Fatal Attraction (1987)

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*. I remember this film being a phenomenon at the time it came out, but had completely forgotten how well received it had been critically. It was up for six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. It didn’t win any, but that’s still kind of impressive.
*. My recollection was that it was just a piece of slick trash that struck a cultural nerve. Seeing it again for the first time in a long while I realize it’s better than that.
*. I thought it would have dated a lot worse and was impressed by how fresh it seemed. About the only thing that really dates it is Glen Close’s hair. But as awful as this is, it’s worth noting that it was widely remarked upon even at the time of the film’s release. It’s not just one of those objects that appears larger in your rear-view mirror.
*. On the DVD commentary director Adrian Lyne says he worried about the hair, thinking it was over the top and a mistake (and this was the eighties, the decade of big hair!). He even calls it a “Medusa thing,” while in his essay on the film David Thomson references Bride of Frankenstein (I would have thought it was closer to that of Magenta in Rocky Horror Picture Show).
*. Despite his concerns, however, Lyne says that when the critics fixated on the hair he figured it was something that had worked. I’m not sure the attention it received signified approval, and overall I think the hair was, and is, a distraction. However, it has become the film’s signature, even more than the car’s acid bath and the bunny boiling in the pot.
*. The basic idea owes much to Play Misty for Me, but more directly is an expansion of a short British film named Diversion (1979). James Dearden wrote and directed Diversion and got a screenplay credit for Fatal Attraction. He would also go on to write the stage adaptation (yes, they put Fatal Attraction on stage).
*. Diversion is a much quieter film, and one that seems all the more sinister, at least to me, for being less overwrought. It presents the same basic situation and a couple of scenes from the middle of the movie are redone quite faithfully. What I find bizarre are reports that Paramount, when it bought the rights to it, tried to destroy every print. And perhaps they did. I read somewhere that Dearden himself still has the last one.
*. I watched Diversion online in the form of a very bad tape job from an old broadcast on the A&E network. It’s really very good and well worth watching, and I can’t for the life of me understand why Paramount would do something like this, if they in fact did. It’s not as though the two films were ever in competition. Diversion is only forty minutes long and had been released nearly ten years earlier. Nor are there any spoilers in the earlier film, as Diversion ends just at the point where the man’s wife returns home from her trip. The ending of Fatal Attraction is all original material. So why try to stick Diversion down a memory hole?

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*. Without trying to oversell it, Fatal Attraction has a bit of the feel of classical tragedy. We are dealing with an archetypal situation that proceeds with grim ineluctability. We know Dan is making a mistake hooking up with Alex. Hell, Dan probably knows it too. We know this will all end in blood and tears. But we have to go through it so that the family can be made stronger (though, on this final point, Lyne disagrees, saying that the family has been irreparably damaged and the film’s final shot is “ironic”).
*. I think it’s the threatened-family angle that plays the most into the anti-feminist message. Alex is the home-wrecker, and she is not just attacking a man or male privilege but another woman (and the woman’s daughter). This is also in keeping with an underlying theme in a lot of horror from the 1980s. From the novels of Stephen King to the films of Wes Craven what we see time and again is the family under threat. It was a time of widespread anxiety over this as people began showing concern over the fallout from the no-fault divorce revolution.
*. For other critics the anti-feminist line was more obvious and direct. Pauline Kael: “she [Alex] parrots the aggressively angry, self-righteous statements that have become commonplaces of feminist fiction, and they’re so inappropriate to the circumstances that they’re proof she’s loco. They’re also the director Adrian Lyne’s and the screenwriter James Dearden’s hostile version of feminism. The film is about men seeing women as witches, and the way the facts are presented here, the woman is a witch.” Not just the facts, Pauline, but the hair.

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*. Given all this I think it really helps that Glenn Close felt so much sympathy for the character of Alex Forrest. In interviews she made the claim that she felt Alex had been a victim of abuse “long before the story begins” and she was strongly opposed to re-shooting the ending to make Alex appear more of a psychopath. One can see her point, but the original ending was far too anticlimactic to work. This is a classical tragedy, and it needs a bloody catharsis, a sacrificial figure dressed in a virginal white gown to be offered up to the household gods.
*. On the commentary track, while discussing the new ending, Lyne remembers the bit about Alex rising from the bathtub being from “a Clouzot movie” but he can’t remember the name of it. Really? He doesn’t sound like he’s joking, but how could he not know?
*. It’s also a bit weird that Lyne talks a lot about the swinging light in the scene where Dan comes to Alex’s apartment and nearly kill her, but doesn’t mention Psycho. Was Psycho the first thriller to use a swinging ceiling light and its crazy alternation of light and dark to accent a climactic horror scene? It’s become a cliché now, but somebody must have done it first.
*. There aren’t that many movies that are both so much of their time and yet universal as well. For whatever reason, Fatal Attraction manages this. There have been a number of very good “psycho lover” films, but this is the one that has set the standard for the genre. Despite its cult following, and a great performance by Tuesday Weld, Pretty Poison remains largely unknown. Ditto for Play Misty for Me, even though Jessica Walter is great in that too. I strongly suspect few people will remember Amazing Amy from Gone Girl ten years from now, much less thirty. That film already seems slow and conventional. It’s Alex Forrest who remains a clear and present danger. There’s no putting her to rest.

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