May December Drew Inspiration from a Shocking True Story

Todd Haynes’ May December has arrived on Netflix, having already received rave reviews on the film festival circuit. The movie, which stars Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, is an examination of a scandalous relationship between an older woman and a much younger man, and the shocking story may seem familiar to many viewers.

Gracie (Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) have been together for two decades, having survived a very public tabloid scandal at the start of their relationship. Elizabeth (Portman), a successful actor, is set to play Gracie in a film version of her life, and arrives to spend time with the family ahead of filming. However, Elizabeth’s presence illuminates fractures in Gracie and Joe’s relationship, and reveals tensions in their family dynamic.

Here’s what you need to know about May December’s inspirations, the true story that influenced the script, and how the actors developed their characters.

Is May December based on a true story?

Although May December is a fictional story, viewers will find parallels between the film and a famous real life story. In February 1997, it was revealed that school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau had been having a sexual relationship with her 13-year-old student Vili Fualaau since June 1996, via Biography. Letourneau would later reveal how the relationship first started, when Fualaau was just 12-years-old, saying in an interview with 20/20, “The incident was a late night, and it didn’t stop with a kiss … And I thought that it would, and it didn’t.”

It was Letourneau’s husband Steve who discovered that his wife was sleeping with a teenager, and the authorities were soon alerted, per Biography. At the time, Letourneau was pregnant with Fualaau’s baby, and she was arrested on March 4, 1997, as reported by People. Letourneau gave birth to the couple’s first child, daughter Audrey, on May 29, 1997, per Page Six. She plead guilty to felony second-degree rape of a child, via People, and received a six month sentence, with three months suspended, and was forbidden to have any contact with Fualaau.

Julianne Moore and Charles Melton in May December.

Netflix

After being released in January 1998, Letourneau was arrested a month later when she was found having sex with Fualaau in a car, via Page Six. She was sentenced to a further seven and a half years in prison, where Letourneau and Fualaau’s second child, daughter Georgia, was born on October 16, 1998, per The New York Times. When Letourneau was released in 2004, Fualaau was 21-years-old, and the couple tied the knot on May 20 of that year, Page Six reported.

In April 2015, Fualaau and Letourneau spoke to Barbara Walters about their relationship during an interview on 20/20, via People. “There is a story of us that has a life of its own, but it’s not our story,” Letourneau said. However, Fualaau also revealed that he wouldn’t support either of his daughters starting a relationship like the one he had with their mother. “I don’t support younger kids being married or having a relationship with someone older,” he told Walters. “I don’t support it.”

In May 2017, it was revealed that Fualaau had filed for legal separation from Letourneau, via Biography. They officially split in 2019 after trying to make their relationship work, per People. In July 2020, Letourneau died from cancer; she remained a registered sex offender until her death.

How did Letourneau and Fualaau’s story influence the filmmakers?

May December follows Elizabeth (Portman), an actor set to play Gracie (Moore) in an independent movie. Gracie and Joe’s relationship begins while they are working together at a pet store, rather than at school. Much like Letourneau and Fualaau’s real life story, the couple stoke a tabloid scandal, but go on to marry and raise children together. However, the nature of their relationship is met with outrage from the community.

While May December shares some overlap with Fualaau and Letourneau’s story, it also sets itself apart as a film about a complex and complicated relationship. Notably, May December delves into Joe’s psyche, with the character considering whether the relationship was ever really fair as he was just a child when it started. His confusion leads him to flirt with strangers and become involved with visiting actor Elizabeth. Meanwhile, Gracie seems to spiral, and it’s unclear whether she’s in control of her own narrative, or totally in denial. The film, too, is firmly focused on the world’s obsession with recreating real life and true crime stories, regardless of the affect it might have on the real people involved.

may december, l to r julianne moore as gracie atherton yoo with natalie portman as elizabeth berry cr fran ois duhamel courtesy of netflix

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in May December.

Netflix

During an interview with the Daily Beast, director Todd Haynes addressed the ways in which May December drew inspiration from Mary Kay Letourneau’s real life story, and how he tried to differentiate the film from tabloid gossip. “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,” he explained. “But there was no way ultimately to not [be influenced by it].”

Screenwriter Samy Burch has also spoken about how Letourneau’s story influenced the screenplay for May December. “I really wanted a fictional story that dealt with this tabloid culture of the ’90s that has kind of seemingly led into this true-crime biopic world we’re in now, and kind of question that transition and why we want to keep recreating these stories,” Burch said during a press conference, via People.

According to director Haynes, actor Julianne Moore was directly inspired by Mary Kay Letourneau while portraying the character of Gracie in the movie, which is why she incorporated a lisp into her speech. During a press conference, via People, Haynes explained, “To be honest, there were things in kind of a loose upper palate that we did find interesting in Mary Kay Letourneau’s speech that was a kick-off for her. And she took it further.”

Headshot of Amy Mackelden

Contributing Writer

Amy Mackelden is a freelance writer, editor, and disability activist. Her bylines include Harper’s BAZAAR, Nicki Swift, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, ELLE, The Independent, Bustle, Healthline, and HelloGiggles. She co-edited The Emma Press Anthology of Illness, and previously spent all of her money on Kylie Cosmetics.