Gracie Atherton In ‘May December’ Is Based On Real-Life Mary Kay Letourneau

In any form of adaptation of real-life events, even the direct ones, the formation of a barrier between fact and fiction turns out to be the most crucial indicator by which to measure the qualitative aspects of the said adaptation—more so in the case of crime-oriented cases. So often, it happens that for mass appeal, reality is distorted in adaptations, thereby trivializing the impact of a crime on the lives of the people involved. In that regard, May December, a movie adaptation of one of the most sensitive scandals in the United States—the infamous case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a middle-aged woman who seduced one of her minor students and went on to have a family with him—was always going to be the most scrutinized entry. Most importantly, the way Mary Kay as a person became a household ‘topic’ during the late 90s due to the media subverting the image of a sexual offender to an extreme extent, it was really important for the movie to consciously portray her character in an authentic light.

Spoilers Ahead

Director Todd Haynes, whose claim to fame Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story was an adaptation of another real-life controversy, has chosen to make May December an inspired retelling of the Mary Kay story, and in doing so, some deliberate changes have been made in the entire formation. But at the same time, the apt characterization of Gracie Atherton (Mary Kay’s movie version), combined with Julianne Moore’s incredible performance in the role, conveys the truth regarding a criminal mind without providing any easy answer to the obvious questions raised by the movie itself. We will take a look at how the movie version of the character compares to the real-life Mary Kay in order to assess what truly sets May December apart from the litany of lesser adaptations.

How Does Gracie Atherton Compare To The Character Of Mary Kay?

The majority of the information regarding Mary Kay’s life and history, which we are going to compare with the movie adaptation, is derived from the documentary Mary Kay Letourneau: Notes on a Scandal. One of the first differences that we noticed was regarding Mary’s past life. While the movie has only Gracie’s sharing her own account with Elizabeth regarding her protective brother and barely mentioning her parents, in real life, Mary Kay’s relationship with her parents played a key role in determining her psyche. Mary shared a strong bond with her father, Senator John Schmitz, whose public image as ‘Mr. Morality’ was tarnished after his affair with one of his students was exposed in the media. Mary, who saw her father as a role model, was devastated after learning this. Little did she know that she would make a similar mistake, but on an even more perverse scale. Mary had an estranged relationship with her mother, a harsh, disillusioned woman who blamed her for the death of her little brother.

In the movie, it is hinted that Gracie was a sexual abuse victim during her younger days at the hands of her brother, which she herself rebuffs later on while having her last conversation with Elizabeth. In reality, Mary was indeed sexually abused by one of her family members, as she had confided with her best friend Michelle Lobdell years prior to her own scandal. Michelle recalls that Mary’s mother was so disdainful towards her daughter that Mary chose not to share the incident with her out of fear of contempt and censure. The inability to share the emotional burden and the lack of support in the family piled up on Mary, and while this doesn’t directly justify the infamous incident, it signifies that as a broken person who didn’t get the chance to heal, her conscience was shaken.

As for the next part of Mary’s life, her marriage with her first husband and raising a family went through minor alterations in the movie version. In the movie, Gracie’s husband Tom was a fairly supportive husband, while in real life, Mary had a troubling marriage with her husband Dave Letourneau. But the most significant change comes in the form of an alteration in Mary’s vocation, which kind of affects the narrative as a whole as well. Mary was a respected school teacher at Shorewood Elementary, whom a significant number of students regarded with high esteem. Aside from the despicable nature of the act, part of the reason why her sexual encounters with a minor, Vili Fualaau, became the cause of such a widespread scandal is because the boy was a 6th grade student at the same academy. In the guise of project-making and visiting art galleries, Mary entrapped the hormonal young Vili and engaged in sexual activities with him. Her profession as a teacher was the reason the incident shocked the world, as parents were obviously concerned about the safety of their children at the academic institutions. The movie changed the narrative by making Gracie a pet shop employee, who herself had urged the shop owner to hire Joe (the movie’s version of Vili), and the duo being caught in the act in the same shop as well. The reason for this change remains unknown, but surely it somewhat dissipates the gravity of the situation.

In reality, news of Mary’s affair reached her husband, Dave, and there is indication that he raised his hand against her and confronted Vili about their relationship later as well. All this happened before the authorities were informed of Mary’s crime, before she was caught red-handed while getting intimate with Vili. In the movie, however, Tom had no idea about Mary’s heinous crimes until they became public.

Despite the changes, the movie was thoroughly consistent with Mary’s characterization as a manipulative, control freak of a woman who never recognized or acknowledged her pedophilic crime but rather was insistent till the very end that her relationship with Vili was a loving one. In the movie, we find Gracie has convinced Joe about him being the initiator of the sexual interactions, the seducer, and trapped him within an inescapable mental shackle. Mary went out of her way to pretend and project the ‘happy family’ dynamic between her and Vili, and similarly, in the movie, Gracie does everything in her power to justify her crime, assign legitimacy to her relationship, and convince Elizabeth that the Atherton-Yoo household is just like just any other American family. Gracie’s denial and effort to shape the narrative according to the way she wants the world to see it makes her predatory mentality that much more scary, attaining similarity with Mary Kay Letourneau’s corrupted psyche.

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Siddhartha Das
Siddhartha Das
An avid fan and voracious reader of comic book literature, Siddhartha thinks the ideals accentuated in the superhero genre should be taken as lessons in real life also. A sucker for everything horror and different art styles, Siddhartha likes to spend his time reading subjects. He's always eager to learn more about world fauna, history, geography, crime fiction, sports, and cultures. He also wishes to abolish human egocentrism, which can make the world a better place.

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