“Wow! That was definitely not inspired by Downton Abbey, was it?” observes actress-comedian Debi Durst, with a cringe, as the credits for Fifty Shades of Grey roll up the screen of this strangely silent theater in San Francisco. Durst (and yes, her husband is renowned political satirist Will Durst) knew very little about the content of the Shades of Grey movie, or the books by E L James, when she accepted my invitation to see and discuss the movie this President’s Day afternoon. “I know the book has sold a bazillion copies, and that they are not suitable for children,” Durst says. “And I knew that Charlie Hunnam from Sons of Anarchy was originally going to be in it but was replaced with this guy. But that was about all I knew. I had no expectations. Now that I actually do know what Fifty Shades is about, all I can say is … good God! I’m sure at the end of my life I’m going to want those two-and-a-half hours back!”
“I know,” I tell her. “I still feel the same about All Dogs Go to Heaven, and that was only 89 minutes long.”
“Well then,” Durst says with a laugh, rising to escape the theater, “at least the movie was kind of pretty.”
Yes it was. Pretty bad.
The story of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a meek, virginal, lit major drawn into a relationship with a cold-but-handsome billionaire, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan)—and her gradual introduction into his world of kinky behavior—not to mention his whips-and-chains playroom known as the Red Room of Pain—makes for a very strange movie, with its eerie reverse-rom-com sensibility and a chilly sense of distance between the characters, even in mid-coitus, gasping and grunting on the plush sex-bench in the Red Room of Pain. Not that the film’s lack of charm or plot, its epic running length, and the total lack of chemistry between its two leads stopped the film from earning nearly $250 million over its opening weekend alone. With a built-in audience of rabid fans of the books—the trilogy has sold more than 60 million copies—those opening-weekend numbers speak more to the massive public awareness of the film that they suggest any actual quality or longevity.
“I can’t imagine that anyone would want to see this twice,” notes Durst as we walk through the opulent lobby of the theater, where a pair of leather-covered massage machines stand like sentries by the door. At my observation that the Fifty Shades people missed an opportunity to convert such machines into spanking devices, Durst laughs at roughly the same volume with which Anastasia gasps with pleasure the first time Christian paddles her. “They should make them out of red leather,” Durst remarks. “The Red Chair of Pain! I bet they could get a $25 ‘massage.’”
As we exit the theater and head up the street toward a local coffee shop, I inform Durst that the original Fifty Shades was a self-published E-book written as Twilight fan fiction.
“You’re kidding me!” Durst guffaws. “Really?”
Nope, not kidding.
The best-selling trilogy about vampires in love did inspire Fifty Shades—all the former’s bloodsucking and twinkling transformed into the latter’s spanking, bondage and sadomasochistic sex. The last time Hollywood attempted to turn a popular S&M novel into a movie, it was Anne Rice’s 1985 sex-fantasy-island romance Exit to Eden, and the movie adaptation, starring Dana Delany and Paul Mercurio, was clearly made by a studio so nervous about the BDSM (Bondage and Discipline; Dominance and Submission; Sadism and Masochism) goings on that they buried it under added-on comedy routines involving diamond thieves and a pair of bumbling cops played by Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O’Donnell.
It was not a success. People just weren’t prepared for it, it seems. But evidently, the world is finally ready for a big-screen, non-vampire BDSM blockbuster, though not everyone is thrilled about the film’s existence—and I’m not talking about fundamentalist Christians or people working to stop spousal abuse and glorified violence against women.
“I understand,” I inform Durst, “that a lot of people in the BDSM community are not happy about the movie either, because it suggests that Christian Grey is into domination and pain-giving because he’s psychologically screwed up—and that makes realpeople who are into BDSM look bad!”
“Wow!” says Durst, as we take a table, caffeinated beverages in hand. “I don’t even know how to respond to that. Because sadomasochism is a lifestyle, we shouldn’t judge it? Well, OK, I don’t judge it—as a lifestyle. But I do have the right to judge this movie, don’t I? And this movie is a few too many shades of grey for my taste.”
“How many shades of grey are there?” I wonder.
“Only Ansel Adams knew for sure, and he’s dead,” Durst says with a laugh. “He was the master. That guy, with his black and white photography, knew more about grey than the rest of us will ever know. This movie was more like, fifty shades of what?”
“The only way I got through it,” I confess, “was by imagining a young Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks doing these roles back in the ’80s. It was a lot funnier imagining it that way.”
“Yeah! The contract negotiation scene would have been extra fun with them, I think,” Durst says, referring to the movie’s most entertaining scene. Fully clothed, sitting at opposite ends of a boardroom table, Anastasia and Christian go over the contract he’s asked her to sign, negotiating which sexual practices she will agree to and which are off the table.
Anastasia, for example, is OK with rope, but not masking tape, and while she never officially rules out butt plugs, she does draw the line at vaginal clamps.
“And after all of that,” Durst says, “when we finally get to the big S&M scene in the playroom, it comes down to him spanking her six times with a belt. Compared to all the whips and chains hanging on the wall, and all the stuff talked about in the negotiation scene, it was actually sort of tame and disappointing. Kids who went to Catholic school suffered worse on a daily basis.”
“I had a ninth grade English teacher named Mrs. Martin,” I tell Durst, “who, for those who agreed to submit to it, would paddle us with a ruler on our birthday. She’d hit us once for every year we’d been alive, and then we could choose a pencil from this box of cool pencils with funny sayings. Even that looked worse than this.
“The movie was kind of funny, at first,” I add. “It was like this really dark comedy, but by the end, when things get serious, it’s hard to not really hate this guy for needing to inflict pain in order to feel pleasure.”
“Though I could name a few politicians who fit that description,” Durst says with a laugh. “Ultimately, I think all there is to say aboutFifty Shades of Grey, the ultimate movie about pain and pleasure, is that the pain is having to sit through it.
“And the pleasure,” she laughs, “is leaving at the end.”