On movie sex and movie love...

Fatal Attraction

  • YEAR: 1987
  • DIRECTOR: Adrian Lyne
  • KEY ACTORS: Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, Anne Archer
  • CERTIFICATE: 18
  • IMBD SCORE: 6.9
  • ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 75%

SEX SCORE: 2/5

✔️ Fatal Attraction does pass the Bechdel Test but it’s described as a ‘weak pass’ as the conversations are very brief and very few!

✔️ And I think it is rewatchable. It’s a tough watch and it’s horrifying, but it stands up to each rewatch and it is still incredibly affecting.

❌ But it is not sex positive. It makes a horror film out of an extramarital affair and highlights the dangers of causal sex without offering an alternate explanation for her actions except that women are crazy and sex outside marriage is dangerous! To quote The Rewatchables, this is ‘fucking with punishment.’

❌ It also didn’t inspire fantasies. I totally get cuckolding fantasies and I love watching my husband with another partner, but this is not it. This is horrifying.

❌ And I don’t want to fuck the cast. Glenn Close is wonderful but her intensity (and perm) are too too much and I literally can’t fancy Michael Douglas. I just don’t see it and never have!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

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[Content warning: stalking, murder, self-harm and suicidal ideation, mental health disorders]

Fatal Attraction movie poster

I had seen Fatal Attraction before this most recent rewatch. I knew the plot beyond the famous scenes and I knew the history and feminist critique of the movie from reading up afterwards, but I had forgotten how fucking traumatic it is. Fatal Attraction is a freaking horror film! How is this described as a thriller?! It’s full of every horror movie cliche you can imagine – shaky Steadicam shots across the room, shots angled up to make Glenn Close look like Carrie’s mother, and so so many shots of mirrors or open windows or empty spaces in which someone might appear at any moment. I have rarely been as tense watching a movie as I was watching this and it took a long time for my fear-stoked adrenaline rush to subside.

Fatal Attraction tells the story of Dan Gallagher (Douglas) who has an affair with editor Alex Forrest (Close) while his wife and daughter are away for the weekend. They have energetic sex before spending the day together in the park, and Dan hopes that that is the end of their affair. Unfortunately, Alex had other ideas. She tells him that she’s pregnant but Dan chooses to stay with his family, offering to pay for an abortion but not taking any other responsibility. In response, she stalks him, destroys his car, boils his bunny, kidnaps his child, and eventually tries to kill him. Dan fights back and thinks he’s drowned her in the bathtub, until she bursts out of the water like any stereotypical psycho killer and is shot by Beth (Archer), Dan’s wife. Pheeeeew.

Aside from the cinematic tricks, Fatal Attraction is also a horror film because it’s a misogynistic nightmare of epic proportions. It is the poster child for the backlash against feminism in the early 1990s and it created visual memes that have been used against women ever since. Bunny boiler. Crazy ex-girlfriend. Career woman who is desperate for love and a baby. All originated, or were at least perpetuated, by Fatal Attraction. Thanks for that.

For me, the pinnacle of this swing against women occurs when Alex is considered wholly unreasonable for not accepting the abortion that Dan offers to pay for and ‘her refusal to do so is taken as yet another indication that she is a selfish bitch.’ Considering Hollywood is now so pro-life that movies about unwanted and unexpected pregnancies, like Juno and Knocked Up, never present abortion as a reasonable option, I can’t quite get my head around the fact that Fatal Attraction was so liberal and so pro-choice in the late 1980s! I can only conclude that it is being used as another stick with which to beat the newly enlightened feminist woman – we’d worked so hard to have full reproductive freedom that it could now be used as a weapon against us. Isn’t the right to abortion exactly what we wanted? How unreasonable of us to also want to choose not to have one!

An image from Fatal Attraction of Alex

And that’s the whole movie. It’s about how unreasonable women are. How unreasonable to want a career and a family. How unreasonable to want independence and a relationship! In her 1991 book ‘Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,’ Susan Faludi argued that the 1980s was full of movies and other forms of media that intended to ‘scare women against the strides they’d made during the feminist revolution of the 1970s.’ Just like Fatal Attraction, these movies were often written and directed by men who felt the need to ‘remind women of their place…[and] told stories of miserable women whose lives were “ruined” by feminism.’ As Faludi argues, Alex is ‘an example of the barren career woman, so desperate for love, marriage and a child — the things she’s rejected for years — that she’s willing to kill for it.’ She starts the movie as a smart and hot woman who was in control of her career, and yet is rapidly ‘driven mad by little more than Michael Douglas’ penis.’ It’s so insulting…and that’s not going to be the last time I declare this film to be insulting to women.

Urgh, there is so much about this movie that makes me angry.

But as angry as this feminist backlash makes me, my main complaint about Fatal Attraction involves the misrepresentation of mental illness. This is clearly still an indirect attack on women but my concern goes beyond this to how Fatal Attraction will have perpetuated harmful stigma against mental illness.

As a rule, I strongly discourage the random diagnosis of strangers with mental health disorders as it risks adding to the stigma by pathologising what are simply negative character traits, but it has become part of the wider discourse surrounding Fatal Attraction that Alex has erotomania, or de Clerambault’s Syndrome. This is a delusional disorder where the sufferer becomes convinced that the object of their affection secretly loves them and they take increasingly desperate steps to declare their love in return. But I don’t think Alex’s behaviour fits with de Clerambault’s Syndrome – this is better demonstrated in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love – and, to me, that makes it pretty obvious that it wasn’t director Adrian Lyne or writer James Dearden’s intention for her to have this diagnosis.

But despite this, Alex’s behaviour is not rational. It’s not normal. She’s obsessed with Dan in an obviously unhealthy way. She tries to kill him! She kidnaps his child!! And yet, the movie’s explanation is simply that Alex is lonely and that’s how lonely women act. I wish this was a joke because it is staggeringly insulting, but it’s the truth. When Dearden adapted his film for the stage in 2014, he wrote that ‘people may be surprised to hear that I initially conceived Alex as an essentially tragic, lonely figure, worthy of our sympathy. Yes, she does go a bit far, but I think we can all recognise how close to obsessive behaviour we can be driven by love – or the illusion of love…Alex is not a study in madness. She is a study in loneliness and desperation.’ I…I just can’t.

Worse, Glenn Close did a lot of research into the motivations of her character because it was important to her that she understood why Alex behaved how she did but, as she told CBS in 2013, she ‘talked to two psychiatrists [and] never did a mental disorder come up. Never did the possibility of that come up.’ Which both she and I found absolutely astonishing! Are we honestly supposed to believe that this is normal female behaviour?! If nothing else, Alex’s over-the-top reactions suggest that she has been triggered and is reliving past trauma, such as childhood abuse, and it is staggering that it could be accepted as how woman act when rejected.

The reaction to the movie and the way that Alex’s actions have now become synonymous with those of a crazy scorned woman have led Close to become an advocate for mental health charities, founding a nonprofit organisation called Bring Change to Mind that aims to remove the stigma around mental health disorders: ‘I think as public figures, as entertainers, that we have a moral responsibility to only portray characters, that if, if they have disruptive behaviour or behaviour that is negative that it has to be responsibly explained. I really do not believe that we can anymore just say, ‘Oh, let’s make our person somebody mentally ill.’ That’s really easy because that plays into the stigma that people with mental illness are violent and that is not the truth. Most people with mental illness are not violent. And most people who commit violent crimes do not have a diagnosed mental illness. That is wrong, and it’s proven wrong and it is immoral to keep that perpetrated.’ She’s a bit of a hero.

This is, of course, why Close was so betrayed by the change in the ending of the movie. Dearden described persuading Close to film the new ending as ‘one of [his] most shame-inducing recollections’ and, having seen the original ending, I can understand why.

Because while Alex’s suicide is dramatic and over the top, I believe it. It fits with her psychological decline and is at least a crazy that makes sense! In comparison, the published ending is genuinely psychotic. And I’m sorry to use such damaging language to describe her but by running around with a knife and creeping into the Gallagher house, Alex does become the stereotypical villain of slasher movies who have, unfortunately, appropriated words like ‘psycho’ and ‘crazy.’ She is deranged and she is punished.

Alex and Dan fighting with a knife

That’s why I hate it so much. It absolutely definitely perpetuates those damaging messages about mental health disorders and their connection to violence and, in doing so, ruins what could have been a really interesting movie about desire and obsession and obligation. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, Fatal Attraction is a ‘spellbinding psychological thriller that could have been a great movie if the filmmakers had not thrown character and plausibility to the winds in the last minutes to give us their version of a grown-up “Friday the 13th.”’ The original ending went down so badly with test audiences that they spent $1.3 million to reshoot it and created one that prompted audiences to gleefully chant ‘Kill the bitch’ at the screen. When discussing this movie, the Rewatchables team suggested that the new ending was the only way that the audiences were able to feel that ‘moral justice’ had been done – they didn’t just want Alex to die; they wanted her to be killed by the perfect and innocent wife, Beth, so that Alex could be made to pay for the damage done to her family. ‘They want[ed] us to terminate the bitch with extreme prejudice,’ former Paramount exec Ned Tanen told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. Cool.

And Fatal Attraction could have been so much better if they’d leaned into Dan’s betrayal of Alex, rather than immediately making her the bad guy. Imagine how much interesting an exploration of infidelity it could have become if Alex had fallen pregnant after their one-weekend-stand and simply wanted Dan to acknowledge his responsibility. ‘I’m not going to be ignored,’ Alex threatened him, ‘I’m 36 years old, it may be my last chance to have a child.’ The more he ignores her, the more insistent she could become that he needs to recognise his child, and so when he finally tries to kill her and his own unborn child, Dan is recognised as the villain he really is!

Because Alex’s descent into slasher movie madness does allow Dan to get away with it. As Dearden himself wrote, ‘the crazed career woman [is] put out of her misery, the family saved, the status quo preserved.’ And it’s horrifying because Dan is an absolute scumbag! When looked at through a post-#MeToo feminist lens, ‘Fatal Attraction is a movie in which a woman is repeatedly physically assaulted by her married lover, slut-shamed by him and verbally abused for refusing to get an abortion at his behest.’ It’s too easy to get lost in Alex’s obsession and forget quite how badly Dan behaves – he cheats on his wife for seemingly no reason, he breaks into Alex’s house a number of times, HE TAKES HIS DOG ON A DATE WITH HIS SECRET MISTRESS, he physically and verbally assaults her, and then he tries to kill her.

Sorry, I know it’s an overreaction but the dog thing really makes me angry. Who takes their dog on a date with a one-night stand? Looking at that date in the park from Alex’s perspective, it’s not totally impossible to see why she misunderstands Dan’s intentions. The first night was clearly just about sex. They have that incredible conversation over dinner about whether they could be ‘discrete’ and talk about Dan’s marriage. Here, Alex is seducing Dan and there is no doubt that they both know what they are getting into – he is married but they’re attracted to each other and they’re ‘both adults.’ It was just sex.

But to meet up the next day for a picnic in the park with your dog? Bringing work over to her house so you can still spend time together? That’s a date! Pets are family members; he’s introducing her to his family!! I’m not condoning Alex’s actions in any way, but I do recognise that she could have felt she was receiving mixed messages. And the fact that Dan doesn’t understand that makes him a scumbag!

An image from Fatal Attraction of Dan

Michael Douglas’s career in the late 1980s and early 1990s is fascinating as he seems to consistently play scumbags who are still not the villain of the movie. The Rewatchables described him as a ‘walking erection’ during this time, playing flawed Every Man characters who were as we really were, rather than the Tom Hanks Every Man that we hoped to be. The Fatal Attraction podcast also wondered if he chose so many scumbag roles as a direct response to his father, Kirk Douglas, who famously played strong jawed heroes. Dan Gallagher, Basic Instinct’s Nick Curran, Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko; scumbags!

And, for me, this is why I struggle to see Michael Douglas as a sex icon. Too often he’s sleazy and morally dubious but isn’t quite a bad boy. He’s just a bit of a loser, with cream cheese on his nose and failing to open an umbrella in the rain. And I think we’re supposed to sympathise with him being a loser and understand that that’s why he cheats on his perfect wife – he’s a loser and Alex is incredible and wants him so why wouldn’t he take advantage of the opportunity?

Anne Archer looking gorgeous

It’s a shame that so much of Fatal Attraction angers me because the sex scenes are pretty hot! As he’d already proven in 9 ½ Weeks, Adrian Lyne can direct sex. He likes making movies about the details within relationships, describing liking ‘the small picture really, rather than the big one. And obviously sexuality is part of that.’ According to the Fatal Attraction podcast, Lyne also liked to add humour to the sex scenes he directed as he wanted to preempt the nervous laughter associated with sex with something intended to be funny – and this is a classic example of that. Splashing water on themselves while sitting in a sink full of dirty dishes is a little strange but it is fun, and I didn’t need to see Douglas staggering across the kitchen carrying Close with his trousers around his ankles, but it is kind of joyful and realistic. And Lyne is right – sex can be funny and, more to the point, it’s so much better when we’re relaxed enough to laugh!

An image from Fatal Attraction of Dan and Alex

And the blowjob in the elevator was undoubtedly hot. Alex was firmly in control, the location is brutalist and industrial, and the exhibitionist thrill when someone walks past is so so hot. So many people – Adrian Lyne included – had doubts about Glenn Close’s ability to be sexy but I think she’s incredible in this movie. Her big hair is ridiculous but it does hint at a wanton wildness. And there’s an intensity to her gaze in the early scenes before it develops the edge of madness that oozes sex appeal. She’s powerful and in control and she’s incredibly sexy!

But, sadly, none of this makes up for the car crash of misogyny in the rest of the movie nor the lasting impact of Fatal Attraction on how women are treated. Glenn Close claims that people still thank her for saving their marriage, as if the fear of inevitably releasing a murderous instinct in the scorned women is the only thing stopping them straying. Fatal Attraction is described as the movie that ‘scared the pants on men’ and is seen as a ‘powerful cautionary tale.’ Made during the AIDS pandemic, it emphasised once again that sex was dangerous and, of course, that women weren’t to be trusted.

And it doesn’t matter how good the movie might be, messages like that don’t age well…

NEXT WEEK…

Copyright All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

2 Comments

  1. Vida

    Great piece, I totally agree with everything you’ve said. I’ve still a bad taste in my mouth from seeing it I don’t know, nearly 30 years ago! And Douglas’s piranha jawed sleazy, whiny aggression – no idea how that’s a turn on for anyone.

  2. jupitergrant

    Hear hear 👏 I totally agree. The film stinks of misogyny. And I, too, have always struggled to see Michael Douglas as the sexy leading man. I don’t get it at all, but then, as you pointed out, his “sexy leading man” characters are always very problematic.

Do you like this film? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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