Spoiler alert! The following story contains important details about the ending of “May December” (now streaming on Netflix).
Is it possible to ever truly know someone?
That’s a lingering question at the end of “May Dec,” the bitingly funny and sneakily devastating new film from director Todd Haynes (“Carol”) and first-time screenwriter Samy Burch.
The film follows television star Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) as she travels to Savannah, Georgia, to follow Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), whom she will play in an upcoming film. Decades earlier, when she was in her 30s, Gracie had been convicted of seducing and raping 13-year-old Joe (Charles Melton), whom she later married and started a family. As her grown children prepare to graduate from high school, Joe begins to process her trauma while Elizabeth tries in vain to understand Gracie.
USA TODAY spoke with Portman and Moore about the film’s ending and that searing, non-stop monologue.
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Toward the end of the film, Portman delivers a stunning three-minute monologue directly to the camera, while Elizabeth reads an old love letter Gracie wrote to Joe before their relationship was discovered. In the letter, Gracie admits that “we had crossed a line,” but “now I think I’ve lost track of where the line is.”
After countless hours of studying Gracie’s distinctive lisp and 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 are so many lies and omissions that are not said. So having this moment of acting as truth is a great gift for an actress. Those moments alone are very valuable in this movie because they are very acting people, so you can really feel the character when you are not being watched.”
In the letter, “we finally get information through this lens of Gracie,” Burch says. “She is not naive. She is absolutely aware of the legal implications and has interpreted the complete opposite throughout the film. But also, through Natalie, we see a portal to a very disturbed woman. That’s not a surprise, but it’s still very uncomfortable to watch.”
Portman did eight takes of the scene, all of which were “subtly different but distinct,” Haynes says.
“It was a master class in acting. It was just an extraordinary day,” she remembers. “We filmed this on the second-to-last day of shooting, so he had time to absorb Gracie to that point. It was the scene I read in the script that made me want to do the movie to begin with. And I knew I wanted to film it exactly that way.”
Portman was grateful to save the monologue for the end of the 23-day shoot.
“It was really lucky,” he says. “Todd created ideal circumstances for us to work in, and part of that was filming chronologically. “This way we were able, in real time, to begin to get to know each other and reflect on each other.”
Julianne Moore discusses the film’s ending and unanswered questions
In the film’s penultimate scene, the women have one last meeting at Gracie’s children’s graduation. Feeling satisfied with her preparation, Elizabeth soon begins to doubt herself when Gracie asks, “I wonder if any of this really mattered for your film?” Gracie then reveals the lies her son (Cory Michael Smith) told Elizabeth, meaning she never knew the whole truth.
“For me, the highlight is, ‘Do you understand me? Do you know me?’” Moore says. “I think for actors – and for all of us – you can only get to know another person to a certain extent. That’s the wonderful and frustrating thing about being human. You always want to know more and you’re always trying to get there. But there will always be such a mysterious little piece that belongs to that human being.”
Suddenly insecure, Elizabeth struggles to find something “real” on the set of her movie. Now dressed as Gracie with a blonde wig and pink lipstick, Elizabeth asks to take another take before the screen goes black.
Reading Gracie’s letter, “Elizabeth probably has the best Gracie acting moment we think she’ll ever have. It’s Icarus flying too close to the sun,” Burch says. “When we see her later on set, we know that she will never feel as safe as she does in that moment alone in her room.”
As for Joe, the last time we see him is at his children’s graduation, where he breaks down crying while watching from afar. It’s up to the audience to decide whether he leaves Gracie or not.
“This is a movie that raises questions,” says Moore. “What’s been wonderful is how many people ask, ‘So what do you think is happening?’ Does the family stay together? I can not answer. The movie ends with an inhalation, rather than an exhalation.”
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Charles Melton is an early Oscar favorite and the beating heart of the film.
“Mayo Diciembre” is emerging as an important contender for awards. Portman and Moore (both Oscar winners) are again competing for their respective performances, as is Burch for best original screenplay. Meanwhile, Melton is set to score his first Oscar 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’s “Riverdale.” Haynes was unfamiliar with the series, but was immediately impressed with the audition tape of him.
“It was different from how I imagined Joe on the page,” Haynes says. Compared to other actors who read for the role, “Charles’ performance was more restrained, more preverbal, and more restrained. The look of him was almost a distraction when I saw a photo of him before reading the part. I thought, ‘I don’t think that’s going to work.’ He looks like a model. But he did something so exceptional and understood things about Joe that seemed evident in his audition.”
“It’s wonderful,” Haynes continues. “She has much less experience than Julianne or Natalie. Obviously, she’s up against these extraordinary, powerful artists. But Charles brings sensitivity and a physicality around Joe that is extremely specific. It’s like a lively, fragile performance. His tender little heart beats right in front of you.”