The movie that made every married man even contemplating an extramarital affair cringe, Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) subverts the male fantasy of taking a mistress to bed without reprisals. Instead we get every man's worst nightmare – discovering the gal on the side is both insane and pregnant with his child. In retrospect, Fatal Attraction is a far more insidious thriller than critics of its day gave it credit. Indeed, the premise, that a happily married man could stray even from the perfect wife and mother, simply to satisfy an itch while she is away feathering his nest, and then, be forced to face the consequences of his betrayal with a near death experience, served to ignite a powder keg of feminist debate in 1987. Militants picketed the movie wherever it played, charging Lyne and screenwriter James Dearden had made a public attack on the decade’s power broker female executive. Why, they inquired, did a highly successful career for women, equate to one becoming a raving psychotic, driven by her hormones? Fair enough, the film’s Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), a seemingly normal and enterprising go-getter, working as legal counsel for a publishing firm, slips in her lust for attorney at law, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) into a raving and obsessed gargoyle; stalking him, taking his daughter hostage, murdering the family pet and causing Dan’s wife, Beth (Ann Archer) to suffer injuries in a horrific car wreck. But did either Lynne or Dearden consider Alex Forrest a representative of the ‘working woman’?
In retrospect, it is a thoughtless argument, and one basically asking the wrong question - 'what more could Mrs. Gallagher have done to keep her man?' - when the onus ought to have zeroed in on critiquing just what in the hell was wrong with her man; a guy who could so easily and callously shrug off his marital commitments, simply because she was out of town for the weekend. Ultimately, Lyne and Dearden made no judgment calls or, in fact, gave us any explanations to suffice and quell all the inhuman noise and controversy surrounding the picture. Such is life; rarely, what we would hope it to be or as neatly defined and bookended with reasons, and quite often sneaking up from behind to assault our senses and good name when we least expect it. On the flipside, the emotional castration Dan suffers at Alex’s hand seemed to satisfy at least some, a sort of all-encompassing divine retribution for every husband’s philandering ways. Yet, the punishment inflicted upon Dan by his jilted lover turned enemy spills over to terrorize his wife, Beth (Anne Archer) and their young daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen); the impact of his actions possessing far-reaching ramifications that almost tear apart a family, or at least cause them to reassess their loyalties to one another.
Fatal Attraction is unquestionably a harrowing thriller; yielding to that moment when intense passion crosses the line into a dangerous downward spiral of psychotic obsession. In today’s cynical climate, Lyne’s movie perhaps appears marginally tamer than it did in 1987; its melodramatic arc and somewhat clichéd ‘villainess’ ending, bordering on pure camp. There is no denying screenwriter Dearden paints these characters in very broad brushstrokes: Dan, our wayward cock of the walk, with an egotistical sense of manly attractiveness being brought into question by his own looming mid-life crisis. Beth is his doe-eyed, faithful-as-a-bird-dog Suzie Cream Cheese, desiring to drag her man back to the affluent suburbs. She cannot fathom her man’s wandering eye has already led them all into a den of iniquity soon to rupture with all the violent underpinnings of the San Andreas fault. And Alex is remarkably transparent as the bunny-boiling, 'I am a bad woman, hear me roar' being thrust upon this clan. What salvages the writing are the performances by Michael Douglas, Ann Archer and particularly Glenn Close; the latter giving a brilliant interpretation of the lost - though hardly soulless – creature, who refuses to be dumped like garbage once the man has had his fun.
It is all quite good up to the end; Lyne falling back on the traditional ‘hell hath no fury showdown’ to wrap up the story. The ending to Fatal Attraction was, in fact, forced upon Lyne by the studio after he had already conceived a much more diabolical last act finale - Alex taking a butcher knife to her own throat, the same utensil Dan had handled in an earlier scene; thus, his fingerprints left to be discovered by police, who thereafter assume the 'obvious' - that he has murdered his lover to shut her up: the ultimate betrayal come home to roost and inflict one final devastation on the Gallagher family. Reconsidering Lyne’s finale, one is rather immediately struck by the fact it too doesn’t quite work. Alex, strong-willed, her mental acuity even further askew by hormonal imbalances brought on by her pregnancy, taking her own life and that of her unborn child. Only a few scenes before, she had sent Dan an audio recording, vowing to make him pay for their mistake for the rest of his life. Hell hath no fury…remember; and yet, Alex’s suicide get Dan off the hook in the long run; the police sure to discover, via Beth’s alibi, that Dan was nowhere near Alex’s apartment when the throat-slashing began; the fingerprints easily explained away, since Beth already knows about her husband’s affair, and Dan, now free of both Alex and the bastard child he never wanted in the first place.
For its day, Fatal Attraction trod some particularly tawdry ground in an unexpectedly cheap and tawdry way. The film was ground-breaking in its representation of marital infidelity. Dan’s wife, as example, is not presented to us as the cause of his marital angst. In fact, she is sweetly innocent and utterly charming; better still, a most forgiving and patient spouse. Even more curious, given his ultimate betrayal, Dan thinks so too. And the impetus for the affair is not some growing infatuation between colleagues at work, but carnal-based, sweat-soaked passion, invested on a spur of the moment; a consensual whim, made by two apparently reasonably-minded, well-rounded and consenting adults – both intelligent and old enough to know better. Again, the onus of responsibility here is on Dan – the guy with everything to lose after spending himself on a male ego-driven dare one rainy afternoon. Instead, the focus gradually shifts from Dan to Alex – manipulative, unstable and finally – just plain vanilla nuts. It is to Glenn Close’s credit, she never allows her character to slip completely down this rabbit hole into blow-job/knife-wielding lunacy without alluding to something far more sinister and demonic behind the eye. Clearly, Alex is troubled. But she is also enterprising, her revenge conceived with a systematic determination to inflict maximum anxiety on her casual lover; baiting him with visits to his apartment on the ruse she is house-hunting, introducing herself to Beth, and later, befriending Ellen as a pseudo-maternal influence.
Adrian Lyne’s approach to this straightforward material is fairly sophisticated; his subtle introduction of Beth and Dan, seen in their idyllic – if slightly cramped – New York apartment, preparing to attend a work-related book-signing with their best friends, Jimmy (Stuart Pankin) and Hildy (Ellen Foley); the perfect segue to Dan’s first casual introduction to Alex. The contrast between these two couples cannot be overstated; Beth’s fragile elegance pitted against Hildy’s more gregarious repartee; Dan’s self-professed peacock, seemingly the straight man to Pankin’s bulbous sidekick. When first set up, Beth and Dan are clearly the power-brokering pair, exploiting Hildy and Jimmy as their appendages; figures of fun for amusing nights on the town. Lyne gives us glimmers of the unanticipated volatility to follow; Jimmy hitting on Alex at a business mixer, only to be shot down by her murderous stare. This look of absolute glacial hatred melts when Dan attempts a subtler approach to their ‘cute meet’; alas, soon to turn out neither ‘cute’ nor casual. Here, Lyne provides insight into each’s motivations and foreshadows the future crossed paths that will lead a devoted husband and father astray. The genius remains in the casting of Glenn Close; not only for the obvious reason – that she is a superior actress, but equally, because in terms of physical appeal alone, she pales to Anne Archer’s gazelle-like beauty.
Lyne breaks us of the Hollywoodized misconception that a man’s straying is purely motivated on ‘trading up’ his female companion, solely based on her looks. Archer is not only clearly the forerunner, but the winner. Alas, she is also ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ – Lyne exploiting the conventions of these signifiers to suggest Dan could never indulge in the sort of tasteless sexual escapades with a woman he so obviously respects – at least, enough to have put a ring on her finger. That was then. And yet, happier times have persisted – the bloom of love not yet having worn thin when Dan meets Alex. The betrayal is thus all the more unnatural and shocking, because it is not prompted or preceded by anything Beth Gallagher does; her biggest ‘transgression’ – kicking Dan out of their marital bed for one night after he returns from taking the dog for a walk to discover their daughter, Ellen has crawled into bed and fallen asleep next to his wife. And there are no stressors at work either; none that would suggest or support Dan’s need to blow off a little extramarital steam while Beth is away in Connecticut, house-hunting. In fact, Dan is about to be made partner at his law firm.
Casting Michael Douglas as the pivotal maypole around which both women do their dance is inspiring. Beth’s martyrdom is pitted against Alex’s aggressive passion. Both bring about a deeper suffrage. But it is a stretch to suggest Alex seduces Dan. Rather, he willingly allows his virtue to slip, presumably, only for one ‘harmless’ weekend tryst. Dan gets more than he bargains for as Alex inveigles him in an increasingly well-plotted, if maniacal and harrowing, game of blackmail; the insidious stealth with which she suddenly infects and affects all that is good and decent in all their lives, creeping with all the voracity of an untamed kudzu to entangle this ‘perfect marriage’. But Douglas makes his portrait of this straying ‘family man’ not merely palpable, also queerly sympathetic. In the first act, we cannot help but find Dan Gallagher a reprehensible cad; Douglas conveying an assured bravado and selfishness that naïvely believes he can have both a dutiful wife and a mistress at his beckoned call. However, it is in the middle act where Douglas illustrates a superior interpretation of the oft witnessed ‘cheating spouse’; avoiding not only the more transparent clichés, but even the subtler ones. Douglas gradually peels back the façade of Dan’s male ego to reveal a rather boyish anxiety; being found out escalating into abject fear and then, even more uncharacteristically, stripped down to an honest and empathizing remorse-filled regret for his actions.
Lyne’s last act finale, foisted upon him by the studio, remains something of a minor betrayal to each character’s driving principles - especially Beth’s. She is, after all, the grotesquely injured party in this equation, having endured, not only the indignation in discovering her perfect partner has gone astray; also, survived the emotional roller coaster of Ellen’s faux kidnapping, a near fatal car accident, and, in the finale, almost being murdered at knifepoint by Alex in an upstairs bathroom. Yet, it is Beth who gets Dan off the hook for his extramarital affair by shooting his psychotic lover dead. Sweet revenge or self-defense? We are never entirely certain; the calculating look on Beth’s face as she rescues her husband from being Ginsued by his illicit paramour, registering subliminal satisfaction at being the one to ‘put down’ this rabid hellcat. Lyne’s finale completely eschews the fact Alex is pregnant with Dan’s baby at the time of her murder. Audiences in 1987 did not seem to mind this. But feminists decried Beth’s actions as an assault on the proverbial sisterhood, particularly as it is in defense of the male responsible for both hers and Alex’s emotional misery.
Only in retrospect does Dan’s wounded chivalry, flying up the stairs at the first sound of Beth’s frantic screams, and, expending his rage to disarm Alex of her butcher knife by forcing her head beneath the steaming bath waters, seem, not only less chivalrous, but even more enterprisingly desperate; a means to silence Alex once and for all, thereby –literally – washing away his carnal sins. And, of course, Alex herself is compromised; having begun the story as an intelligent, sane, even playful and forgiving lover, she gradually unravels into the cinema’s tradition of the ‘bad woman’ – very bad, indeed – killing Ellen’s beloved pet rabbit and allowing its boiled remains to be discovered by Beth in a stock pot on the stove; pouring acid on Dan’s BMW, mailing threatening audio tapes to his place of business, and finally turning up uninvited at his apartment, and later, the Gallagher’s newly purchased country home to exact her penultimate revenge.
It is unclear what Alex’s motivations are in the finale as it exists in the film today. Clearly, her plan is to kill Beth. But could she genuinely expect Beth’s murder to liberate Dan into rekindling their affair? While the argument can be made Alex is quite obviously not playing with a full deck; her scenarios are nevertheless flawed and ill-plotted. At least, Lyne’s original ending, Alex committing suicide with the malignant intent to frame Dan for her ‘murder’, is in keeping with the character’s vengeful ambitions to never let him go. Even in death, she would have destroyed his chances for a happy home. As this never occurs in the final cut, we are left with a somewhat unsatisfactory denouement; the family Gallagher, disjointed, shell-shocked and unlikely ever to return to its original state of unity.
Fatal Attraction opens with the Gallaghers at home; Dan, listening to a deposition in his underwear on the couch as his young daughter, Ellen quietly watches television at his side. Beth has already begun to put on her face for a publishing gala they are expected to attend later in the evening. After leaving Ellen with a babysitter (Jane Krakowski), the couple is joined by good friends, Jimmy and Hildy. Jimmy is feeling his oats, drawn to Alex Forrest who is poised in a slinky gown at the bar. But Jimmy’s harmless flirtation is met with a daggered glare; our first ‘fleeting’ glimpse of the Medusa lurking just beneath. After Jimmy bows out, Dan casually engages Alex in conversation. She is more receptive to him, but still thinks him a ‘naughty boy’ for flirting, particularly as Beth is in another part of the room. The next day, Dan bids Beth and Ellen goodbye as they drive off to spend a weekend at her parents’ Joan (Meg Mundy) and Howard Rogerson (Tom Brennan) in Connecticut. Arriving at the publishers a short while later, to negotiate a contract with a female author whose scandalous exposé about a real affair she had with a senator is threatening a lawsuit, Dan is amused when the client’s legal counsel is none other than Alex.
At negotiations’ end, Dan and Alex agree to share a taxi because it is pouring rain. Instead, they wind up at a nearby bistro where each reveals bits from their past; Alex, inquiring about Dan’s wife and child. When Dan suggests his marriage is ‘good’, Alex comes back with “If it’s so good what are you doing here with me?” Ironically, her directness does not set off any red flags for Dan. He has already decided he won’t be going back to an empty apartment tonight. And so, Fatal Attraction begins to slip into the mire of a heated weekend sex-capade; complete with elevator blow-jobs and some fairly hardcore acrobatics in the bedroom and kitchen. Afterward, Alex takes Dan dancing to her favorite Latin-American club. As Alex lives in a walk up near the meat packers’ district, no one pays attention to their comings and goings at all hours. The next afternoon, Alex coaxes Dan to play hooky from his work-related responsibilities; the two engaging in a spirited game of touch football in Central Park. When Dan fakes a heart attack, he causes Alex to momentarily become panicked. Revealing his sick little prank, she admonishes him with a fake story of her own, about her father dying right before her eyes when she was barely five years old. As Dan suddenly feels guilty about his stupid prank, Alex bursts into laughter, revealing to him her father is not dead but living in Arizona. Like most things Dan comes to know about Alex, this too will later be proven as a lie.
But for now, the two share more intimate stories about their youth; more spaghetti and sex and opera music (Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, to be exact – a prophetic choice, given Lyne’s original ending). But by now, it’s Sunday. Beth will be coming home soon. Dan’s attempt to disentangle himself from their weekend tryst leads to a disastrous moment; first, of violent refusal, as Alex claws at the buttons on his shirt, tearing apart the fabric in a rage; then, in her plunge into suicide, slicing open her wrists and smearing Dan’s face in the blood from her open wounds. He manages to bind her cuts and put her to bed before slinking home like a penitent drunkard. When Beth arrives, Dan feigns a boring weekend at home. She tells him about her restful weekend – of Ellen’s desire to have a pet rabbit and of the beautiful cottage, not far from her parents; possibly, the ideal place for them to have a real ‘fresh start’ at last. Dan resists at first. But then Alex begins to stalk him at home; mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night, ending in hang-ups when Beth answers, or thinly veiled threats made when Dan picks up the receiver. To put an end to the harassment, Dan agrees to meet Alex publicly in the subway, whereupon she confides she is carrying his child. Dan offers to pay for an abortion. But Alex insists she will carry the child to term.
Under duress, Dan agrees to buy Beth her dream cottage in Connecticut. While Dan, Beth, Jimmy and Hildy celebrate, Alex is seen, huddled on the floor of her apartment, turning the light in her bedroom on and off as she weeps real tears listening to Madam Butterfly. More confrontations ensue. Dan attempts to stand his ground with Alex, when, in reality he knows he doesn’t have the proverbial ‘leg’ to stand on – except, perhaps, the one that got him into trouble in the first place. “You're so sad. You know that, Alex? Lonely and very sad,” he tells her. “Don't you ever pity me, you smug bastard,” she threatens. “I'll pity you because you're sick,” he challenges, to which she astutely summarizes “Why? Because I won't allow you treat me like some slut you can just bang a couple of times and throw in the garbage?” A short while later, Dan and Beth move into their new home. Alex is anything but out of the picture. In fact, she deliberately douses Dan’s Beamer in battery acid; then, tails him as he rents a car to drive himself home. Observing the ‘happy family’ through the window, Alex becomes disturbed and throws up in the bushes.
The next afternoon, the family returns home to a gruesome discovery. As Ellen and Dan race to the backyard to play with Ellen’s pet rabbit, Beth enters the house; discovering her stock pot boiling on the gas stove. Knowing she has not left anything cooking on the stove, Beth approaches the pot with trepidation, discovering the rabbit’s mutilated remains cooking inside. After putting a distraught Ellen to bed, Beth suggests Dan telephone the police. Instead, he confesses the truth to her; of his affair with Alex, the possibility she is carrying his love child and the likelihood she is responsible for the bunny boiler. Beth is outraged, ordering Dan from the house. He moves out. But Alex is not about to leave the family alone. Alex befriends Ellen; picking her up from school and taking her to a nearby amusement park where they ride the roller coaster. When Beth arrives at the school she is informed by Ellen’s teachers, the child is gone. Believing the worst, Beth drives like a maniac through the streets, frantically looking for her daughter, eventually causing a terrible car wreck that puts her in the hospital. Meanwhile, Alex has dropped Ellen off at home unharmed.
When Dan learns of the accident he storms Alex’s apartment, perhaps intent on murdering her. The two struggle in the various rooms, Dan wrestling a carving knife loose from Alex’s grip. She seems erotically pleased to have surrendered the knife to him; again, director, Adrian Lyne’s original scenario (to have Alex slit her own throat, but with a knife covered in Dan’s fingerprints) would have borne out this plot twist. Instead, Dan returns to Beth and begs her forgiveness. She recognizes his remorse as genuine and allows him to move back into the family home. But on her first night’s return to take a soothing bath, Alex breaks into the house and confronts Beth at knife point in the upstairs bathroom. Dan is none the wiser for this intrusion until Beth screams for help. He charges up the stairs, bursts into the room and attacks Alex. She violently slices the air in retaliation, the blade superficially wounding Dan in the chest. As he forces her head below the surface of the bathtub water, Alex fakes drowning. Dan loosens his grip and reclines on the edge of the tub, presuming the ordeal is over. However, Alex has one last trick up her sleeve. She leaps from the bath, knife in hand and ready to stab Dan in the back, only to be fatally shot by Beth with the gun the family bought for self-defense earlier. As police swarms the house in an aftermath of sirens and questioning, the camera casually pans to a silver-framed photograph in the foyer; the Gallaghers, smiling blissfully.
In retrospect, Fatal Attraction is a watershed in American cinema; Adrian Lyne’s direction and the performances of these three principles in the ill-fated lover’s triangle, managed to generate holocausts and hell fires as no other intimate drama/sex thriller ever had before it. Viewed today, a lot of the precepts and pacing in Fatal Attraction has become diluted and formulaic from our seeing too many like-minded adulterous melodramas, leaving contemporary audiences to wonder what all the fuss was about with Lyne’s movie. It is important to recall virtually none of these machinations were ‘old hat’ when Fatal Attraction debuted. And today, the movie still holds a hallowed place as shocking, yet tasteful cinema. Despite the feminist backlash the picture endured, Fatal Attraction was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic; Lyne resisting immediate offers to do ‘another Fatal Attraction’ – although, subsequent movie projects like Indecent Proposal (1993) and his lackluster remake of Lolita (1997) would prove variations on a theme. In 2002, Lyne relented to visiting the same well twice, and almost verbatim, with Unfaithful; the roles reversed. This time, it was Diane Lane’s bored housewife who took a penniless artist and bookseller to bed, leaving her husband apoplectic and eventually turned secret killer of her lover. But by then, the salacious machinations on display had been distilled to one-dimensional and mechanical intrigues. Yet these, quite simply, failed to excite.
Arguably, Fatal Attraction could have been better had Paramount not balked at Lyne’s more understated conclusion, forcing him to cobble together the ‘evil villainess’ scenario as it plays today. This ending is undeniably heart-pounding. But it is also structurally flawed. For example; how is it that no one in this small community of country houses sees Alex approaching the property or entering the house? Dan sets the alarm while Beth retires upstairs to take her bath. How long has Alex been in the house and, more importantly, given her murderous impulsiveness, what is she waiting for? Furthermore, once Beth and Alex begin to struggle for the knife in the upstairs bathroom – with Beth, at first, shrieking several times for help – why does no one, including Ellen (who is sleeping only a few feet away) immediately rush to her aid? Lyne uses the shrill piercing sound of a whistling kettle to presumably ‘drown out’ Beth’s screams. But we are not talking about an expansive estate with many rooms; rather a cozy cottage-styled home with few nooks and crannies in which to hide. One gets the sense from earlier scenes played out inside the home that even the slightest creaking of the stairs would alert everyone to an intruder. Yet, on this night, ‘a kettle’ stifles cries for help and voices shouting in an upstairs bath. Finally, although it is Dan who attempts to drown Alex in their bathtub, it is actually Beth who murders Alex with a fatal gunshot, leaving Dan – more or less – the emasculated victim of this penultimate assault.
None of these glaring oversights mattered to audiences in 1987. When Fatal Attraction hit theaters it became an instant sensation, either intentionally or unintentionally setting off that powder keg for outraged feminists, who denounced it as masochistic tripe. Curiously, this only made the public want to see it more. It has become something of a sport with movie-goers ever since to defy negative publicity and indulge an even more disturbing fascination; to see a ‘good picture’ that is supposed to be bad. In retrospect, Fatal Attraction is an artful entertainment, Adrian Lyne plucking at the chords of the audience’s curiosity, contempt and fear to tell a simple story about the darkest inhibitions to which man and woman can succumb without much effort or resolution. Howard Atherton’s cinematography and Maurice Jarre’s understated score conspire to bolster this understated critique of self-destructive nature, unable to leave well enough alone and driven by the most primal urges, despite centuries of striving for a more cultured set of moral principles by which to live. There have been other erotic thrillers before and since Fatal Attraction, arguably, none so skillfully ricocheting between moments of fitful passion and unadulterated obsession. This is what makes Fatal Attraction much more an artistic masterpiece than a commercial colossus; although, in the summer of ’87 it proved to be both.
Paramount’s Blu-Ray rectifies many sins committed on previous DVD incarnations of Fatal Attraction. For some reason, previous regimes at the studio never bothered to revisit original camera negatives, but used imperfect print masters to slap their movies to disc format. The result: an image ultimately lacking in fine detail, with some slight variances in color density and balancing and, at least three generations removed from fine grain sources, sporting a barrage of age-related artifacts. But now we get the Blu-ray: a true 1080p transfer from original elements and virtually free of debris and damage. You’ll be hard-pressed to find fault with this disc. The Blu-Ray sports refined and very vibrant colors, true to life and the period in which the movie was photographed. Shadow and contrast have been beautifully rendered for a very sharp – though not artificially enhanced – smooth transfer. Indigenous grain has been well-preserved. Here is an early contribution by Paramount to do right by its own catalog in the years before it suddenly decided to sell-off ‘grazing rights’ to its back catalog to Warner Home Video. Since that time, we have seen very few quality transfers coming down the pipeline. The DTS stereo audio will impress. Extras include featurettes previously a part of Paramount’s Special Collector’s Edition DVD; most presented in HD herein, including the original trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)