Directed by Todd Haynes, May December took inspiration from real-life events that shook American society in the late 1990s. A schoolteacher was caught in the act with her 13-year-old student, but this was not the bizarre part. The bizarre fact was that after they were caught, the teacher told them that she was not a predator but that she was in love with the boy. The teacher didn’t agree that what she was caught doing was not normal and that what she wanted to do was against the law. It was the kind of case where even the legal practitioners, the law enforcement officers, and everybody else who was directly or indirectly connected to it got shocked, as they had never seen anything like that. So, let’s find out what happened in this intriguing case and what kind of viewpoint Todd Haynes holds about the entire incident.
What did Elizabeth get to know about Gracie?
Elizabeth Berry, the famous actress, came to Savannah as she had to shadow Gracie Atherton for her upcoming biographical drama based on the latter’s life. Elizabeth needed inspiration; she wanted to understand who Gracie was in reality, and most of all, she wanted an insight into her relationship with Joe. Elizabeth was not only keen to understand Gracie’s perspective on life, but she also wanted to know what others, people with whom Gracie had been close at one point in time, thought about her. Elizabeth was a learned actor, and she knew a thing or two about peculiar human behavior. She knew how humans had a tendency to harbor delusions, which made it impossible for others to break through that wall and see the real person behind all the show and pretentiousness.
In May December, we saw that gradually, Elizabeth started spending a lot of time in and around Gracie, and she was constantly on the lookout for some little detail hidden somewhere that could give her a better idea of the character that she was about to play in her film. Elizabeth talked to Tom Atherton, Gracie’s ex-husband, and then Colin Henderson, who was the co-owner of Telfair Pets, where Gracie used to work back in the day. Tom told her that he didn’t know how to react when he first learned about the scandal. Gracie was found in the storeroom of the pet store with a 13-year-old named Joe, and it not only had an impact on the lives of the parties involved but also adversely affected the immediate family. Georgie told Elizabeth that at that time, he didn’t fully understand what happened, but he knew that his mother had crossed all moral and ethical boundaries and done something that she shouldn’t have. The most weird thing about the entire scandal was that Gracie now behaved like there was nothing strange about her relationship and that people should not have any sort of problem with her marrying the same guy, whom the court of law believed to have been molested by her. They even normalized random people sending feces wrapped in gift boxes, and Elizabeth felt very strange when she first saw that. When Elizabeth met Gracie’s lawyer, who fought her case back in the day, he described what had happened when he had met her for the first time. He told Elizabeth that Gracie, according to him, was delusional, as she created a narrative in her mind where the world was coming in between her true love.
What happened between Elizabeth and Joe?
There was a point in May December when Gracie explicitly told Joe that she didn’t like how Elizabeth was poking her nose in every aspect of her life. From the very beginning, Elizabeth showed a strong interest in Joe. Her body language, her gestures, and the subtle signals she gave made it feel like she craved to spend some alone time with him. One day, Joe went to drop Elizabeth off at her place, and he came inside to help her with her medical kit, which she used for her breathing problems. There was tension in the air, and both of them knew what was going to happen the moment they stepped inside the house. They got intimate and made love with each other, though both of them did it due to very different intentions and motives. Joe felt that Elizabeth genuinely liked him, and they had a connection. Elizabeth might have liked Joe, but her reason for indulging was that she was ready to go to any extent to get inspiration to play her character in the film. Joe felt violated; he felt that she misled him into believing something that she didn’t actually feel, and he was just an experiment for her, whom she would discard once her film was over.
Did Gracie control Joe?
Elizabeth might have liked Joe, but she indulged with him mainly because she wanted to explore uncharted territory and get inspiration to play her character. But for Joe, that encounter and the conversation he had with Elizabeth changed his perception altogether. Up until then, in May December, he had always vouched for Elizabeth, and he upheld the fact that it was he who went after her and not the other way around. For probably the first time, Joe went and asked Gracie if they should talk about their journey and keep their thoughts on the plate. He asked her if the world was right in believing that he was too young to have kids and to marry someone twice his age, and at that instance, Gracie lost her composure. She started shouting and behaving in an erratic manner, and Joe was not able to have the conversation he intended to. Gracie somewhere did control Joe, and consciously or subconsciously, he did only what she allowed him to. Joe shouldn’t have agreed with her when she victimized herself, as he knew that, logically, it was not possible for a 13-year-old to influence a woman who is double her age. Joe was a subdued guy, and Gracie was well aware of the fact that she could easily have her way if she strongarmed him and was authoritative in her approach. She knew she didn’t know how to retaliate, and she took complete advantage of that fact. It wasn’t like Joe didn’t think about the decision he made in the past, but somewhere, we felt he was scared to bring it up. He feared the reaction he would get from the other end, and that is why he felt that it was better that he repressed his feelings and not talk about them altogether.
Did Elizabeth make Gracie insecure?
Elizabeth’s lawyer was absolutely right in claiming that Gracie was delusional and probably suffering from some serious disorder. Gracie had her ways and means to make a person know what she wanted out of them. On the face of it, she was quite democratic in her approach, but she had her own way of passively saying things. At the beginning of May December, we saw how she told Mary not to buy a certain dress because she didn’t like it. She didn’t say it explicitly; she didn’t scold her, but her passive-aggressive comment was enough for the girl not to buy it. Similarly, she gave Honor a scale on her graduation day because she wanted to body shame her and tell her that she needed to do something about it, but at the same time, she wanted to stay politically correct in her approach.
We saw how Joe also didn’t do anything that he knew could irritate her. Gracie was in a very unstable state of mind, which we got to know when, at the end of May December, we saw her profusely crying as the people for whom she baked the cake were leaving the city, and they told her that though they would pay for what she had made, they wouldn’t be able to take it with them. Elizabeth had come to know earlier that people ordered confectionery items from her regularly so that she kept busy, and her mind didn’t go to places where it shouldn’t. With Elizabeth coming into the picture, Gracie felt that she was displaced from her position of power. She was insecure about her presence, as she was not used to a stranger coming into her life and disrupting the dynamics that she had created. On the face of it, Gracie always maintained the fact that she was the most secure person ever, but everybody knew what was inside her. Another trait of Gracie that gave evidence of the fact was how she held onto her delusions: she always told herself that she was the victim in the entire scenario and that a 12- to 13-year-old boy was not the one to whom everything had happened.
During May December‘s ending, Elizabeth’s preparations for the role finally got over, and she had ample details and inspiration to latch on to during the filming process. Elizabeth really got the hang of the character, and she realized that with every take, she was getting closer to that perfect shot where the line between fiction and reality got blurred.