“Have an affair
Act like an adult for once”
Todd Haynes’s May December ends with Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth Berry, a famous but certainly not A-list actress, shooting a terrible scene in what is sure to be a terrible movie. In costume as a woman who became a tabloid fixture when she was caught having sex with a 13-year-old boy, whom she claimed to love and would later marry, Elizabeth lies on a love seat in a pet store’s supply room, suggestively stroking a snake (is there any other way?) and affecting this woman’s pronounced lisp. She stares lustily at her costar—late teens playing early adolescent—and keeps stroking. We see one wooden take, then another, and another. “Please,” Elizabeth begs when the director says he’s ready to move on. She wants to do one more. “It’s getting more real.”
This embarrassing charade is the result of weeks of diligent research and preparation that took Berry to Savannah, Georgia, where she studied the woman in question, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore). Over the course of more time than the small indie production has budgeted for—in her cruelest moment, Elizabeth tells the director that the crew’s wrap gifts will simply have to become coffee mugs instead of sweatshirts—the actress inserts herself into Gracie’s life, appearing in her bedroom vanity like an apparition, driving one of her three teenage children home from school, and eventually fucking her husband, Joe (Charles Melton), the now adult with whom Gracie had sex in the back of that pet store when he was 13 years old. She talks to friends and neighbors, Gracie’s ex-husband, and her son from her first marriage. She plays dead on phone calls with her fiancé; her asthma gets worse.
Loosely based on the story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, May December is both a satire of the true crime and docudrama properties that have come to swallow our entertainment ecosystems and a loving but acidic portrait of an actor at work. But what elevates it above that—what places it within shouting distance of Haynes’s best work—is that the text itself is a rich, layered exploration of the very nuances it is knocking those aforementioned forms for lacking, a piece of criticism and its counterpoint at once. It’s a film about children, arrested development, and our childish appetite for virtuous heroes and mustache-twirling villains—yet it knows “everyone’s complicated” is a morally and creatively bankrupt cop-out.
For as long as there have been actors, actors have been defensive about acting. In the past couple of decades, the male stars who make a show of staying in character during a production—an extreme extrapolation of Stanislavski’s Method acting—have been fairly critiqued as, well, exhausting, and possibly overread as attempting to make difficult and physical a pursuit that is coded as feminine or queer. Maybe those discussions are fair, especially when their processes infringe on those of their costars, or on the general workplace atmosphere. But they elide discussion of the technique itself—what does make great performance possible?
Processes like Elizabeth’s are in some ways just as elaborate and self-serving as anything Brando or De Niro have done but ask different, also fundamental questions about acting. Where Daniel Day-Lewis forces us to consider whether one can convincingly play a dressmaker if he has not spent a year apprenticing under the New York City Ballet’s costumes director, Elizabeth makes us consider other questions: Does knowing the brand of foundation a woman puts on bring us closer to understanding her? How about the whereabouts of her adult siblings? Her techniques for spreading cherries on the bottom of a cake? As a professor once put it to me: Can knowing the history of Denmark make you a better Hamlet?
From here we could branch into the splinter groups of acting theory, but you don’t need to do so to recognize the difference between impersonation and character creation. The latter is of course the creative ideal; the former continues to yield plenty of badly aging Oscar wins. But in the current gold rush on docudramas, simply mimicking the voice and appearance of a celebrity or a figure from the tabloids has plenty of commercial value. The pop of she sounds just like her! is enough to make a trailer stand out in a crowded news cycle—and perhaps enough to convince middling actors, which Elizabeth clearly is, that they’ve accomplished something of significance.
The focus on the superficial, in this case, could simply be because of those limits on Elizabeth’s talent and imagination. She is contrasted again and again with the residents of Savannah who know Gracie, most of whom—save perhaps her defense attorney, whose wife has become a consistent customer of Gracie’s baking business—are presented as not particularly articulate or introspective. But Elizabeth does not meet their shrugs and platitudes with insights of her own, or with probing curiosity, but rather with pop psychobabble and prefab character profiles. Her leading questions suggest a trite conception of dramatic arcs, which is not a crime. But it’s also reflective of the now popular understanding of how various traumas are supposed to shape our adult psychologies. The question-and-answer session she has with Gracie’s daughter’s high school drama class is the perfect lens on this aphoristic thinking. When a student asks how she chooses her roles, Elizabeth says she looks for characters who are “difficult to, on the surface, understand.” But the questions she proposes asking about these characters are not difficult at all: “Were they born, or were they made?” Elizabeth cites, as examples of these complex characters, Medea and Hedda Gabler. But before she can continue her list, a student interrupts: “Tony Soprano?” The identified protagonist who does or has done bad things is basically the lingua franca of American drama this century, a generation of men and women staring in a mirror and asking “Am I a good person?”
The film’s roving point of view is more revealing than most of what its characters say. Grim and comedic moments alike are punctuated by stabs of a score adapted from Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between, which is pointedly over the top; the whole thing is lit like a soap opera. When Gracie and Joe talk about (or around) the volatile or mundane parts of their decades-long relationship, these technical choices draw attention to the fact that, of course, this is what all drama does: heighten reality so that we may see its contours more clearly.
But this identification of ourselves in people who exhibit extreme behavior is a slippery slope that can lead to warped, reactionary ideas about the world. In the wake of The Killer, I’ve been revisiting David Fincher’s 21st-century work. Fincher has been a major influence on the genres May December critiques; despite being a cautionary tale about the kind of obsession that animates true crime investigations, Zodiac is a blueprint of sorts for innumerable television shows and podcasts. Fincher likes to talk in interviews about how people are all, essentially, perverts. But in the same way May December is both a rebuke and a correction, Mindhunter challenges this core idea of Fincher’s. Sure, that show—about the creation of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit—concedes that people have filthier private desires than they would usually cop to in public. But almost nobody is a serial killer. One of the most haunting moments from the show is when the wife of a school principal confronts an agent whose worries that the principal’s habit of tickling children could escalate to assault got him fired. This agent, over the course of the series, begins to see deviancy everywhere he looks. It’s not hard to leap to the way true crime fandom makes people overestimate the danger outside their doors—or the way cases like Mary Kay Letourneau’s are useful to those who would like parents to believe every teacher is out to groom their children.
When Haynes forces the audience to brace itself, to pull back from that projection, that audience is left with genuine discomfort—even horror. We are primed to look for signs of arrested development in Joe, but when he returns home to find Gracie weeping inconsolably in bed over a baking customer who will be canceling future orders because she’s moving away to care for her sick sister, the movie calls into question any conclusion Gracie has previously offered about her life, or Joe’s. Moore is astonishing in this scene; it could easily tip into outright comedy, but instead ripples with indignation. She’s magnetic, she’s terrifying. She’s a child.
Far gentler, but just as unsettling, is the aftermath of Elizabeth’s tryst with Joe. After they sleep together, when Elizabeth is encouraging Joe to consider leaving Gracie—not to be with her, but because, as she says, his only responsibility is to himself—he says, while hastily redressing, “I thought you actually liked me, and that we had a connection.” When Elizabeth replies, unconvincingly, that she does like him, Joe asks her why she bothered seducing him. “This is just what grown-ups do,” she says. The implication—that he isn’t one—is chilling. And the notion that adulthood is defined by alternating fits of repression and impulsivity is a grim one. But Elizabeth, who sounds as bored when talking around her affair with her married director as she does when talking to her fiancé, isn’t wrong.
Limited as they are by their two-dimensional conceptions of human behavior, the complications characters offer are not in fact complications, but mere reversals. When Georgie, Gracie’s son from her first marriage, claims to Elizabeth that he read in his mother’s diary an account of her being molested by her older brothers, the revelation is deployed like a twist, perpetrator to victim—a twist underlined by the tour that takes place in the background of the scene: people gawking at the sites of lynchings. Haynes makes plain, again and again, that provocative questions are pulling this web of relationships tauter and tauter. If Gracie is a victim of sexual abuse, is her relationship with Joe simply a continuation of that cycle—or are she and Joe somehow, developmentally, peers? Why do we reflexively feel different about adolescent girls and boys in that scenario? Everyone in Savannah treats Georgie like a leper who might infect anyone who gives him more than a polite nod and a gig singing covers in a shitty restaurant. But his assessment of his mother (“She’s messed up in the head”) is in fact less reductive than the convoluted ones Elizabeth is hoping to apply. In the same conversation, Georgie asks the most sneering, sinister question of the entire movie: “Did you crack the case?”
Beyond the questions about sex and consent, storytelling versus exploitation, and understanding versus imitation, the striking thing about May December is that no one seems to be having a particularly good time. Elizabeth does not seem to enjoy her relationship with her fiancé or her dalliance with the director; even the sex with Joe provides little in the way of illicit thrill. Joe and Gracie strain to smile at Elizabeth as Gracie polices their children’s weight, urging a son to bulk up and daughter to slim down. Joe’s attempts at sparking an affair with a Facebook friend seem to cause him nothing but anxiety. In fact, the only characters who seem to have any sense of self-worth are their children, the products of this whole sordid mess. And in that way, May December, in addition to diagnosing the rotten core of our era’s most popular entertainment, becomes a tragedy about aging—about drifting further and further from yourself, until you are yet another subject to study, scrutinize, and completely misunderstand.
Paul Thompson is the senior editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.