Film discussion

Throwback 30: Fatal Attraction

Fatal Attraction hit UK cinemas 30 years ago today, so Greg Mucci takes a look back at this classic...

There’s an interaction between married defense lawyer, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas, romancing more than stone), and independently single book editor Alex Forrest (a raccoon eyed and emblazoned Glenn Close) that acts as Fatal Attraction‘s mitigation; a moment of alleviation in a scene that has Dan and Alex consummating their affair.

Alex propped up on the edge of a sink in the throes of passion – their professional relationship heating up – turns on the faucet and sprays Dan with water. It’s playful, fervent, and giddy and like the act itself, spontaneous. It takes a course act of betrayal and transgression and for one frolicsome moment, subverts it with innocence. Don’t get me wrong, its marital malpractice of the most illicit kind, but it speaks volumes about two characters that are both placed on the butchers block for audiences to hack away, and boy did they chop.

When director Adrian Lyne, along with producers Sherry Lansing and Stanley Jaffe showed test audiences the finished film, its results were ugly. Fatal Attraction received a rather abysmal score of 74 out of 100, turning what seemed like the most logical and morally laudable conclusion on the American dream gone awry, into a glaring and financially risky mistake.

The derided and original ending in question has Dan –already having come clean to his wife Beth (Anne Archer) – blackmailed for the murder of Alex. After her husband is taken away by police, Anne searches for his lawyer’s number, only to stumble upon the embittered and wounded confession of Alex’s tape, exonerating Dan of any murderous wrongdoing (oh don’t worry, the film doesn’t forget his glaring misconduct). As Beth calls out to their daughter Ellen (an adorably androgynous Ellen Latzen) to get her coat, we fade into Alex’s apartment, closing on her slashing her throat while listening to Madame Butterfly.

It’s a powerfully structured and fleshed out ending that strays away from the mad-dog approach we’re given, having our jilted lover go psycho with a butcher’s knife. However, the culmination of the audience’s outcry over Alex taking her own life and not Dan or Beth proved that mainstream audiences were ravenous and bloodthirsty for satisfaction. After all, this is an audience that – when Beth tells Alex “if you come near my family again, I’ll kill you” – erupted into applause. “The audience viscerally wanted to kill Alex, not allow her to kill herself” Douglas told the New York Times.

Before the re-shoot – one that has Beth delivering a fatal shot to Alex after being presumed dead in a bathtub – Glenn Close objectively put her foot down, feeling appalled that they (notably Ned Tanen, executive producer of Paramount) would turn a victim of mental illness into a “murderous psychopath.

Close, a heavy advocate for mental health stated that if she went in for a script reading now, she would have read it in a completely different light. “The astounding thing was that in my research for Fatal Attraction I talked to two psychiatrists. Never did a mental disorder come up,” she told CBS back in 2013.

Her portrayal of Alex wound up ranking number 7 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains, a trivialization of an independent woman that Close believes suffers from Erotomania, a mental disorder that takes the notion of madly in love and sinks its claws deep into obsession. After all, this is a character that is as tightly written as she is tightly wound.

Alex is introduced from afar, her frayed blonde hair a symbol of a wild nature that is both startling and groundbreaking in its own right. It’s a fiery look that may have single handedly won over a smug Douglas, who thought she “projected a Puritan vision.” Here is this woman, seemingly without company, amidst a sea of professional men and couples. She’s immediately noticed by Dan and his lawyer friend Jimmy (a truly cathartic Stuart Pankin), seen through a layer of smoke like the Wolfman through a low hanging mist. Whether this is intentional or not can’t be unfelt; Alex is strong, piercing, and feral. She’s a woman who knows what she wants, and she – within the domestic confines established by Dan’s loving and wholesome family – just wants to be loved.

In one of the most iconic and pivotal scenes, an infuriated Dan confronts Alex within the confines of her own home, telling her that her insistent attempts at contacting him needs to end. “Well, what am I supposed to do? You won’t answer my calls, you change your number. I mean, I’m not gonna be ignored, Dan!” It’s a moment that deserves as much applaud as Anne Archer’s blunt warning, yet because of the way in which Alex is perceived by jilted men and domestic wives, its resonance never quite finds its place.

When Fatal Attraction first premiered on September 18th, 1987, it became a box office hit overnight, grabbing the #1 spot and racking in almost $8 million in its first weekend. It was evident that audiences couldn’t get enough. Attraction held the #1 spot for almost eight weeks, with reports of audiences yelling “kill the bitch” (ostensibly referring to Close’s character) and women walking out with smiles on their face. This was the film that would set men straight, they thought. This would drive the fear of straying right out of their heads.

Spoiler: it wouldn’t.

Although very much a thriller stuffed with horror tropes, Fatal Attraction ultimately played to the fears of the working woman and the AIDS epidemic that was making domestic life the safe life. Marriage and kids was the only defense against this type of woman; one who sought to disrupt the patriarch’s ebbs and flows. She’s a woman that must be stopped.

Consequently, if Alex was a spurned ghost that haunts Dan and his family for the wrongdoings he committed, Attraction would without hesitation, be a horror film. Regardless, Roger Ebert went as far as to call the tacked on ending “their version of a grown-up Friday the 13th.” Time Magazine observed that all the pieces came together and brought “horror home to a place where the grownup moviegoer actually lives.” Fatal Attraction is that homespun horror film, a thriller that wears the mask of a slasher, the boots of a home invader and the intent of an erotic thriller.

Despite nary a ghost or zombie in sight, Attraction treats Alex as if she’s already dead. She winds up stalking outside the Gallagher’s house in between calling their phone; her heavy breathing hovering over the line before hanging up. She spirals into obsession and madness, going as far as to kidnap their daughter in a futile attempt to catch Dan’s love. Or perhaps it’s to feel the fabric of domesticity under her fingers. We never really figure that out, as everything that unfolds does so in a way to attract thrills and titillation; never absolution for a tragic figure. The further we are taken, the closer we see that Alex isn’t thinking for her, she’s thinking for the audience.

Many critics at the time derailed Fatal Attraction for its misogyny and abhorrent feminist viewpoints. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker stated that “the film is about men seeing feminists as witches, and the way the facts are presented here, the woman is a witch.” Desson Howe of the Washington Post noted Alex as a tragic figure, “….until she becomes the female equivalent of the vengeance-crazed Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear or the robotic Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator.” Despite its bare-knuckle thrills, there’s an agenda to Lyne’s direction and James Dearden’s script that feels even more apparent 30 years later, as the impact of feminist criticism begins to reverberate from behind the stifling hands of men.

Still, Fatal Attraction continues to carry with it the ability to ensnare its audience. It spawned the term ‘Bunny Boiler’ that can now be found written across hundreds of shirts, representing the infamous moment a rabbit went from pet to potluck. Its examination of one man’s disastrous outcome will continually be used as a scare tactic in the hopes of driving men from straying. Classes will study its feminist scrutiny for years; hoisting Close’s sympathetic Alex above the threshold carved out by a male dominated industry.

No matter which way you view Fatal Attraction in its 30 years of scaring marriages, one thing is for certain; it’s a film that won’t be ignored.

Are you a fan of Fatal Attraction? What are your thoughts on the movie? Let us know!

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