Sex, Lies, and Videotape

sex, lies, and videotape

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Produced by John Hardy
Robert Newmyer
Written by Steven Soderbergh
Music by Cliff Martinez
Cinematography Walt Lloyd
Edited by Steven Soderbergh
Outlaw Productions
Distributed by Miramax Films
Release dates
  • August 18, 1989 (1989-08-18)
Running time
100 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1.2 million
Box office $24.7 million[2]

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (styled as sex, lies, and videotape) is a 1989 American independent drama film that brought director Steven Soderbergh to prominence. It tells the story of a man who films women discussing their sexuality, and his impact on the relationships of a troubled married couple and the wife's younger sister.

The film won the Palme d'Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival,[3] and was influential in revolutionizing the independent film movement in the early 1990s. In 2006, Sex, Lies, and Videotape was added to the United States Library of Congress' National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


Ann Bishop Mullany lives in Baton Rouge. She is unhappily married to John, a successful lawyer, and has never experienced an orgasm. She is in therapy. Graham Dalton is an old college friend of John. He is now a seeming drifter who, after nine years, returns to live in Baton Rouge. Graham arrives to find Ann, who has no idea that John has invited Graham to stay with them until he finds an apartment. When John arrives home, Graham's demeanor becomes remarkably more guarded, due in large part to John's overt disapproval of Graham's bohemian persona. They also discuss the fact that Graham's college girlfriend, Elizabeth, is also living in Baton Rouge.

John is sleeping with Ann's sister, Cynthia, a free-spirited bartender. He rationalizes it by blaming Ann's frigidity. He frequently leaves his law office mid-day to meet with Cynthia, instructing his secretary to reschedule clients, even when they are already in the lobby waiting to see him. Ann makes an impromptu visit to Graham's apartment, where she notices stacks of camcorder tapes around the television. When pressed, Graham explains that he interviews women about their sexual experiences and fantasies, on videotape. Ann, overcome with shock and confusion, leaves his apartment.

Within a day, Cynthia appears at Graham's apartment and introduces herself. Cynthia presses Graham to explain what "spooked" Ann the preceding day. Graham explains the videotapes, and admits to Cynthia his sexual dysfunction: that he is impotent when in the presence of another person, and that he achieves gratification by watching these videos in private. Graham propositions Cynthia to make a tape, assuring her that no other person is allowed to see the tapes. She believes him, and agrees. Cynthia reports back to Ann, who is horrified. Cynthia also tells John, who also reacts very negatively (though more than a little possessively).

Ann and especially John are both reactionary in their condemnation of Graham, who in one conversation reacts with perhaps the defining line of the film: "I look at you, and John, and Cynthia, and I feel... comparatively healthy". When Ann discovers Cynthia's pearl earring in her bedroom (she knows it belongs to her sister since she had mentioned that she had lost it) while vacuuming, she is furious. She heads over to Graham's apartment with the intention of making a videotape. Graham objects, telling her it is something she would not do in a normal frame of mind. She insists and Graham relents.

Afterward, Ann demands a divorce from John. In the ensuing argument, John gleans that Ann has been to Graham's, and that she made a video. He goes to Graham's house, hits him and locks him out of the house, then watches Ann's tape. In it, Ann says she has never felt any kind of 'satisfaction' from sex. After Graham asks if she ever thinks of having sex with other men, she admits she has thought of Graham. Ann later turns the camera on Graham, who resists but she persists. Graham confesses that he is haunted by Elizabeth, and that his motivation in returning to Baton Rouge is an attempt to achieve some closure. He explains that he was a pathological liar, which destroyed an otherwise rewarding relationship with Elizabeth. He explains that he has since gone to great lengths to keep people at a distance and avoid relationships. Ann starts touching and kissing Graham; Graham turns off the camera; it is implied that the two have sex.

A chastened John joins Graham on the front patio and, with obvious pleasure, confesses to having sex with Elizabeth while she and Graham were a couple. But he also helps Graham see Elizabeth in a more realistic way. "She was no saint. She was good in bed and she could keep a secret. That's all I can say about her." and then leaves. This makes Graham furious and he goes into a rage and destroys all of the tapes, as well as his camera.

In the end, John is summoned to his boss's office, where it’s implied that he is about to be fired due to his frequent cancellations of meetings with important clients to the firm to have sexual trysts with Cynthia. In the next scene, Ann and Cynthia reconcile at the bar Cynthia tends before Ann returns home and joins Graham on the front porch, as they appear to be a couple.



The film was written by Steven Soderbergh in eight days on a yellow legal pad during a cross country trip (although, as Soderbergh points out in his DVD commentary track, he had been thinking about the film for a year).

Soderbergh's commentary also reveals that he had written Andie MacDowell's role with Elizabeth McGovern in mind, but McGovern's agent disliked the script so much that McGovern never even got to read it. Laura San Giacomo, who was represented by the same agency, had to threaten to leave that agency in order to be able to play Cynthia. Soderbergh was reluctant to audition MacDowell but she surprised him, getting the role after two extremely successful auditions. The role of John would have been played by Timothy Daly, but delays in completing the financing for the film led to Peter Gallagher's getting the role instead.

Principal photography took thirty days in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.


Box office

Sex, Lies And Videotape opened in a limited release on August 4 1989 in 4 theaters and grossed $155,982, with an average of $38,995 per theater. The widest release for the film was 534 theaters and it ended up earning $24,741,667 in The United States.[2]

Critical response

Sex, Lies And Videotape was well received in its initial release in 1989 and holds a "certified fresh" rating of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 43 reviews with an average score of 7.9 out of 10. The consensus states "In his feature directorial debut, Steven Soderbergh demonstrates a mastery of his craft well beyond his years, pulling together an outstanding cast and an intelligent script for a nuanced, mature film about neurosis and human sexuality."[4] The film also has a score of 86 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 17 reviews indicating 'universal acclaim'.[5]


At the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, the film won the Palme d'Or and the FIPRESCI Prize, with Spader getting the Best Actor Award.[3] It also won an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Soderbergh was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay. In 2006, Sex, Lies, and Videotape was selected and preserved by the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

American Film Institute


Sex, Lies, and Videotape is important in film history for raising the profile of independent film. In his book Down and Dirty Pictures, Peter Biskind explains that the unprecedented international success of this low-budget film was instrumental in the beginning of the 1990s independent film boom. The film is also important for launching the career of Steven Soderbergh, who became a recognized director of both mainstream and arthouse films, and for launching or boosting the careers of many actors. Prior to this picture, leading lady Andie MacDowell was principally known as a fashion model whose entire performance in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes had been dubbed over by Glenn Close. The film was also significant in that it featured James Spader playing the sympathetic protagonist, as in many of his past films he was best known for playing the role of the villain or the snobby preppie (in particular, Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero).

The film is also notable for being the breakout film for the decade-old Miramax independent film studio. With this film, and My Left Foot (released later in 1989), Miramax became the studio most closely associated with quality independent filmmaking. By the mid-1990s, Miramax had expanded to distribute the films of many notable independent-minded filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Woody Allen.

Home media

The DVD includes a "director's dialogue" between Soderbergh and playwright/director Neil LaBute, recorded in 1998. LaBute's presence leads to conversational tangents unrelated to the film, although most of the tangents are related to the question of what it means to be a director, and are intended, as Soderbergh summarizes at the end, to "demystify" the process of making a film. LaBute's presence prompts Soderbergh to talk about reverse zooms, dolly shots, how actors have varying expectations of their director, the difference between stealing from a film you admire and paying tribute to it, shooting out of sequence, how the role of a director changes as their success (and their budgets) grow, and other filmmaking topics.


Since the film was released and US/Canada, theatrical and TV rights were acquired by Miramax Films before the acquisition by The Walt Disney Company. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, who financed the film through a pre-buy, holds the rights to release it on home media (e.g. DVD or Blu-ray Disc) in the US.

Popular culture references

Hundreds of newspaper headlines, TV trailers, and episode titles, etc. have played on the film's title, usually in the form sex, lies, and something else or something, something and videotape. This phenomenon has taken on a life of its own – far beyond the impact of the film itself.

Other references include:


External links

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