Sign up for newsletter >>
Tabloid Wonder

Tabloid Wonder

May December takes aim at Hollywood exploitation and the public’s impulses that enable it.

Julianne Moore doesn’t think she has enough hotdogs. This moment happens just a few minutes into director Todd Haynes’s latest, May December, but has come to define the movie in pop culture since it became a meme right before Christmas. Moore delivers the line while blankly staring into a refrigerator as she prepares for a barbecue at her home on an island just off the coast of Savannah. It’s punctuated by Marcelo Zarvos’s sting-heavy melodramatic score–seemingly ripped from a random Lifetime movie. 

More than any recent trends in our always-online remix culture, the scene’s viral reception indicates how the rise of streaming has lowered our expectations, how we think we are above the Netflix guilty pleasures we reflexively binge. Those who shared the meme feel superior both in their tastes and media savvy. But the joke is on them. This is a Todd Haynes movie, and every detail, from Moore’s Magnolia chic attire to Netflix’s role as the film’s distributor is according to plan.

May December is a movie about the ethics of its casual viewers and the eroding relationship between art and the branding plans of our cookie-cutter influencer culture fueled by its elusive promises of democratic fame. And, with Haynes’s manifesto available in just about every American living room, he’s taking no prisoners.

Loosely based on mid-90s tabloid sensation Mary Kay Letourneau, who went to jail for a relationship with a 12-year-old student in her middle school class, May December sets out to examine the aftermath of sensationalist news stories decades past their sell-by date. Moore plays Gracie, a bored housewife who had her passion reawakened by a 12-year-old middle schooler when she took a part-time job at a mom-and-pop pet store to pass the time.

Like Letourneau, she eventually married her paramour Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) and retreated into a semi-fantasy world as the proprietor of a home bakery when her prison sentence ended and the headlines faded. But her fragile mental state and uneasy recovery disintegrate when B-list actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) comes to the island to research a role as Gracie in the indie film she hopes will garner her the prestige she’s long sought as a TV series second-stringer. 

Since his days as a semiotics major at Brown, Haynes has remained obsessed with deconstructing narrative conventions and visual tropes whether working in the realm of music biopic (the subversive glam rock valentine Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There with its slew of actors playing Bob Dylan), paranoid thriller (the West Virginia Teflon conspiracy tale Dark Waters), or 50s melodrama (the Douglas Sirk riff Far from Heaven and awards darling Carol). Similar to Sirk, he uses derided genres and Neo-Freudian psychology to investigate the values American culture has long repressed. 

Yet, Haynes has now found himself two decades removed from Far from Heaven and its nuanced investigations of race, domesticity, and sexuality. In this third act of his career, he must contend with a culture so under the thumb of rote narcissism that one wonders if repression is now even possible. In such a climate, Haynes has morphed from a more academic version of Scorsese’s cinephile approach to a critic of an America hellbent on devaluing its own cultural output, one that painstakingly strips away the magic of the movies, the sacredness of the album, and the commitment to the novel to better worship at the altar of the algorithm. What results is May December as Trojan Horse, smuggling its devastating critique of private foibles and mass entertainment via a streaming service that has become the 21st century’s key purveyor of the lowest common denominator.  

In Haynes’s take on tabloid fodder, Gracie is not the villain audiences feel liberated to punish for acting out their darkest desires. That role goes to Elizabeth as she exploits real-life traumas to reignite her faltering career. She saunters into Deep South coastal suburbia with the same patronizing sneer as the film industry players who’ve long slummed it in Georgia and Louisiana to take advantage of tax breaks while going on record against the region’s regressive politics. Yet crucially, Haynes does not absolve himself and his stars from culpability. After all, he shot the film on location in Savannah as tabloids tracked Moore and Portman’s every move. 

Like Cannes winner and Best Picture contender Anatomy of a Fall, Haynes’s film interrogates the rise of true crime culture in a post-truth world. However, while its French counterpart picks apart the genre by focusing on intricate court procedures and blurred ethical lines, Haynes is far more interested in taking the viewer to task, openly wondering why such programming has captured the popular imagination. It’s likely the reason May December came up empty at this year’s Oscars, barring a cursory nod for Samy Burch’s screenplay. It’s also likely why the film’s viewership numbers quickly tanked–handily beaten by a half-decade-old Gerard Butler action movie set on a submarine. 

It's a natural tendency in a culture where the elites look down at us to carve out our own spaces to feel above it all. But as May December proves, it’s a harmful delusion that threatens whatever semblance we have left of a common culture, a world that lets the Elizabeths loose as we take in the spectacle just to have something to talk about during the ever-decreasing moments when we are faced with the paralyzing threat of idle conversation.

May December is now streaming on Netflix.