How Netflix’s ‘May December’ Mirrors the Mary Kay Letourneau Tabloid Sex Scandal

How Netflix’s ‘May December’ Mirrors the Mary Kay Letourneau Tabloid Sex Scandal

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In Todd Haynes’ Netflix drama “May December,” the subject of a decades-old tabloid sex scandal is visited by a famous actress set to portray her in a film.

Julianne Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, who was 36 years old when she was caught having sex with Joe, a 13-year-old boy who worked with her at a pet store. After having his first child from behind bars, Gracie began her life with Joe (Charles Melton), who is now the same age Gracie was when they first met. Gracie and Joe have three children together, the youngest of them about to graduate high school, and are settling into quiet suburban life when Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives at their waterfront home to study her subject and stir things up.

If the story feels ripped from the headlines, that’s because the film is loosely inspired by the Mary Kay Letourneau tabloid scandal of the late-1990s. Letourneau was a 34-year-old Elementary school teacher who initiated a sexual relationship with her 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau. After a nine-month affair with Fualaau, Letournau was arrested and pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree child rape. She gave birth to Fualaau’s first child in 1997, while awaiting sentencing, and they had a second child together in 1998, while Letourneau served a 7.5-year jail sentence. Letournau married Fualaau in 2005, when the latter was 21. The two remained married until 2019, and Letourneau died one year later at age 58 from cancer.

The scandal prompted a TV movie that aired in 2000 on the USA Network, starring Penelope Ann Miller as Letourneau and Omar Anguiano as Fualaau. Letourneau cooperated with the producers on the film and even spoke with Miller over the phone to provide insight into the role.

In directing “May December,” Haynes said he initially tried to ignore the similarities between the film and the real-life Letourneau scandal.

“I really started by pushing that to the side and just being like, OK, let’s bear down on the specific choices and the distinctions that Samy Burch’s script makes from the Mary Kay Letourneau story,” Haynes said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “But there was no way ultimately to not.”

While Haynes holds that Letourneau “was quite a different character than Gracie,” he added, “there were things that were really helpful about the specificity of Mary Kay Letourneau.” One example is their voices, as Gracie has a noticeable lisp that fluctuates throughout the film.

“Mary Kay Letourneau has this fascinating sort of lazy tongue,” Haynes said. “That’s the source of the lisp.”

In the film, Gracie is described as “unapologetic” and constantly reminds Elizabeth that she is “secure” in her life choices. Letourneau put on a similar facade, saying in a 2018 A&E Network biography special, “Am I sorry he’s the father of my children, and that we’re married and this is the man of my life? No, I’m not.”

Another aspect of “May December” that mirrors the life of Letourneau is the dynamic between the women’s older and younger children. In “May December,” Gracie has three children with Joe, plus more with her ex-husband, Tom (D.W Moffett). Her older and younger children, who have an awkward encounter at a restaurant, are nearly 20 years apart. Letourneau similarly had four kids with her first husband, Steve Letourneau, and then two more with Fualaau. Her youngest child was born in 1998, and her oldest grandchild was born in 2010.

In the 2018 special, Letournau said, “My oldest children, they’ve come to know Vili, and they’ve always known me. They’re grown-ups, and they have independent lives, but in the first years they wanted to be together.”

“May December” is streaming now on Netflix.

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