Warning: this article contains spoilers
“Fatal Attraction – its simple premise of a one-night stand that spirals violently out of control struck a chord with audiences and the film became the biggest box office hit of 1987. But how does it look now – can we see Fatal Attraction as a radical celebration of the monstrous feminine or is it merely misogynist claptrap?” – Jane Giles, Head of BFI content
I first saw Fatal Attraction, Adrian Lyne’s notorious thriller about a man who cheats on his wife with a businesswoman, only for the latter to develop a dangerous obsession with him, when I was 12. I’d snuck down to record it on VHS when it was shown on ITV.
I knew it was meant to be an exciting blockbuster thriller that had angered a lot of viewers, that a rabbit got killed in it, and that it had a graphic sex scene. Said sex scene is, of course, very tame by today’s standards, made tamer still by ITV’s insistence on censoring sex and violence, even after the watershed.
After two hours, I was convinced I had seen a masterpiece. I hadn’t, but 20 years later I still keep coming back to it.
Maybe it was because I shared the same first name as the female protagonist. God knows why a 12-year-old boy would identify with a 36-year-old female psychopath, but I loved Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), even as she did increasingly terrible things. Maybe the character chimed with my own feelings of being an outsider (which adolescent hasn’t had those?); of trying to fit in with society but never quite managing it.
I hated scenes of animal cruelty, but I knew the rabbit death was coming, and, crucially, you never see her actually kill the bunny, which would have shed a considerable amount of the sympathy I had for her. I knew she couldn’t win, but that didn’t stop me hoping, until Anne Archer and her revolver came along.
Over the next couple of decades, I have seen Fatal Attraction many times. I think director Adrian Lyne and screenwriter James Dearden like Alex, too. Dearden adapted his short film Diversion (1979), starring Stephen Moore as the unfaithful husband and Cherie Lunghi as the woman who sleeps with him while his wife is away. At just over 40 minutes, it’s too short to develop its characters, but some of the best written scenes of Fatal Attraction – the scene where he tries to leave her bed and she snaps with rage, the scene where she embraces him and he suddenly realises she has slashed her wrists – are replicas of scenes in Diversion. But Fatal Attraction is by far the superior film, owing to Lyne and Dearden’s treatment of Alex, at least until the final scenes of the film.
They have so many chances to make her loathsome, which they reject. I don’t think many first-time viewers believe Alex when she says she is pregnant, but her doctor confirms it’s true. When she kidnaps Dan’s child, what cruel, unusual revenge does she have in mind? A trip to the fairground. The woman who killed the family pet five minutes ago now gets a kiss from the little girl who owned it. In the next scene, Dan forces his way into her flat (again), punches her and nearly strangles her. He was the one who started the physical violence against each other, not her.
Of course the ending is appalling. Turning Alex from a wronged woman to a slash-happy would-be killer in the Friday the 13th mould is at best silly, at worst deeply misogynist. There aren’t many films in which the viewer is invited to applaud a pregnant woman getting a bullet to the heart. This wasn’t how it was meant to end for poor Alex.
In the original script, Alex kills herself, à la Madame Butterfly, tying in with the all the opera references earlier in the film, and frames Dan for her murder. Test audiences hated it – and, to be fair, if you watch this ending on the DVD extras, it falls flat – but at least it makes narrative sense. But the new ending stinks (Glenn Close hates it more than anyone). Suddenly, Anne Archer’s Beth turns into a Sarah Palin figure, gunning down that nasty, crazy career woman. Yuck.
But the best bits in Fatal Attraction are so good, I have to love it. Best of all is Glenn Close’s delivery of the line “I’m not going to be IGNORED, Dan”, gasped with the incredulity of a woman who can’t quite believe the father of her child would just fail to answer her calls and hope she’d go away. It’s a line that goes through my head all the time, often in a work context. I’d love to shout it in a meeting.
Then there’s the wonderful scene where we and Alex are forced to witness the sickly, heteronormative scene of the cutesy child being given the white rabbit by the fireplace-lit room, with beaming mother and father looking on, while our heroine shivers in the cold. She immediately throws up in the bushes, revolted by a lifestyle she will forever be excluded from. I don’t blame her.
Plus, on the face of it, her demands ultimately aren’t that unreasonable. As she states in her cassette recording (the only way she can actually contact Dan at this point), she bitterly points out: “I’m just asking you to acknowledge your responsibilities. Is that so bad? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s unreasonable… You thought you could just walk into my life, and turn it upside down, without a thought for anyone but yourself.” Unfortunately, in the same monologue, she also calls him a “cocksucking son of a bitch” and a “fucking faggot”, but political correctness was never Alex’s trump card.
It’s the casting of Alex that’s the making of the film. If you were to remake Fatal Attraction today, Alex would be played by a young, sexy temptress such as Lindsay Lohan, and would be much easier to write off as a silly older man’s mistake rather than his intellectual equal. Glenn Close was nearly 40 when Fatal Attraction was made, and gives the role so much excitement, so much passion. She’s really nice to Dan too, until he tries to wriggle away from the consequences of his actions.
Adrian Lyne may be associated with superficial, trashy flicks – Flashdance (1983), 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) and Indecent Proposal (1993) are far trickier to defend. But in Fatal Attraction, he came close to brilliance. If only he’d had another bash at that ending.