How Todd Haynes' “May December” channeled Mary Kay Letourneau and classic female melodramas

May December, L to R: Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry with Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo.
May December, L to R: Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry with Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo.

Courtesy of Netflix Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in 'May December'

If mid-century master of the women's picture Douglas Sirk (1954's Magnificent Obsession, 1955's All That Heaven Follows) made a movie about sex offender Mary Kay Letourneau, it might look something like May December, the latest from Far From Heaven and Carol director Todd Haynes.

The film, which first hits North American theaters on Nov. 17 before landing on Netflix Dec. 1, follows television actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who's attempting to make an imitation of the life of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) for a film project. Gracie was once a tabloid fixture in the 1990s as a 36-year-old pet shop worker who had a sexual relationship with then-13-year-old 7th grader Joe (played as an adult by Riverdale's Charles Melton). Years later when Elizabeth arrives on their doorstep, she and Joe are living a quiet, if complicated married life with their children, who were born to Gracie in jail. The premise very clearly emulates the real events surrounding the case of Letourneau, who was a Washington school teacher instead of a pet shop worker and whose child lover was in 6th grade instead of 7th — something the film makes comically clear with a quip over Gracie and Joe's kitchen table.

"One of the things that Samy did that was so interesting with this story is set a tabloid portion of it so far in the past," Haynes tells EW, referring to screenwriter Samy Burch. "We have this 20-year gap between when all of this erupted and this family all these years later entrenched in their lives and in a blockade against the hostility and the judgments that they faced. It's through the guise of this actress coming to town who wants to tell the truth. She starts to excavate what really happened, and it creates such a tension and suspense about past and present, and finding the character of Gracie and Joe this many years later."

May December could easily be the salacious stuff of soapy scandal, but in Haynes' hands, it transforms into female melodrama of the highest order. Though that is and has long been Haynes' speciality — so much so that when Burch's script landed on Portman's desk as a potential project for her to direct, she immediately took May December to Haynes instead. "We'd been circling each other over the years about potentially working together, but this script really distinguished itself," Haynes recalls of his connection to Portman. "Everything about it made a strong first impression on me."

It was the filmmaker who suggested his longtime collaborator Julianne Moore for Gracie. "Talking to Natalie about the nuances and the gray areas and the discomfort, the moral ambiguity that the story stirs up in you — and her interest in playing with expectations and projections that people might bring to her playing an actor — she was so fearless and mischievous," Haynes recounts. "I was like, 'Oh my God, this amazing woman is reminding me of somebody else who I adore.'"

The two actresses then had the difficult task of preparing to execute their performances in only 23 days of filming. Moore had to find the distinct aspects of Gracie's vocal cadence (even in her older age, the character notably, and at times uncomfortably slips in and out of a childish lisp) and Portman had to determine the physicality that Elizabeth could begin to subtly appropriate. "It's rare to find a story that features such complicated women at the center in these two age groups," Haynes remarks.

And yet, complicated women and the cost of their transgressions have long fascinated Haynes. He explored these facets in his earliest work, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a short film that uses Barbie dolls to tell the tragic tale of Carpenter's life, while interrogating how fame and familial pressure compounded her deadly eating disorder. It's a piece that has achieved cult status among cinephiles for its limited availability among secret back channels. Haynes continued to probe its themes in everything from the fluid gender dynamics of glam rock in Velvet Goldmine to his direct homage to Sirk in Far From Heaven to the romance and sexual politics of Carol.

However, May December, in its exploration of a morally compromised sexuality, takes Haynes' investigation of the interior lives of women to the next level. He probes not only a relationship that is legally categorized as rape, but also domestic life, the secrets we keep, the lies we tell to get by, and the perpetual struggle to ever truly know someone, including ourselves. "Women in all kinds of settings and in all kinds of different eras will always be a place that I will want to return," Haynes reflects. "Most of them end up being stories that are domestic settings, and some of them might fall into the category of melodrama."

Haynes attests to taking inspiration in his work from classic Hollywood directors who have made women and melodrama their subjects, specifically Sirk. "It's exploring the issues that women have to balance in their lives and the contradictory roles that they're often asked to play as objects of desire, and yet, as mothers and guardians of the family and the institution of marriage," the filmmaker explains. "They have to navigate all of these complicated demands that come out of society. I find that to be the place where so much universal experience resides."

May December, Charles Melton as Joe.
May December, Charles Melton as Joe.

Francois Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix Charles Melton in 'May December'

For his part, Haynes believes Sirk, who made classics like Imitation of Life (1959) and Written on the Wind (1956), would have had a field day with this story and the levels of artifice and societal pressure that feed the narrative. One thing Haynes borrows directly from the filmmaker in May December is his use of mirrors and reflections to comment on character intentions, as well as how they perceive themselves and others. "It was really a process of retelling a story, and what happens to people when a mirror is being held up to them and they're asked to look at themselves in ways that most of us are not inclined to do in our lives, especially when you're in such a defensive crouch against a hostile culture," he notes. "Particularly when the hostility and the questions being raised about the choices made early on in this relationship were valid, pressing questions that a society and the legal system had every right to interrogate."

Haynes points out how he maintains a more observant approach where the camera often occupies the mirror itself and the actors play directly to the lens as if it were their reflection. As a result, he says, "The questions being asked in the film and the shifting allegiances keep being put back into your lap as a viewer."

There's one other key element besides the performances, framing, and use of mirrors that helps reinforce the film's questions of identity, culpability, and melodrama — and that is the score, which is composer Marcelo Zarvos' adaptation and re-orchestration of Michel Legrand's music for Joseph Losey's The Go-Between (1971), itself a drama about a taboo romance. Haynes explains: "This score sits so upfront and ahead of and beyond the ultimate events that unfold in that particular storyline, even more extraneously than they do in May December, where there is a question of criminality and culpability — you hear that music and you think it's going to be a crime drama, there's going to be a murder. The audience is immediately slapped into a state of alert about where the story is leading, and you start to read the details in the frame and in the performances of that film with this acute attention. The music keeps sweetening that and enforcing those questions, but with a mischievous sense that this can be a pleasurable inquisition as we watch it."

The director initially thought of the music while reading the script, and regularly played the Legrand score on set and throughout the editing process. "I thought the film needed to give the audience that kind of invitation," Haynes says of his desire to employ the emotional effect of the score. "We played it in the background of shots, scenes without dialogue. We used it in the cuts, and I shared it with my composer Marcelo from the very beginning, and he was like, 'Oh my God, this is so exciting.' Ultimately, we ended up embracing so many aspects of the original score that Marcelo adapted and added original music to it and then re-orchestrated it."

That process could be a metaphor for May December itself, taking a tabloid scandal and an embrace of Sirkian principles, only to re-orchestrate them with the central performances of Portman and Moore and Haynes' imitable style.

Make sure to check out EW's Fall Movie Preview cover story on The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes — as well as all of our 2023 Fall TV Preview content, releasing through Sept. 29.

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