A man and woman — white, in their late-twenties — circle each other in the woman’s apartment. Her name is Cynthia; she and the man, John, are having an affair. “They’re just tapes he makes so he can sit around and get off,” she tells John. Cynthia is talking about Graham, John’s estranged friend from college, who just recently blew into town and whose taboo personal project — videotaping women as they confess to him their sexual experiences and fantasies — is beginning to throw their tryst, as well as John’s suspicious wife Ann, into disarray (and later, disrepair). “And he doesn’t have sex with any of them? They just talk?” asks John. “They just sit around and talk.” Cynthia is not bothered by any of this; she has just made a tape with Graham.
The American independent film Sex, Lies, and Videotape — released in 1989, written and directed by Steven Soderbergh — reveals the nuances of and deceptions inherent to intimacy and the social performance of gender and sexuality in the Western-heterosexual relationship. The film’s Graham character (played by James Spader) is enigmatic, equanimous, and sensual without effort. This character is comparable to, though not an exact imitation of, Horner, the self-confident sexual champion of William Wycherley’s 1675 play The Country Wife. It is this likeness that opens Sex, Lies, and Videotape to further interpretation — its sexual, romantic, and social interactions bearing resemblance to and offering a novel rendering of Wycherley’s influential comedy. It is then necessary to define each character inside of the film by their Country Wife counterparts: Ann (Andie MacDowell) is Margery, Pinchwife’s beautiful but sedate wife who carries a torch for Horner; John (Peter Gallagher) is both Pinchwife and Sparkish, acting as both at different moments throughout the film despite their apparent dissimilarities and the characters acting as foils of one another; Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) is Alithea, Sparkish’s awakened, clever wife and Pinchwife’s sister. In drawing these character comparisons, viewing Sex, Lies, and Videotape as an interpretation of The Country Wife is not only more possible, it allows for the film to transcend the themes and characters of the original text, expanding on and changing the weight of certain characters, their interactions with others and with their subject: sex, primarily.
As Alice Templeton writes in their 1998 article “The Confessing Animal in Sex, Lies, and Videotape” for the Journal of Film and Video, “Like most comedy, Sex, Lies, and Videotape progresses toward the final re-pairing of couples and the revelation of secrets that have held the characters in destructive stasis. Also like most comedy, the film is structurally overdetermined. The center around which the characters, discourse, and the action revolve is sex” (Templeton 16). It is with this core thematic focus on sex that its very action and social performance functions to define both its characters as well as the culture they exist in. In Sex, Lies, and Videotape, this culture is capitalist-industrial, heteronormative, and morally depraved; in The Country Wife, this culture is rural, heteronormative, and morally depraved. This socio-economic shift in the cultures that situate this story is epitomized by the significance of the videotape in the film, and its role is initiating confessory, intimate situations between voyeur and performer — man and woman; during the film’s historical moment, the late-1980s, filmic technology was reaching unprecedented and fast-growing levels of autonomy: the videotapes that Graham makes are completely of his own government and in theory (his character keeps these tapes for personal use), distribution. It is within this technological advance that the film is able to weave such a complex web of character relationships, the videotapes themselves functioning as the film’s theatrical device, in a way that an audience watching The Country Wife being performed on stage might view its characters interacting with one another through employment of dramatic irony.
“A fool cannot contrive to make her husband a cuckold,” Pinchwife explains to Horner. “No, but she’ll club with a man that can; and what is worse, if she cannot make her husband a cuckold, she’ll make him jealous, and pass for one, and then ‘tis all one” (Wycherley I.i.ll.377-380). In his response to Pinchwife’s insecure — and using modern terminology, what might be referred to as chauvinistic — understanding of marital fidelity, Horner makes a critical observation about the nature of cuckolding, with an emphasis on the role of the woman who is assumed to remain passive in this homosocial exchange. Power, for the woman in this kind of sexual transaction, is elusive at best, but their presence in the matter of cuckolding is one that is not fleshed out so much as it is mentioned — such as here, and by Horner no less — in The Country Wife. In Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the role of a woman as the cuckold is explored, thus expanding the character and narrative dimension of the original text, while maintaining its core thematic framework.
Cynthia, a stand-in for the Alithea character, is the film’s answer to The Country Wife’s proposition of a woman’s role in a cuckolded relationship; stripping from Alithea what is established of her character and her relations to others in The Country Wife — Pinchwife’s sister, Pinchwife’s fiancée, and the object of Harcourt’s affection — Cynthia as Alithea is headstrong, confident, and sex-positive. Cynthia is also the one doing the cuckolding; the cuckold in this situation, then, is her sister Ann. As she is sleeping with John, her sister’s husband, Cynthia is committing an act that is less homosocial than it is socially competitive; her main objective in seeking sex with John, aside from physical satisfaction, is to have one up on her sister: “I wish I could just come right out and tell everyone Ann’s a lousy lay. The beautiful, the popular Ann Bishop Mullaney.” So, with Ann as the cuckold and Cynthia as the one doing the cuckolding, the gendered aspects of sexual transactions are changed from a male-dominated sport, to a female-centric competition. That Ann is the one who becomes crushed in this transaction speaks to how, for women in a cuckolded relationship, a sense of power is still as determined by the sexual exploits of the man and their female partner (as this film does take a heteronormative view of sex and marriage). This dimension of the film its Alithea/Cynthia character gives credence to this exchange from The Country Wife: “Is it for your honour or mine, to suffer a man to make love to me, who am to marry you tomorrow?” asks Alithea, to which Sparkish responds, “Is it for your honour or mine, to have me jealous? That he makes love to you is a sign you are handsome; and that I am not jealous is a sign you are virtuous. That, I think, is for your honour” (Wycherley III.i.ll.192-197). Alithea is aware of how men interact with her sexually, yet through her character counterpart in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, how she stays in circulation is revealed as both satisfactory for her, but destructive for other women (Ann) in her life. It is then the Sparkish character’s apparent lack of jealousy, his desire to keep his intimate partner in circulation, that brings the John character as both Sparkish and Pinchwife into the conversation.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes in their seminal 1985 book Between Men, “Sparkish and Pinchwife are the characters in the play who embody most clearly the cautionary comedy of those who misunderstand the rules of symbolic circulation. They are complimentary characters: each has the page from the rule-book that the other one is missing, and each thinks that his page is the whole rule-book” (Sedgwick 51). John in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, is the dual expression of both, and in their failure to communicate with or understand where the “other man” is misunderstanding the social/intimate/gendered aspects of sex, is made an example of: one simply cannot have their cake and eat it too. In an establishing shot of John in his office, we hear him talking on the phone to an off-screen male friend: “As soon as you get a ring on your finger, you start getting spectacular attention from the opposite gender [. . .] it never happened before I got married. If I’d known, I’d have bought a ring when I was 18 and saved myself a lot of time and money.” This is John’s Sparkish persona: his insistence on and delight in remaining in circulation, sex outside of marriage, is a defining Sparkish characteristic, even as this means his wife is in circulation, too. Of course, in the film, his wife Ann is strictly not in circulation (until she is, with Graham at the bottom of the film); that Ann is representative of Margery and not Alithea, Sparkish’s fiancée in The Country Wife, means that when John is leaning into his Sparkish sensibilities, he is not interested in Ann: he is interested in Cynthia. In contrast with his Sparkish persona, when John is exhibiting his Pinchwife characteristics — jealous and overly-protective — he is doing so for both Cynthia and Ann, only at different moments throughout the film. Early in the film when John and Cynthia are intimately involved, John tells her: “I wish you’d quit that bartending job of yours.” When asked why, he responds, “I hate the thought of all those guys hitting on you” (not one for a lack of agency or truth-telling, Cynthia retorts: “The money is good and some of the guys are cute. And you are in no position to be jealous”). In tandem, when John does express concern — in the form of jealousy — for Ann, it is only when male interest is being shown in her; that is, when he learns that she has made a tape with Graham, as John perceives the videotapes as cuckoldry. Knowing that he has lost power over Ann because she has been intimate with another man, John-as-Pinchwife sees to insulting, humiliating, or otherwise emotionally destroying Graham-as-Horner: “You know I never told you this because I knew it’d crush you. But now…I fucked Elizabeth. Before you broke up, before you were having trouble even. She’s no saint. She was good in bed. She could keep a secret. That’s about all I can say about her.” In this response — weaponizing his sexual relationship with Graham’s off-screen ex-girlfriend — and in John’s characterizations of both Sparkish and Pinchwife who aspire to Horner’s cuckolding eminence, the homosocial aspect of The Country Wife is maintained; however, it is ultimately Graham’s reaction to John’s attempt at cuckolding him that sees the entire foundation of sex-as-transaction that The Country Wife puts forth uprooted and transcended.
Though at first reluctant to his stay at her comfortable but hostile home with John, Ann begins to warms up to Graham, enough so that she asks him to confess to her something deeply personal; “I’m impotent” he tells her. Sensing her disbelief, he explains further: “Yeah. I mean, like, well, I can’t…I can’t get an erection in the presence of another person. So, for all practical purposes I’m impotent.” This conversation near the beginning of the film reveals a first key attribute that narratively connects Graham to Horner; Graham, like Horner, is openly impotent. Only, Graham is not lying. The Country Wife too opens with a conversation about impotency; Horner recruits a quack doctor, Quack, to circulate the news of his impotence among the townsfolk as a means for him to pursue married women without their husbands suspecting any sexual involvement: “Dear Master Doctor, let vain rogues be contented only to be thought abler man than they are, generally ‘tis all the pleasure they have; but mine lies another way” (Wycherley I.i.ll.31-33). Horner’s deceit, or his deceitful intentions, are in direct contrast to Graham’s sincere vulnerability; this difference, however, must be considered within the context of Graham’s past as a “pathological liar,” which he reveals to Ann later in the film. Though Graham and Horner share in their tendencies to lie to others, it is clear that Horner does so for personal gain and satisfaction, while Graham does so out of social weakness: “Lying is like alcoholism, you’re continually recovering,” he tells Ann.
A difference in intention and action, but a shared aptitude for manipulation define the likeness of Graham and Horner throughout Sex, Lies, and Videotape; insodoing, Templeton asserts: “Although [Graham] claims to comprehend the interweaving of power, lies, and confession, he does not recognize the operations of power at work in his own truth telling or in his witnessing the confessions of the women he tapes [. . .] Rather than solving their ethical and sexual problems, the promise of liberation moves both characters into a more complicated kind of freedom charged with moral and erotic meaning” (Templeton 18). Graham’s videotapes, then, are a form of manipulation, though his understanding of the extent to which these tapes might function as blackmail, pornography, etc. is not clear; Horner, given his prowess for sexual conquest regardless of consequences for others (telling Harcourt and Sparkish: “No, a foolish rival and a jealous husband assist their rival’s designs; for they are sure to make their women hate them, which is the first step to their love for another man”) might have had that foresight (Wycherley III.ii.ll.49-51). In his stead, Graham maintains the facade of coolness while still being a deeply insecure, still-evolving person at his core. This is where a deviation from, and expansion of the original text is necessary, given the historical moment of Sex, Lies, and Videotape: the advent of new technology threatening to make human interaction — sex and intimacy — more forced, scarce, or otherwise inauthentic, Graham’s use of the videotapes poses as a threat to Horner’s initial power-structure of cuckoldry and lying for sexual/homosocial gratification. Graham, even as he shows his struggle with being a pathological liar, is completely sincere in his use of the videotapes.
“I look around me in this town and I see John and Cynthia and you, and I feel comparatively healthy.” This is what Graham tells Ann, as she flips the camera on him, and where he is forced to reveal the interiors of his seemingly precious process of recording women for his own sexual gratification. When Ann responds, telling him he has a problem, Graham concedes: “You’re right. I’ve got a lot of problems. But they belong to me.” To this, Ann unravels his entire self-preserving philosophy: “You think they’re yours, but they’re not. Everybody that walks in that door becomes a part of your problem. Anybody that comes in contact with you. I didn’t want to be part of your problem but I am. I’m leaving my husband, and maybe I would have anyway, but the fact is that I’m doing it now. And part of it’s because of you.” The nature of transactional sex, cuckoldry, or videotapes-as-cuckoldry is dismantled here, as the emotional aspect of sex — not jealousy, but genuine affection — is brought to Graham’s attention. It is also in this scene where gender — Ann (the woman) becomes the voyeur, Graham (the man) becomes the performer — plays into the circulation of information, understanding, and connection. It is when, finally, Graham understands what it feels like to be perceived sexually that he begins to understand his subject, and in turn, the women who he has made a personal project out of filming. As a final act of separation from cuckoldry, lying, voyeurism, and, in effect, the Horner character, Graham destroys his videotapes.
In their analysis of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Templeton maintains: “Soderbergh’s accomplishment lies in his ability to elicit these contradictory extra-filmic contexts: eroticism gives free play even as the film treats sexuality more as a discursive subject than as a visual motif, and the viewer’s moral judgment of Graham is suspended even as the film makes him the representative case in its moral commentary” (Templeton 18). Though not a direct or official adaptation, Sex, Lies, and Videotape appropriates the comedic conventions of The Country Wife in order to examine and transform its treatment of sex, gender, performance, and jealousy in its own temporal and cultural-specific context, resulting in a film that is only a comedy in structure, and a postmodern drama on the whole: transcending the narrative and thematic content of its predecessor with a deep, unsettling sincerity.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Columbia University Press, 1985.
Templeton, Alice. “The Confessing Animal in Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” Journal of Film and Video 50, no. 2, 1998, pp. 15-25.
Wycherley, William. The Country Wife. Methuen Drama, 2014.