With the Sundance Film Festival coming up in the next few weeks, movie news is going to be aflutter with information about new indie darlings, breakthrough filmmakers and actors, and the inevitable tragedies that befall folks who arrive too late at corporate gifting suites. Unfortunately, I won't be attending the festival itself – I have a date with a live commentary in Los Angeles with the cast and crew of Better Off Dead, thank you very much – but with the news cycle already in swing (check out a terrific preview piece here), I started thinking about some of my past favorite Sundance films, those movies that I discovered at least in part because of their promotion there.
Although he seems to exist solely to confound critics and audiences alike these days, Steven Soderbergh was one of the original, prototypical Sundance filmmakers. Sex, Lies and Videotape won the Audience Award in 1989, and the recognition both announced Soderbergh's arrival and boosted the visibility of the festival itself, signaling its relevance over the next two decades as champion of films and filmmakers outside of the mainstream – at least for the time being.
Sex, Lies and Videotape was also recently released on Blu-ray by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, complete with a new high-definition transfer, a commentary track by Soderbergh and Neil LaBute, deleted scenes, trailers and more. The convenience and immediate availability of this set notwithstanding, it seemed like an appropriate time – 20 years after its initial acclaim – to look back and see if Sex, Lies and Videotape still holds its resonance today.
The Facts: Released August 18, 1989, Sex, Lies and Videotape was Steven Soderbergh's feature writing and directing debut. Made at an estimated cost of $1.2 million, the film went on to earn more than $24 million at the box office, and cemented the stardom of lead actress Andie MacDowell, who previously appeared in a small role in St. Elmo's Fire after being re-dubbed by Glenn Close in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. Additionally, it boosted the careers of James Spader, who previously had primarily done supporting work, Peter Gallagher, who graduated from TV to feature films, and Laura San Giacomo, who was next seen as the best friend of Julia Roberts' hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold in Pretty Woman.
In addition to its recognition at Sundance, Soderbergh was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, won the Golden Palm at Cannes, and won Best Director and Best Feature at the Independent Spirit awards. Meanwhile, James Spader won Best Actor at Cannes, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded Andie MacDowell with a Best Actress award, and she and San Giacomo were nominated for Golden Globes.
What Still Works: As a portrait of marital (much less sibling) dysfunction as well as a character study for the emotional climate of so many relationships at the end of the 1980s, sort of the end of an era before "getting in touch with one's feelings" was de rigeur in almost all facets of pop culture, Sex, Lies and Videotape works brilliantly. Although not a lot of background detail is provided for each of the characters outside of their relationships with one another, all of the characterizations are natural and believable, from Spader's impotent, self-analytical "interviewer" to MacDowell's repressed, high-strung housewife.
The grace notes in each performance are what make them so authentic - such as Gallagher's subtle but unmistakable jealousy even of San Giacomo's character, or MacDowell's embarrassed curiosity. In fact, this counts by far as MacDowell's best performance of her career; her building strength as she confronts Spader in the final scenes is devastating and undeniable, creating the palpable emotional intensity that cements each character's catharsis, as well as the film's as a whole.
What Doesn't Work: While I don't think it counts as a shortcoming of the film, its tone is powerfully accurate as a chronicle of late 1980s frigidity beginning to thaw, which some contemporary audiences might not strongly identify with. There's also a sense that the characters are somewhat one-dimensional as the film begins, presumably on purpose, so that once Spader's character gets introduced and his mere presence starts peeling away layers and revealing truths that the other characters don't even realize about themselves, the entire ensemble becomes more complex and interesting.
What's The Verdict: Sex, Lies and Videotape holds up really well, launching past the early scenes that seem more conventionally dramatic towards something really fascinating, insightful and emotionally evocative. Soderbergh obviously went on to make some other really memorable and meaningful films, but as a writing-directing debut, few in the past two decades have been more auspicious, and remain raw, audacious and resonant even today.