore” for a mom who didn’t love him enough—it’s an obsession that haunts him and that he feels great shame about. In Secretary, Lee is a troubled self-cutter, but it’s the BDSM relationship that frees her. Production designer Amy Danger said of the story: “With this S&M material, we could go into a dark place… Steve [Shainberg, the director] and I wanted the total opposite: that the nature of this relationship freed [the characters] to be their natural selves.”

10. Secretary Will Turn Out To Be The Better Movie

While we’re confident the Fifty Shades of Grey movies will be better than the books, we’re betting that history will prove Secretary the superior film. If all the money in the world couldn’t make decent movies out of the uber-popular Twilight franchise, what hope is there for Fifty?

Catch Maggie Gyllenhaal on screen again in THE HONORABLE WOMAN which premieres Thu., Jul. 31 10/9c on SundanceTV.!

Take our Two Truths and a Lie quiz to see how well you know Maggie Gyllenhaal’s career.