After director Adrian Lyne finished tinkering with the end of Fatal Attraction, Paramount unleashed it on feminists and potential philanderers on September 18, 1987. The film's portrayal of a family man's (Michael Douglas) weekend indiscretion with the walking embodiment of borderline personality disorder (Glenn Close) scared the bejeepers out of viewers to the tune of $320M worldwide. Along the way, it scored six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and won the enmity of rabbit owners everywhere.
Ross: R.I.P. Whitey, a cute rabbit in a film that was, surprisingly, full of adorable moments. (See also: Quincy the dog and Ellen, one of the most adorably androgynous children in movie history.)
But Fatal Attraction isn't a celebration of a cute family and its many animals, it's a horror movie. However, reading reviews from when the film debuted, I'm fascinated by how many critics seem annoyed that it's a horror movie. Roger Ebert writes about how FA becomes Friday the 13th in the final moments, destroying what was, for him I guess, an otherwise adult and psychologically-astute character drama. But is that what's really going on in FA?
In Ebert's defense, the first ~30 minutes don't feel like a horror movie. But when the weekend fling turns dark, the dutch angles come out and stylistically we're not in, like, Ordinary People territory anymore. Alex cuts her wrists and smears blood on Dan's face, sending Dan running around her apartment, and then there's that big juicy canted shot of a bloody Dan as he shreds fabric to bandage her up. This is the first of a number of formal tip-offs (more Dutch angles later in the movie, the cross cutting during the bunny scene and the roller coaster ride, and the use of first person POV for Alex when she spies on the family) that shout horror movie.
But it seems like a number of critics didn't want to hear that. They thought they were watching something nuanced and probing. Which is where the conversation turns fishy, right? Since it seems endorsing this movie as insightful and psychologically astute up until the real horrorshow finale means co-signing a pretty gross example of a "bitches be crazy" film (a genre that includes sorry stuff like Shutter Island and Inception)?
LDP: My guess would be that we want our horror movies to be metaphorical, not literal. We don't want to acknowledge that some of the scariest things aren't supernatural or otherwise neatly tucked away into genre films/fiction but the awful things that can happen in real life. Make one dumb mistake, lose your family. (And hello, it was 1987, height of the AIDS epidemic; WHY ARE YOU PEOPLE NOT USING CONDOMS WITH YOUR ONE-NIGHT STANDS?)
And yes indeed, Alex is a certifiably crazy bitch, but acknowledging that she's crazy when she's insisting that Dan "take responsibility" puts the viewer in some interesting territory, given the weird amalgamation of conservative and liberal attitudes towards sex she embodies. On the one hand, she's a liberated no-strings-attached kind of lady, who can have sex for pleasure because she wants to, and then promptly turns into a kid-obsessed exceedingly-strings-attached woman who might as well have voted for Reagan.
I had forgotten that this was one of the few movies in recent memory to have a character actually say the word "abortion," and the way she reacts when Dan says it is both unnerving and oddly honest.
There's a whole lot of stuff about FA in Susan Faludi's Backlash, mostly involving the extensive rewrites Adrian Lyne did on the script to make it more conservative and family-centric (Beth doesn't kill Alex in the original, for instance). It's of a piece with some similar work he did on the 9 1/2 Weeks script, oddly enough.
Ross: And not just a one-night stand! He spent an entire weekend in Alex's apartment (located conveniently—as far as ominous imagery goes—in Manhattan's ritzy meat & fire district)!
Speaking of 9 1/2 Weeks, can we talk about the sex scenes? I'm particularly interested in the ways the first sex scene echoes the genuinely harrowing scene when Dan attacks Alex in her apartment. The camera movement and editing becomes frantic in both, and the action occurs in the kitchen. They both involve running water from the sink, too. In the sex scene, the running water is playful and (I guess?) erotic for the pair.
During the attack, Alex turns on the faucet to drink after Dan nearly strangles her to death. Those rhyming sequences link the sex to the violence, and make it feel like the film needs you to know that they both have to pay for their weekend. Considering this alongside the film's lack of a sex scene between Dan and Beth painted FA as conservative for me, and not sex positive. Dan and Beth's home never seems to be a space with much erotic potential; it's entirely domestic, with the child and the damn dog in the way. (I got the sense that maybe Dan would never have slept with Alex had the dog not screwed up his chances when he and Beth return from the party.)
There's also some very paint-by-numbers conservative stuff going on with the film's treatment of the urban vs. the suburban. Two minor moments jumped out at me: when Dan's nearly hit by a car trying to cross a street and the random shot of Ed Koch on TV talking about some ghastly business with a Taser. Get out of the city if you want to keep your family and your life.
What are your feelings about the film's attempts at developing Alex, the details about her father, her miscarriage, and her desire to have a child before she gets too old? It felt like the film wanted to legitimize her behavior. But, of course, the filmmakers weren't ultimately interested in her; this is Dan's movie. The only solo Alex we get is the scene where she turns the light on and then off over and over again in her apartment, listening to Madama Butterfly, and the scene where she stalks around Dan and Beth's suburban home, before vomiting in some bushes. Alex is a difficult, confusing character, and I don't think the filmmakers had any idea, really, what they were doing with her, writing-wise. Glenn Close is awesome, though.
LDP: That sex scene was bizarre not only because of the random water splashing (that looks like it would get chilly fast) but also Dan's goofy schlumping around with his pants around his ankles. For a movie about intense erotic passion leading a happily married man into temptation, it makes him out to be kinda pathetic. He can have The Sex or The Family, but not both (heavens, no), and Ellen's more of a cockblocker than the dog is. It's also worth noting that I think this is the heaviest I've ever seen Michael Douglas.
Lyne really likes wet clothing as an erotic signifier, now that I think about it, between Flashdance and the refrigerator scene in 9 1/2 Weeks. Some of that may be practical—it's a good way to show the outlines of body parts without actually showing them, though he's perfectly happy showing those too. Boobs! Butts! I had practically forgotten what they looked like outside of HBO shows.
Re: the urban vs. the suburban: when Beth remarked about "how much money we'll save not living in the city!" I wanted to yell, "Yes, but do you have any idea how much that apartment will be worth in 27 years?!" And of course, in 27 years, the Meat and Fire District would be subdivided up into North of Meat and Fire or something, and it would consist of nothing but lofts. (Alex is quite the trendsetter in this regard.)
The film doesn't develop Alex so much as identify all of her attributes as threatening or disturbing in some way. They aren't personality elements so much as they are red flags: lying about dead father, belief that she couldn't get pregnant, biological clock, etc. I did crack up at the "I'm 36!" line, but then I remembered just how aggro the media was at that point in time about convincing every single woman over the age of 30 that she was a dried-up husk incapable of ever knowing love and certainly never having any hope of motherhood, and I stopped laughing. The movie isn't just about male insecurity, though that's the majority of it.
Glenn Close totally brings it, though, and she deserved that Academy Award nomination for making Alex even remotely plausible. The character was rewritten so many times, it's amazing anything worked. For instance: The Madama Butterfly stuff was supposed to be more on-the-nose, as Alex killed herself by slashing her throat in the original ending. I approve of that change in this regard, if not any other.
Ross: Yo, there's one shot of Dan putting on his shirt in Alex's bed, and you can see he has genuine and drooping man boobs. Is it worth noting that I don't really understand Michael Douglas as a sex symbol at all? I don't see it in Basic Instinct, and I don't see it here, where he's even younger. I understand that he's got the sexy voice. But beyond that? He's a total schlub in this movie. He can't get his umbrella open, can't get the server's attention at the restaurant, can't get his freaking pants off. Yikes, Mike. What the hell is happening?
Re: red flags—yes. I guess I was being generous. Glenn Close basically lifted this spit-and-tape threadbare role up on her back and hulked it into the collective American imagination. She's magic. The look on her face when she's riding the roller coaster?
The change in ending is interesting, as it doesn't require Beth to shoot anyone. The film is makes the weekend of infidelity everyone's problem. No one is left unburdened in the wake of this. Maybe Quincy walks away okay. Maybe.
LDP: I get the impression that part of Douglas' appeal was his willingness to go bare-ass nekkid in roles like these. It's called "courageous" when dudes do it, after all. I'm not entirely certain that I get his status as a sex symbol, either, even if you go a lot younger (say, The China Syndrome), but I suspect part of it is genetic. Kirk Douglas, I understand.
It really is an acting tour de force on Close's part. The roller coaster, and the glances she gives him in the seduction scene in the I Come Here All the Time Restaurant of Futility. Sharon Stone wishes she did praying mantis that well.
Ah, but the test audience for the original ending did require Beth to shoot someone. According to Backlash, said audience had grown to hate Alex and wanted to see some retribution—but it couldn't be from Dan, since he bore a whopping portion of the blame. No, it had to be sinless, sexless Beth.
At least Quincy gets off the hook, but even he strayed and went running in the park with Alex! Whitey is the only innocent here.
Ross: One last stray thought: More than a little racism directed against Asian countries here, no? There are the jokes about bowing at the book release party, and then Dan makes some crack about his umbrella being made in Taiwan. Then the Japanese jokes return during the dinner party sequence. Is '87 too early for the "fear of Japan" insecurity that afflicted money-making Americans like Michael Crichton?
LDP: Nope, it is right on time for that sort of updated Yellow Peril nonsense. See also: Die Hard (1988). The Meat and Fire District also appears to border Chinatown.
Did you notice Dan's shame in the law library about possibly being overheard by the black law librarian? This is a super-white movie, and I don't just mean the color scheme.