Fatal Attraction (1987)
The recent backlash which began with allegations against notorious producer Harvey Weinstein is causing ripples throughout Hollywood, to say the least. This backlash has now affected once-respected thespians such as Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman. While obviously a coincidence, I can’t help but note that this expanding drama coincides with the 30th anniversary of the thriller Fatal Attraction. I’ll go into more detail shortly, but to be blunt, this may be the most overrated thriller ever made.
The movie, directed by Adrian Lyne, who previously had success with the films Flashdance and 9 1/2 Weeks, was written by James Dearden and was based on Dearden’s short film Diversion.
The film begins with New York lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), who one day at work meets editor Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). They chat and decide to meet up for dinner one weekend while Dan’s wife Beth (Anne Archer) and their daughter Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen) are visiting Beth’s parents.
One thing leads to another and Dan and Alex end up sleeping together that weekend, while also sharing their love for the opera Madame Butterfly. When that weekend is over, Dan’s insistence that he must return to his wife and daughter lead to Alex insisting on seeing him some more. Dan acquiesces and spends another evening with Alex, but when he again tells her that this can’t be a permanent relationship, she cuts her wrists. After frantically bandaging them and making sure Alex is fine, Dan leaves and presumably forgets the multiple nights he spent with her.
But wouldn’t you know it, Alex soon pops up to see Dan in numerous places. She calls him, even when he’s discussing business with his boss Arthur (Fred Gwynne). At one point, Alex even invites him to a performance of Madame Butterfly, but Dan refuses. She then persistently calls Dan at his home after he instructs his secretary to block her calls. This, naturally, prompts Dan to change his home phone number as well.
Eventually, Alex confronts Dan at a subway station and tells him that she’s pregnant. She even gives Dan the phone number of the doctor who can confirm this news. Dan tells her that he’s willing to pay for an abortion, but Alex says she plans to keep the baby. Dan reveals this news to his pal Jimmy (Stuart Pankin). He also reveals to Jimmy his fear of losing his family over this (gee, you think Dan would have taken something like that into consideration before now).
Despite knowing that he’s going to be a father again, Dan insists on shutting Alex out of his life. This may be why he’s shocked when he returns home one day to find Beth and Alex chatting it up. The couple’s apartment is for sale, and Alex shows up claiming to be interested in buying it.
Afterward, Dan confronts Alex in her apartment. She understandably tells Dan that she wants him to take some responsibility, because she’s carrying his child. We then hear her now-famous line, “I’m not going to be ignored.” However, Dan simply tells Alex that having the child is her choice, and that she should just stay out of his life. When Alex threatens to tell Beth about their affair, Dan pushes her against the wall and threatens to kill her if she does.
However, this doesn’t stop Alex from sending Dan a tape recording of herself cursing him for abandoning her and their unborn child. On top of that, Alex somehow manages pour acid onto Dan’s car. Dan listens to the tape as he makes his way to his new home in Bedford. Unbeknownst to him, Alex is following him. He continues listening once he gets home on headphones until Beth startles him. Alex spies on them and is sickened by the sight of the happy family.
In desperation, Dan goes to the police and asks for a restraining order under the guise of acting on behalf of an anonymous client. But the officer Dan speaks with naturally claims that they can’t go after someone without reason, and even says that “Dan’s client” must deal with the consequences of what he’s done.
Not long afterward, the Gallaghers return home and Beth shrieks in terror at the sight of Ellen’s pet rabbit in a pot of boiling water, while Ellen herself cries her eyes out because said rabbit is not in its house. After Ellen calms down, Dan privately tells Beth about his affair with Alex, and the child Alex is now carrying. Beth understandably is upset, as is Ellen, who’s awakened by her mother’s anguished cries.
Dan calls Alex and tells her that Beth knows everything. In the film’s best moment, Beth drives this point home by telling Alex point blank that she’ll kill her if she comes near her family again.
Shortly afterward, Beth goes to Ellen’s school to pick her up, only to learn that someone else already picked her up (and for some reason, nobody knows who this someone else is). As Beth frantically drives through town looking for her daughter, Alex is treating Ellen to a day at an amusement park before taking her home. Beth’s panic leads to her getting in a car accident and subsequently ending up in the hospital.
After hearing that Beth will recover, a pissed-off Dan goes to Alex’s place and attempts to kill her. He stops short of actually killing her, leaving a knife on her kitchen counter. Dan goes to the cops again and this time they agree to look for her. And anyone who’s seen enough of these types of films knows how successful that’s going to be.
Sure enough, Dan and Beth, who have apparently reconciled, are at home. Dan is in the kitchen making tea while Beth is upstairs getting ready for a bath. Beth wipes condensation off her bathroom mirror and sees Alex behind her (of course). Still holding her knife, Alex begins rambling while cutting the side of her leg (ouch) before attacking Beth. Dan hears the fight and races upstairs and attempts to drown Alex. He briefly thinks he succeeds, but then in true slasher movie style, Alex pops up before Beth shoots her with Dan’s gun.
Naturally, it’s only at this point that the cops show up. After the Gallaghers give them a statement, the film ends with (I kid you not), Dan and Beth happily walking back to their living room with the camera focusing on a family portrait of them.
First of all, the film itself is well acted. 1987 proved to be Michael Douglas’s year, not only because of this movie, but also with his performance in Wall Street, a film based loosely on Oliver Stone’s father’s career in stockbroking. At that point, Douglas was known for playing more heroic roles in such films as The China Syndrome and Romancing the Stone. But his performance as the ruthless Gordon Gekko came to personify the essence of the 1980s according to many, and Douglas deservedly won an Oscar for his performance. Likewise, Glenn Close has continued her illustrious career which includes three Emmy Awards for her TV work. Sadly, Anne Archer’s only notable role since Fatal Attraction was as Harrison Ford’s wife in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.
I appreciate the fact that this movie’s plot is set into motion because of a stupid move on the protagonist’s part. The flaw with Fatal Attraction, though, is that it asks the audience to continue to side with Dan regardless. Like Harvey Weinstein, Dan is someone who fully expects to have his cake and eat it too.
To be clear, I don’t approve of Alex killing Ellen’s rabbit, kidnapping Ellen (if only for a brief time), or attempting to kill Beth. But the movie itself never really gives us reason to side with Dan. Indeed, the fact that upon hearing Alex is pregnant, he quickly offers to pay for an abortion, gives one pause. I’ve heard some theorize that Beth probably still divorced Dan after the dust settled. But this raises the question of why the film’s final shot is of a family portrait of Dan, Beth, and Ellen, symbolizing that they’re still together.
The movie’s original ending was more subtle. In that version, Alex actually kills herself after Dan bursts into her apartment. She gets revenge on him by making it seem like Dan killed her, which leads to his arrest the next day. Some have said that this would have been a more interesting ending, and I might agree with that were it not for the fact that this ending concludes with Beth finding Alex’s tape, and hearing that she threatens to commit suicide. Hence, Dan gets off the hook in this ending as well.
Test audiences (and reportedly Douglas himself) found that ending less than thrilling, which is why the finished film now has a more slasher-style climax.
If you’re going to make a film about someone who betrays their spouse and has it blow up in their face, at least take adequate time to go into why someone might do that. Throughout this film and even its own press materials, Dan is described as being happily married. Hence, I can’t help but scratch my head at why he would sleep with Alex as quickly as he does. Once that happens, though, the movie goes to great pains to paint Alex as simply a vicious movie monster and nothing more.
Many have claimed that Fatal Attraction was a take on Clint Eastwood’s masterful directorial debut Play Misty for Me. While there are certainly similarities (wrist slitting is seen in both, for instance), there are some differences that I feel make Misty superior. For one thing, Clint’s character, Dave Garver, is single. Yes, he attempts to get back together with an on-again/off-again girlfriend (played by Donna Mills), but that film still gives us reason to side with him and pray he’ll get out of the situation involving his lover-turned-stalker (Jessica Walter). In addition, Misty actually acknowledges Dave’s culpability in the situation he finds himself caught in.
In conclusion, Fatal Attraction certainly gave people something to talk about. It even led to trashy copycats such as Poison Ivy and Swimfan. But while it’s never boring, it is clichéd once you really look at it. That’s a shame because, given the subject matter, this is a film that could’ve been both thrilling and thought provoking.