The Film: Fatal Attraction (1987)
The Principals: Adrian Lyne (Director). Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer, Stuart Pankin.
The Premise: When his wife (Archer) goes away with the kid for a weekend in the country, New York attorney Dan Gallagher (Douglas) does what any reasonable man would do… He cheats on her. Unfortunately, the object of his kitchen sink fornication turns out to be the deceptive Alex Forrest (Close) – a not very well-adjusted human being. Chaos ultimately ensues from Gallagher’s indiscretion. And I can’t believe I just spent time describing the plot of Fatal Attraction.
Is it Good: You know what? This is actually a pretty good movie. And, for an hour and a half, I would say it’s an excellent movie. And none of that has to do with its somewhat routine and, by now, overly familiar plot. At the heart of it are two very solid, convincing performances.
This movie was a big deal back in the day and, watching it over 20 years later, it becomes clear that the work of Douglas and Close had everything to do with that. They create entirely relatable, believable characters through and through. The movie doesn’t make a point of explaining why Douglas cheats on his beautiful wife. Their marriage is painted as a perfectly happy, satisfying one for both of them. And, although Close brings a certain sexuality and carnal attractiveness to her role that is normally absent from her as an actress, it is still not the sort of thing where you go: “Well… Jesus! Who wouldn’t risk his marriage to get into that?” And I don’t think that’s miscasting. For two reasons. One – Few actresses are as genuinely amazing as Glenn Close and Alex Forrest had to be played by someone brilliant to make her exist beyond just being some psycho. Close brings a genuine depth to a character that could have just been some kind of one-dimensional cipher (see: Cameron Diaz in Vanilla Sky). And, also, it’s not supposed to be the point that she’s so hot that Douglas can’t possibly resist. If they had cast, say, Michelle Pfeiffer or Ellen Barkin or something like that, it would have undermined the central concept of the film, which is that infidelity just happens. There’s rarely a valid, justifiable reason for being unfaithful to your partner.
It’s a simple, but effective, theme that Lyne would later explore again in the underrated Unfaithful. Though, in that one, the theme is a little muddled by having the smoking hot Diane Lane get into the pants of hot, young stud Olivier Martinez. But I guess if you’re Diane Lane, and you’re happily married to Richard Gere, they have to push that extra mile to show why she would go and do a thing like that. Even if I think Olivier Martinez looks like a bucket of dicks.
But never mind that now. My point is that Fatal Attraction worked and still works because of the psychological realism at the heart of the performances. You get immediately engaged and buy into the situation because of that. All the roller coaster thrills, that are a requirement of the genre, almost become secondary. You are more riveted by quiet scenes of intensity, like when Douglas is finally forced to confess his infidelity. Or the poignant moment where, after being given clear signals that there is no future in the tryst, Close still shows up at Douglas’s office weeks later and invites him to join her for a performance of Madame Butterfly.
That’s the thing… Close refuses to make Alex Forrest into a villain. And we genuinely pity her because it’s evident she is someone who has suffered in life and, subsequently, made bad choices. It becomes clear, very quickly, that she is not well. But we also can’t fault her infatuation and have to concede that Douglas made his choices too… And, at the end of the day, behaved like a shitty person.
These are adult relationship issues that are handled realistically by the filmmakers. So Fatal Attraction is really at its best when observing them. And, outside of some fashion elements and technological issues (the remake would have suspense involving cell phone and/or Facebook confusions), the movie still feels valid and contemporary 25 years later.
So, where’s the problem: In the film’s final 20 minutes. When I say that it’s a pretty terrific psychological drama and the performances are great; and everything is very emotionally realistic and believable throughout – I am referring, of course, to the first hour and a half (or so) of the movie.
As soon as the movie remembers that it’s supposed to be an edge-of-your-seat thriller, things get supremely silly. The most famous event in the whole movie involves the boiling of a cute bunny rabbit. And then there’s that scene where Close kidnaps Douglas’s daughter to take her to Six Flags or wherever the fuck they go.
And I can accept that. Those events are still within the realm of possibility, even as they are concessions to a genre in a film that should have just stayed a drama.
What I cannot accept is the preposterous ending of the film. Famously, the film originally had a more realistic ending that didn’t exactly satisfy audiences who wanted the movie to turn into Death Wish. And, given that the original ending is included on the DVD, I was able to see for myself why audiences didn’t like it. I have to concede that audiences were right about the ending not being satisfying. Because it ends on a false note of ambiguity. But it was, at least, a more logical conclusion to the story that was being told for the past 2 hours.
If the ending had to be changed (And I suppose they could have considered that. Because, as realistic as it is, it’s still handled rather anti-climactically), they could have come up with something that doesn’t feel like Homer Simpson’s notes to Mel Gibson on spicing up his remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The bombastic final 10 minutes of this grounded, dramatic film are a complete travesty. A hollow bit of rah-rah crowd pleasing that betrays everything that came before. And you can blame them for why people generally look back on this as “a stupid movie” when it’s discussed today.
And that’s too bad, really.
Random Anecdote: My relationship with this film actually begins during a sleepover/playdate/whatever the hell you call it when your parents take you to a friend’s house and they hang out with your friend’s parents while you play ColecoVision (Yes NES existed and we had it. But, fuck you, we felt like playing BC – Quest For Tires and Space Fury. Is that a bad thing?) with your friend in the other room… I would think this was sometime in mid 1987 or whenever the movie hit VHS.
Anyway, there I am with my friend Josh (his real name) and his parents and my parents are watching Fatal Attraction on video in the living room.
Long story short, the movie scared the ever living shit out of my stepmother. It was all she could talk about on the way home. And she was all jumpy as we made our way back to the apartment on the dark streets of Chinatown.
So, for years, I thought Fatal Attraction was this fucking scary as hell movie. Scarier than The Shining even.
Then, I finally saw it for myself sometime in the early 90s. Probably on cable. I would think I was, maybe, 13 or 14. And I wondered what the fuck she was so scared about.
Then I grew up.
I wondered why it wasn’t my dad that was so jumpy that night in 1987.
Cinematc Soulmates: Play Misty for Me, Unfaithful, Betty Blue