21st Century REWATCH: Fatal Attraction. Is this the movie I remember?
On a whim, I decided to watch Fatal Attraction recently. This 1987 film is famous for launching the female stalker subgenre. Everyone, including me, pretty much remembers it this way: Dan (Michael Douglas) has a brief sexual encounter with Alex (Glenn Close) who turns out to be PSYCHO! Dan is helpless to prevent her violent and disturbing behavior and tries desperately to save his life and family. I was extremely surprised to see that there’s a lot more going on than I remembered and it paints a very telling story of 1980s attitudes towards women, relationships, and mental health.
Contemporary reviews from the movie’s release definitely stoke the psycho fires. Many reviewers saw the movie as a version of the AIDS Mary urban legend. If you’re unfamiliar with the legend, it goes something like this: a hapless man meets a beautiful woman in a bar who seduces him into a one night stand, but, when he wakes up, the woman is gone and “Welcome to the AIDS club” is written on the mirror. It’s an illustration of the dangers of living on the down low and having promiscuous sex. The seductive woman is the clear villain, and that’s how Alex is remembered too. In fact, an acquaintance at the time exclaimed “I will always hate Glenn Close from now on!” after seeing the film. Roger Ebert in his 1987 review refers to Alex’s behavior as “the moment sex is over for her, capture begins,” “she grows pathological,” and she “bait[s] her hook with honeyed come-ons and then sets it with jealousy.” Clearly, Ebert sees the film as a happy family man endangered by a dangerous seductress. Tellingly, Dan sees his situation the exact same way. When he explains the affair to his wife, he tells her “it was just one night.” He and his wife refer to Alex as “the one with the blond hair” instead of by name, despite the wife having had at least one prolonged conversation with Alex. A major discrepancy, however, is that Dan and Alex spend an entire weekend together, including salsa dancing, playing in the park with his dog, listening to opera, cooking dinner together, and multiple bouts of sex. The AIDS Mary urban legend doesn’t really work if the man and Mary meet at work and have an awesome New York City dating weekend before the shocking reveal. Alex is a lot more than just predatory and much of her actions are in response to Dan’s maneuvering.
So let’s talk about Alex. Typically, in a film with a predatory character, their inevitable dastardly acts are foreshadowed. Take Psycho, for example. We see Norman Bates in a room full of taxidermy and oppressive shadows, he speaks in a way that is vaguely unsettling about his mother, and the Bates house looms threateningly over the motel. It’s not surprising when he’s revealed to be a, you know, psycho. The audience has been warned the entire time. Alex… does not really have this framing. In the beginning of the film, she is introduced as a sophisticated, exciting, and adventurous professional woman and a clear foil to Dan’s unexciting wife who is all about paint colors and childrearing. He clearly finds her engaging and attractive. So how do we go from dashing woman about town to unhinged fury? We get two brief scenes that suggest something is a little off: she is angry at Dan for playing dead in the park because her father died suddenly of a heart attack and then tells him she’s kidding; and the greasy dark metal elevator that leads to her apartment. To be honest, both of these seem fairly shrug-worthy. The heart attack speech is framed in a way that clearly spooks Dan, although it seems fairly innocuous, and is called back later in the film. Her building is creepily isolated and dismal, but it was also the ugly 1980s and lofts in industrial areas were in style, so I honestly can’t tell if it’s meant to be creepy hideous or fashionably hideous. The real warning comes when Dan tries to leave after the weekend and Alex reveals she’s slit her wrists. Dan bandages her up, stays with her while she sleeps, and makes her promise to see a doctor. If you know someone who is suicidal, call 911 immediately and get them into a position where they can get professional help. Looking at this film with modern eyes, that’s the real turning point of the film. Had he gotten her help, the rest of the film may not have happened. However, this is the 80s, so he skips off home to hide the evidence of his affairs and doesn’t spare Alex another thought.
From here, the movie spirals into greater and greater stakes until we’re in a horror movie. I really only remembered the Alex moments because they’re the most cinematic and drawn out, particularly the epic bunny boiling scene, but Alex and Dan are surprisingly well matched in terms of terrible acts. Here are the inappropriate acts that Alex does that are not directed at herself: rips a shirt, calls repeatedly even after being told to stop, meets the wife under false pretenses, trashes a car, leaves an abusive audio tape, kills a pet rabbit, kidnaps but doesn’t harm a child, ineffectually attacks Dan with a knife but is disarmed immediately, breaks into the house, scares but doesn’t actually stab the wife. Pretty bad stuff, but here’s what Dan and his wife do to Alex: don’t get help after her suicide attempt, accuse her of being sleeping around, break into her apartment twice, tell her she’s not worthy of respect, threaten to kill her twice, attempt to use the law and police to threaten her, strangle her three times, beat her head against the floor, drown her, and shoot her in the chest. Looking at how those rack up, is Alex really more villainous than Dan? He actually strangles her the first time because she called repeatedly and met his wife under false pretenses, which strikes me as a bit of an overreaction. The famous last scene where Alex shows up at the house with the knife is preceded by Dan breaking down her door, knocking her to the floor, strangling her, and beating her head into the floor, without exchanging any words. After he lets go of her neck, she grabs a kitchen knife and attacks him, which doesn’t seem unmotivated in light of the situation. He easily gets the knife away from her and there’s a tense few seconds where he holds it like he’s seriously considering killing her. I cannot emphasize how ugly this scene is. It’s only after assaulting her, that Dan reports the kidnapping to police. That’s significant because it suggests he wanted to get to her before the police. Obviously, this behavior is the result of the situation escalating between them, but if we’re discussing who is physically more dangerous, it’s definitely Dan. So why do we remember Alex’s violence and forget about Dan’s?
The major reasons are casting and framing. The casting is really important to this film because both Michael Douglas and Glenn Close are terrific actors capable of great depth. Michael Douglas exudes this effortless confidence that makes everything he does seem justified. We, as the audience, don’t even question what he’s doing because of his easy authority. Glenn Close’s casting is significant, too, because she also has confidence and strength of character. Alex would be a much different character if she were played but someone like Sean Young who seems much more emotionally fragile. I suspect Close elevates the role in a way that may have even slipped under the notice of the filmmakers. Without her portrayal of Alex as someone suffering from poor mental health, this movie could have easily been a pulpy thriller without much to discuss or think about. Framing is the other major factor. Dan is clearly the protagonist. We see his life in and out of the office, we care about his family, and his friends. We’re given every indication that Dan is a guy with a good life that needs protecting. In contrast, we very rarely see Alex when she’s not interacting with Dan. We don’t know if she has friends, if she’s able to continue to function at work, if she has hobbies, or much of anything that would allow us to care about her as a character. We find out a little bit about her backstory, but only insofar that it suggests she’s been through trauma. There’s also an element of sexism at play. This was made in the 1980s and there is a tendency of films in that period to value male characters over female ones. Men lead the charges, find the treasure maps, mete out justice, and save the day while women are love interests, mothers, or femme fatales. Ultimately, Alex’s life isn’t all that important, because she is the villain.
The way that the individual scenes are staged also set the narrative of Dan being sympathetic and Alex unsympathetic. The reason you remember the bunny-boiling is because of the way the scene is developed. Dan’s wife enters the kitchen to find an ominous pot boiling over on the stove. She opens the lid and… BOILED BUNNY! It’s got a discordant score, slow creepy pans, intercut scenes of the daughter looking for her pet, prolonged wifely screams- the whole nine yards. The scene takes it time and really punches it at the end. Alex’s death scene is built in a similar fashion. She’s wearing an iconic white bride-like dress and, after being (presumably) drowned in the bathtub, she surges back up waving a comically large carving knife and… BANG! Shot once through the chest. These scenes are made like a slasher film. The filmmakers want us to see her as the villain, the unredeemable destructive force threatening our normality. Afterall, we can’t cheer for her death if we worry about her as a person.
The movie ends with Dan embracing his wife lovingly and the camera zooms in on a framed Sears Portrait Studio photo of our happy family. At this point I went “huh,” turned off the tv, and went to take a shower. My mind hummed along cheerfully: “Rubber duckie, you’re the o — — OH MY GOD. SHE WAS PREGNANT. THEY BEAT, STRANGLED, DROWNED, AND SHOT A PREGNANT WOMAN!” Did you forget that Alex is pregnant? Yep. She was pregnant this whole time.
This is probably the biggest change that has happened to this film in the last thirty years. A film made right now would never frame Alex’s pregnancy the way Fatal Attraction does. Alex reveals the pregnancy quite early on in the story. In fact, at first it seems like an undestandable explanation for Alex’s unwanted phone calls. Dan’s reaction, though, is distinctly unpleasant. He chides her for not using protection (as if, Dan. Use a condom, pal), doubts her truthfulness, suggests it’s not his baby which she vehemently denies, and he looks angered that she wants to keep it. On my initial watch, I thought I might have missed a scene where it turns out Alex is faking it, but, nope, the film goes out of its way to establish she’s really pregnant. Dan breaks into her apartment finding a pregnancy test box and a newspaper clipping that reveals that her father really did die of a heart attack, which proves… Alex isn’t a liar, I guess? We’re then treated to a scene where Dan confers with another lawyer, establishing that he confirmed her pregnancy with her doctor and his determination to protect himself from Alex bringing a legal suit against him, presumably for child support. He’s adamant that this is going to destroy his family as though she got pregnant purely to damage him. That’s clearly not the case, however, because Alex says that she suffered a bad miscarriage previously and didn’t think she could get pregnant.
Watching it now, Dan really comes off like a dirtbag, although that’s obviously not what the filmmakers intended. He clearly doesn’t see the pregnancy as anything but a hindrance, certainly not as his own child. Even Roger Ebert recognized that in his review. All of his physical assaults on Alex come after the pregnancy announcement. All of Alex’s destructive actions come after the pregnancy reveal, as well. Watching the movie in a more enlightened time in terms of misogyny, mental health, and knowledge of pregnancy complications; it seems entirely possible that Alex was an already troubled woman whose past trauma and unexpected, unsupported pregnancy caused her to spiral into a state of behavior that she might never have experienced under normal conditions. It’s a lot harder to enjoy her death if, in the back of your mind, you’re wondering if she’s in a dissociative state brought about by physical abuse, previous trauma, and pregnancy hormones. Of course, Dan isn’t the one who actually kills her. His wife does, after nipping downstairs to fetch the gun while Dan wrestles and chokes Alex, but she also knows that Alex is pregnant because Dan specifically told her. That happy ending with the reunited family takes on an uneasy quality now because we see this wealthy successful yuppie couple who feel entirely justified in killing a potential mother to preserve their status quo.
So how does this film hold up? Honestly, I think it’s a better film now than it was in 1987. It’s no longer just a shocking thriller but a film with a surprising level of moral ambiguity and some pretty big questions to discuss. Most of this comes about because it’s impossible watching it today to entirely take Dan’s side in the narrative and Glenn Close’s portrayal of Alex feels so upsettingly real she becomes sympathetic in spite of her actions. Alex’s property damage and bunny killing doesn’t entirely eclipse Dan’s physical and verbal assaults. It was always questionable in the past to whom the “fatal attraction” in the title is applied. Dan is the protagonist, but Alex is the one who ends up dead. Now it seems that the “fatal attraction” is linked to both characters: Alex dies as a result of her attraction to Dan, but Dan’s remorseless nature is revealed by the consequences of their linked fates. Give it a rewatch! You might be surprised.
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