How the Mary Kay Letourneau Scandal Inspired the Film May December

Though Golden Globe-nominated May December isn't a biopic, similarities to the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal are real.

By Natalie Finn Jan 06, 2024 1:00 PMTags
Watch: Mary Kay Letourneau's Ex Vili Fualaau SLAMS "Ripoff" May December Film

Julianne Moore does not play a teacher in May December.

It's an important distinction, considering she does portray a woman, Gracie Berry, whose relationship with her husband Joe began when she was 36 and he was only 13—and was therefore a crime—so the comparisons to the ever-disturbing Mary Kay Letourneau scandal are unavoidable.

"There were times when it became very, very helpful to get very specific about the research," director Todd Haynes told The Hollywood Reporter at the film's November premiere, "and we learned things from that relationship, even in the ways that it differed from the relationship between Gracie and Joe in our film."

And, in another departure, May December is...funny. Hence its inclusion in the Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy, category for the 2024 Golden Globes, to go with acting nominations for Moore, Natalie Portman and Charles Melton.

"The film is a lot of fun," Moore told USA Today of the Netflix dramedy, which co-stars Portman as an actress shadowing Moore because she's going to play her in a movie about the unsavory origin of the older woman's marriage. "There might be some things that are uncomfortable and feel risky emotionally, but it's engaging."

And provocative—grown woman with a family starts an illegal affair with a young teen, has his baby in prison while serving time for child rape, then marries him—even before screenwriter Samy Burch turned it into deadpan satire about trauma, social mores, power dynamics, tabloid culture and Hollywood.

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"Part of Samy's brilliance with her writing was getting into that exact ethic of what we do when we depict a story like this," Portman told The Advocate. "Are we endorsing it somehow? Are we celebrating it somehow? Are we interfering with the story when we're telling it or when we're researching it or when we're exploring it?"

All valid questions that have been worth asking ever since Letourneau was first arrested in 1996, a time when the salaciousness of it all easily overpowered every other angle. In turn, May December had plenty left to unpack.

Getty Images; Netflix

Who was Mary Kay Letourneau?

Letourneau first had Vili Fualaau as a student in her second-grade class at Shorewood Elementary School in the Seattle suburb of Burien. The Tustin, Calif., native shared four children with her husband since 1985, Steve Letourneau.

Fualaau was in Letourneau's class again in sixth grade. The summer before he was to begin middle school, the 13-year-old enrolled in a community college art class that his former teacher, then 34, was also taking.

She later described the lead-up to their relationship turning sexual as "a million moments that just kept building something very beautiful and scary at the same time."

"We were so much in love," Letourneau told CNN's Larry King in 2004. "I was thinking about...the situation I was in with my marriage, and the divorce, and I definitely was thinking, This is not the right time."

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She maintained that she and her husband were separated by the time she crossed the line with Fualaau, and that she really had no idea it was a crime.

Fualaau said he hit on Mary after making a bet with his cousin that he could "get" her. "I remember I used to like plan the next day, like 'What I was gonna do, what was I gonna say, what I was gonna, like, what surprise I was gonna leave on her desk,'" he later told Dateline. And he objected to being called a victim.

In May December, Moore's Gracie has three children from her first marriage, and Portman's Elizabeth questions Gracie's ex-husband and eldest son as she does her character research. The illicit affair between Gracie and the much-younger Joe (Melton) began when they were both working in a pet store.

Courtesy of Netflix

What happened after Mary Kay Letourneau was caught having sex with 13-year-old Vili Fualaau?

"The incident was a late night that it didn't stop with a kiss," Letourneau told ABC News' Barbara Walters years later. "And I thought that it would and it didn't."

She added, "I loved him very much, and I kind of thought, 'Why can't it ever just be a kiss?'"

Steve Letourneau found out what his wife was up to in February 1997 when he came across a love letter letters she had stashed away. By then, Letourneau was six months pregnant. 


A relative of her soon-to-be ex-husband's called the police and Letourneau was arrested on March 4, 1997. She ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree child rape.

Meanwhile, an old letter plays a climactic role in May December when Elizabeth reads from it. "It's such extraordinary writing," Portman said of the purported missive from the adult Gracie to the teenage Joe. "There's so much lying and omission of what they don't say to each other."

Francois Duhamel/Courtesy of Netflix

While out on bail awaiting sentencing, Letourneau gave birth to daughter Audrey on May 29, 1997, her first child with Fualaau.

She initially received a suspended 89-month prison sentence but was sent to jail for six months, including credit for time served. She was released on Jan. 2, 1998, and as part of the terms of her release was ordered to get counseling and stay away from Fualaau.

Letourneau was barely out of jail for a month, however, when police spotted the 36-year-old and 14-year-old Fualaau in a car parked in front of her house.

In February 1998, having broken the terms of her probation, Letourneau was ordered to serve her original 7.5-year prison term. And, she was pregnant again. She gave birth to daughter Georgia on Oct. 16, 1998, Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.

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May December begins with Joe and Gracie as long-married parents of three children, events picking up 23 years after Gracie committed the crime of getting sexually involved with then-13-year-old Joe.

Gracie had her first child with Joe, daughter Honor (Piper Curda) while serving prison time for child rape. In the movie's universe, they went on to marry and welcome twins, son Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and daughter Mary (Elizabeth Yu).

"There's a weight that Joe carries," Melton told the Washington Post of the stunted suburban dad he plays. "This repressed feeling he's internalizing."

The Riverdale actor studied other onscreen forbidden-love dynamics to get into character. "There's so much source material we can draw from as actors," he explained. "Part of that process is eliminating the judgment and not having formulated opinions. Coming at it from a place of empathy."

François Duhamel/Courtesy of Netflix

What happened to Mary Kay Letourneau after her release from prison?

Ahead of Letourneau's August 2004 release from prison, Fualaau, then 21, said he was "kind of nervous."

"But," he told Seattle's KING 5 News, "I know that I do love her."

Talking to Larry King in her first post-prison interview, Letourneau said she and Fualaau were engaged. Asked if their daughters understood what was going on, she explained, "I mean, the story is that their mother was away at prison. And now, finally, their mommy and daddy are back together. And that's the story. And I've told my oldest one, at least, that, you know, mommy's doing a time-out."

Letourneau said that, overall, she felt "blessed."

Playing a character who cloaked herself in the trappings of normal, Moore described her approach to USA Today, "It's like she's going to go to this extreme and say, 'This is who I am, and I am a mother, and I am a wife, and I am a baker, and I am feminine.' When in fact she's done something that's so different, so transgressive, there's this chasm in who she is and how she presents."

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How long were Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fulaau married?

The bride was 43 and the groom 21 when they married in May 2005 at a winery in Woodinville, Wash.

They continued to live in the Seattle area. When the couple spoke to ABC News in 2015, Fualaau's day job was at a home and garden center while he moonlighted as DJ Headline. (Letourneau showed her support for his efforts by hosting a "Hot for Teacher" night at a bar where he deejayed in 2009.) 

"I'm surprised I'm still alive today," Fualaau told Barbara Walters, thinking back to when he became a very young father and the mother of his kids was in prison for having sex with him. "I went through a really dark time. I don't feel like I had the right support or the right help behind me. My friends couldn't help me, because they had no idea what it was like to be a parent. I mean, because we were all 14 and 15."

Not even his counselors "knew how to deal with it," he recalled. "It was just weird." They prescribed him antidepressants, thinking that's what was needed to get him talking, which "really annoyed" him.

Fualaau added, "It was a huge relief to actually get married [after] just going through all those years and then having so many questions and them not being answered."

Letourneau, who was working as a legal assistant, chalked up all their years together to the strength of their initial connection.

"If it wasn't strong enough in the beginning," she said, "it wouldn't have carried through those years."

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In May 2017, Fualaau filed for a legal separation. But they continued to live together and he told Radar Online that the filing had more to do with passing background checks to start a business.

"If I decide to be a part of it I have to be licensed and I have to be vetted and so does a spouse," Fualaau said. "She has a past. She has a history." Otherwise, he explained, "Everything is fine between us." 

The couple and their daughters appeared on Australia's Sunday Night in September 2018. Then-21-year-old Audrey and 19-year-old Georgia agreed that their mom was quite strict, while Audrey shared that their father "definitely feels like a young dad now that I'm at that adult age to where I can go to a bar. He's like a 'friend dad.'"

A scene in May December in which Gracie stresses that it was Joe who seduced her echoes an exchange Letourneau and Fualaau had on Sunday Night.

"Who was the boss?" she asked him. "Who was the boss?" When he quietly replied that he didn't know what to say, she asked again.

"It was me pursuing you," Fualauu agreed. But, as Letourneau pressed the issue, he said, "All I knew is what I knew back then...This is getting weird."

In March 2019, documents filed in King County Superior Court showed that Letourneau and Fualaau were moving into arbitration and that August their separation was finalized, according to People.

Francois Duhamel/Courtesy of Netflix

Where does May December most diverge from the Mary Kay Letourneau story?

Though they split up, Fualaau and Letourneau weren't apart for long, according to her longtime lawyer and family friend David Gherke.

Before Letourneau died of cancer on July 6, 2020, "Vili moved back from California, gave up his life there, and for the last two months of Mary's life he stood by her 24/7 taking care of her," Gherke said on TODAY after she passed away at the age of 58. "So yes, they were divorced and they had their spats, but they were always in love with each other."

In November 2022, Fualaau became a dad again, welcoming daughter Sophia. Georgia shared news of her birth on Instagram—"Hi Sophia, I'm your big sister! You're so beautiful, I can't wait to watch you grow. I'll be right here by your side no matter what ! I love you"—but all other details have been kept private.

And now, 40-year-old Fualaau—who has slammed May December as a "ripoff" of his ongoing story—is going to be a grandfather. Georgia, 25, revealed in September that she's expecting a baby boy with her boyfriend of six-plus years.

Her dad took the news "hard at first" but he's come around and been "really amazing," she told People. "I just know that he's going to be the greatest grandfather ever."

Meanwhile, the May December characters inspired by this real-life saga get a more ambiguous ending.

"What's been wonderful is how many people ask, 'So what do you think happens? Does the family stay together?'" Moore told USA Today. "I can't answer. The movie ends on an inhale, rather than an exhale."

And writer Burch stressed at the film's premiere that this was not "the Mary Kay Letourneau story."

"It wasn't the same details—I certainly don't want anyone to assume that we're trying to say all these conversations happened behind closed doors, it's not," she explained to THR. "This was just a jumping off point and a way that something like this made sense to me emotionally."

Check out E! Online's 2024 Golden Globe Awards page for a full recap of this year's ceremony and the best moments from the show and red carpet..

(Originally published Dec. 9, 2023, at 5 a.m. PT)