The Shocking True Story That Inspired 'May December'

may december, l to r julianne moore as gracie atherton yoo with charles melton as joe cr courtesy of netflix
The True Story Behind May December Courtesy of Netflix

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On December 1, May December arrived on Netflix to rave reviews. The movie, which stars Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman and is directed by Todd Haynes, 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 Netflix movie, 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. 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 Mary Kay Letourneau’s husband, Steve, who discovered that his wife was sleeping with a teenager, and the authorities were soon alerted. At the time, Letourneau was pregnant with Vili 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.

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. 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 Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau’s story influence May December?

In May December, Gracie and Joe’s relationship begins while they are working together at a pet store in the early 1990s, rather than at school. Much like Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili 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.

Joe’s 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.

During an interview with the Daily Beast, May December director Todd Haynes addressed the ways in which the Netflix movie 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].”

may december l to r natalie portman as elizabeth berry and julianne moore as gracie atherton yoo in may december cr francois duhamel courtesy of netflix
Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in Netflix’s May December, which is loosely based on the Mary Kay Letourneau story.Courtesy of Netflix

May December screenwriter Samy Burch has also spoken about how Letourneau’s story influenced the Netflix movie’s screenplay. “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, Julianne Moore was directly inspired by Mary Kay Letourneau while portraying the character of Gracie in May December, 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.”

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