Search View Archive

Outtakes: On Movies—The Gyllenhaals

There is Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty, Joan and John Cusack, Julia and Eric Roberts (who got his sis into show business in the first place). Now there’s Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal (pronounced Jill-enhall), ages 24 and 21, the newest brother/sister combo to hit town.

Maggie has transformed an against-all-odds masi-sadi relationship into a fey romance (Secretary). Jake has played the "tadpole" with two older women (Lovely and Amazing and The Good Girl.) And he now gets first billing in Moonlight Mile above Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon. Who are these two? Are they any good? Do they have special connections?

Aha! They are in fact Hollywood kids: father a director and producer, mother a screenwriter. Paul Newman gave Jake his first driving lesson.

Jake started earlier in October Sky and then appeared with Maggie in the cult film Donnie Darko. But Maggie’s first big role was Secretary. Director Steven Shainberg felt no "A-List" actress would take it on (i.e., Reese Witherspoon turned it down). Sixty girls were on the "B-List," and Maggie was the first to audition. She was also the last. Shainberg knew immediately she was the one.

Think Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina with a bent for cutting her arms and legs. Think loopy Audrey Tatou in Amelie, who has now just been released from a loony bin.

When Maggie is released, her mother locks away all the knives. Maggie decides to join the world and apply for a job. She interviews with lawyer James Spader who turns out to be something of a sadist. For Maggie, it’s sex at first sight, but Spader is terrified at his arousal and frantically does sublimative push-ups; Maggie knocks herself out to please him in her work, but Spader shies away. After a few weeks, however, he notices the cuts on Maggie’s legs (Maggie has a secret kit hidden from her mother) and calls her into his office. "Miss Lee," he says, "You are to stop cutting yourself." "Yes, Mr. Grey," says Maggie breathlessly. She tells her mother the cabinet can now be unlocked and she rapturously throws her kit into the river. Mr. Grey is very pleased with himself.

Soon he finds himself asking Miss Lee to come into his office, bend over his desk and read a letter she has typed that is deliberately rife with errors. He stands behind her, and as she tentatively reads, at each error he delivers a painful thwack to her ample bottom. Shocked at first, Maggie’s face begins to register the seven stages of bliss. At last, he has taken some action. Throughout it all, they speak and act formally. It’s always "Miss Lee" and "Mr. Grey."

That evening in her bathroom mirror, she examines her red welts and smiles ecstatically. We realize the depth of her commitment, but also that she has won, she is in control. She is happy.

Some days later, she gets another spanking and Mr. Grey masturbates on her back. After the session, Miss Lee rushes to a cubicle in the ladies room where she also masturbates, talking dirty to her boss the whole time. Miss Lee has now been set gloriously free.

Near the end, Spader freaks and breaks it off by firing her, but Maggie will have none of it. After a couple of weeks, she returns to the office and announces "One is here to stay. I love you, Mr. Grey." Mr. Grey goes white, does more push-ups, and orders her to sit at his desk with her hands on it until he allows her to leave. Three days later, after her friends uselessly try to talk some sense into her, she is still intensely anchored. She gets her man, however, and the screwed-up couple live happily ever after, tying each other up.

Spader is only a serviceable sadist, but it doesn’t matter because the risk, daring, and passion is Maggie’s. Through her daft humor, she convinces us that their games are perfectly normal. It’s a bravura performance.

Jake, through more mainstream at the moment, is going to have a harder row to hoe. So far, he shows much less versatility, although he is only 21. He reminds me of Shakespeare’s "moon-calf" with his soft bulbous brown eyes, very long lashes and "sprawling piecrust lips." In The Good Girl he plays Jennifer Aniston’s 8-years-younger, Holden Caulfield-type lover who Jennifer finally realizes is actually quite disturbed. She then tries to get rid of him, even feeding him what she thinks are poisonous blackberries (a hilarious scene). To no effect, but in the end, he shoots himself.

In Lovely and Amazing, he plays tough Catherine Keener’s toy-boy until, one night, his mother calls the police on Catherine. As she is arrested, she says to the mother (who is also 37), "That’s funny. I have a blue bathrobe just like yours." Jake is somewhat incidental, however, as the movie belongs to Catherine and her sisters.

In both of these films, Jake has to negotiate a difficult erotic distance, a sweet, vulnerable teenager who has enough masculinity to appeal to older women who should know better. He does this fairly well, given his characters’ awkwardness and lack of intelligence.

Surprisingly, in sentimental Moonlight Mile, where he plays a very passive role as Dustin’s and Susan’s yearned-for son with little dialogue, he does break into a snappy rap at a dinner party. Dustin’s business rival is trying to link up Jake with his daughter. Jake’s fiancée has recently been randomly murdered at a luncheonette, so he’s available. Asked how he’s coping, he launches into a tirade about having to clean up the glass at the luncheonette, choose the casket and clear out her room. "How do you think I’m doing?" And he gets up and leaves. It’s a sharp scene that could lead to feistier roles. But another passive young man role and he’ll jump the shark, ruining his future career.

The brother and sister started early in Hollywood. Mom and Dad put them in one of their films (A Dangerous Woman, 1993). They grew up in la-la land, must have known many in-people. Both went to Columbia University (like Uma Thurman). Maggie finished, Jake dropped out to act. Maybe now he should finish and let his sister get more spankings.


Galen Williams

GALEN WILLIAMS ran the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in the 1960s.


The Brooklyn Rail


All Issues