Spoiler alert! The following story contains important details about the ending of “May December” (now streaming on Netflix).
Is it possible to really know someone?
That’s a lingering question at the end of “May December,” the bitterly funny and devastating new film from director Todd Haynes (Carol) and first-time screenwriter Sammy Burch.
The film follows TV star Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) as she travels to Savannah, Georgia, to accompany Gracie Atherton Yeo (Julianne Moore), who is set to play her in an upcoming film. Decades earlier, when she was in her 30s, Gracie was convicted of seducing and raping 13-year-old Joe (Charles Melton), whom she later married and raised a family with. As their now adult children prepare to graduate from high school, Joe begins to process his trauma while Elizabeth tries in vain to understand Gracie.
USA TODAY spoke to Portman and Moore about the film’s ending and the moving, moving monologue.
“May December”: Julianne Moore directed Mary Kay Letourneau for the Netflix film
Natalie Portman says her May monologue was a ‘gift’
At the end of the film, Portman delivers a stunning three-minute monologue directly to the camera, while Elizabeth reads an old love letter that Gracie wrote to Joe before discovering their affair. In the letter, Gracie admits that we “went too far,” but “now, I think I’ve lost track of where the line lies.”
After countless hours studying Gracie’s lisp and distinctive mannerisms, this is the first time Elizabeth has fully embodied her subject. She cries as she recites the letter alone in her room, throwing her head back in ecstasy and relief when she finally reaches the end.
“It’s extraordinary writing,” Portman says. “There’s a lot of lying and omissions of what they don’t say to each other. So, for that performance moment to become real, that’s a gift for the actress. Those moments alone are so precious in this movie because they’re performative people, so you really feel for the character when they’re not being watched.”
In the letter, “we finally get some information through this Gracie lens,” Burch says. She’s not naive. She is fully aware of the legal implications, and plays a completely opposite role throughout the film. But also, through Natalie, we see a portal into a deeply disturbed woman. “This is not a surprise, but it is still very uncomfortable to look at.”
Portman shot eight takes of the scene, all of which were “subtly different but distinct,” says Hines.
“It was a master class in acting. It was a great day,” he recalls. “We shot this on the second-to-last day of filming, so there was time for her to absorb Gracie to that degree. It was the scene I read in the script that made me want to start the movie. And I knew I wanted to film it exactly that way.
Portman was grateful to have the monologue saved at the end of the 23-day shoot.
“She was really lucky,” she says. “Todd created such perfect conditions for us to work, and part of that was shooting chronologically. We were able, in real time, to start getting to know each other and think about each other in that way.
Julianne Moore discovers the film’s ending, and the unanswered questions
In the film’s penultimate scene, the women have a final showdown at the Gracie children’s graduation party. Satisfied with her preparation, Elizabeth soon began to second-guess herself when Gracie asked, “I wonder if any of this is really going to be important for your movie.” Gracie then reveals the lies her son (Corey Michael Smith) told Elizabeth, meaning she never got the full truth.
“For me, the biggest point is: ‘Do you understand me? Do you know me?'” Moore says. “I think for actors — and for all of us — you can only get so close to knowing someone else. That’s what’s so wonderful and so frustrating about being human. Always wanting to know more, always trying to get there. But there will always be a very mysterious little piece that only belongs to that human.
Suddenly feeling insecure, Elizabeth strives to find something “real” on the set of her film. Now that she’s finished playing Gracie in a blonde wig and pink lipstick, Elizabeth asks for one more take before the screen fades to black.
Reading Gracie’s letter, Burch says, “Elizabeth probably has her best moment playing Gracie, which we think she’ll ever do. It’s Icarus flying too close to the sun.” “When we see her later on set, we know she will never feel as confident as she did in that moment alone in her room.”
As for Joe, the last time we see him is at his children’s graduation party, where he breaks down in tears as he watches from afar. It is up to the audience to decide whether to leave Gracie or not.
“This movie raises questions,” Moore says. “The great thing is that a lot of people ask: ‘So what do you think will happen? Does the family stay together?’ I can’t answer. And the film ends on an inhale rather than an exhale.
Film making: Julianne Moore directs Mary Kay Letourneau for new Netflix movie ‘May December’
Charles Melton is one of the early Oscar nominees and the beating heart of the film
May December is shaping up to be a major awards contender. Portman and Moore (both Oscar winners) are back in contention for their performances, as is Burch for Best Original Screenplay. Meanwhile, Melton is poised to score his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, having won at both the Gotham Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards last week.
Melton, 32, is best known for his role as Reggie Mantle on the CW series Riverdale. Hines was unfamiliar with the series but was immediately impressed by his audition tape.
“It was different from what Jo had imagined on the page,” says Hines. Compared to other actors who read for the role, Charles’ interpretation was more subdued, more verbal, and more reserved. His gaze was almost distracted when I saw a picture of him before he read the part. I said: I don’t think this will work. He looks like a model. But he did something very extraordinary and understood things about Joe that became clear in the test he took.
“He’s a marvel,” Haynes continues. “He has a lot less experience than Julian or Natalie. He’s obviously up against these outstanding, powerful artists. But Charles brings a sensitivity and a physicality to Joe, that’s very specific. It’s like a live, fragile performance. His delicate little heart is beating right in front of you.”
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