US | 1987 | Directed by Adrian Lyne
Logline: A married man’s one-night stand threatens to destroy his life when the lover begins to stalk and terrorise him.
Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a successful Manhattan lawyer. He’s been happily married to Beth (Anne Archer) for nine years, and they have a six-year-old daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen). When Beth and Ellen are out of town visiting grandparents Gallagher finds himself involved with Alex (Glenn Close), a publishing editor, who recently caught his attention at a function, and who is now working on the same legal job as him.
After a full Saturday of legal wrangling, drinks turns to dinner, turns to – “Are you?” “Am I what?” “Discreet?” “Yes, I’m discreet.” “Me, too.” – which results in a night of sex at Alex’s loft apartment, impromptu midnight Latin dancing, and more sex in the warehouse elevator. Dan slips away through the meatpacking district at the crack of dawn. He is wracked with guilt and wants the whole incident forgotten. Alex, has other wants, and she refuses to let Dan ignore her, desperate for a relationship. She becomes increasingly unhinged and dangerous.
A huge box-office success thirty years ago, Fatal Attraction rode on the chance that audiences would be willing to accept Douglas as an Everyman game enough for a little fidelity, throwing caution to the wind. This wasn’t the kind of normal Hollywood fare for the late 80s climate, greed was being sought elsewhere on more ephemeral things like cocaine and money, not the risk of marriage solidity and the corruption of honesty and family values. Fatal Atttraction spoke bluntly, if you want carnal knowledge, it would be wise to just read the menu, and leave the dishes for those that can afford the hard scrubbing.
Based on a 1980 British short film called Diversion, written and directed by James Dearden, Fatal Attraction (which was still known as Diversion, then Affairs of the Heart, during early drafts) was brought to the attention of Adrian Lyne, who was riding high on the huge box success of Hollywood productions 9½ Weeks and Flashdance. The producers knew Lyne was the man for the job, provided he kept the on-screen sexual shenanigans in check. With uncredited script doctoring from Nicolas Meyer (chiefly the ending), the movie went on to become second biggest movie of the year and earned both Close and Archer Oscar acting nominations (which they lost to Moonstruck).
Indeed Glenn Close is the movie’s standout feature. Her performance is a tour-de-force, complex and sustained. She doesn’t exude a conventional beauty, yet her screen presence, unusually intense stare, and terrific dialogue, elevates her role into something truly memorable. Archer is the perfect juxtaposition of composure and emotional vulnerability, and excellent contrast. Douglas is solid.
WARNING! SPOILER ALERT!
An original, less sensational, but more realistic ending fell flat with preview audiences, and the producers panicked and had an alternate ending quickly filmed. Close hated it, and fought against it, but she had no choice. On one hand the plunge into classic horror territory with Alex becoming almost demonic in her behaviour during the house invasion at film’s end is hokey and doesn’t do justice to the film’s Hitchcockian build in suspense. But, on the other, the bathroom fight does treat the audience to a sense of justifiable retribution, a la Brian De Palma style (Hitchcockian-to-the-hilt).
What still sits uncomfortably is how Gallagher is painted in a sympathetic light, his cheating barely chastised, the Happy Family unit ultimately remains intact. When Dan’s infidelity is revealed to Beth, she confronts him with, “What’s the matter with you?!” and that’s as far as the reasoning probes. Alex dominates as the evildoer, especially as she descends into irrational, sociopathic behaviour. Hell hath no fury like a Madam Butterfly scorned, apparently. At the time feminists criticised the portrayal of Alex doubling as career woman and manipulative psycho … Jason Bateman, anyone? Interestingly, for her own character’s research Close had Alex as a victim of adolescent sexual abuse. This background is never revealed in the movie, and perhaps a deeper understanding of her motives would’ve made for an even more psychological thriller.
Thirty years on Fatal Attraction still packs an entertaining punch. Watch out.