After Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) engendered the summer blockbuster and George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) changed franchise merchandising forever, the American New Wave came crashing down in a cascade of Reaganomic conglomeration.
The profit motive has always been the driving force behind filmmaking, but in the “Greed Is Good” 1980s, with the Cold War between Western capitalists and Eastern Communists heating up to a fever pitch, almost nothing of artistic note was released the entire decade.
It is as low a valley in cinematic history as the ultraconservative Eisenhower years at the end of classical Hollywood’s golden age, when the studios invested more into spectacular gimmicks than artistic expression to compete against television for viewership.
So, through no fault of its own, Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) is oft overlooked in critical circles because of the decadent zeitgeist surrounding it, but, like its leading lady, it does not deserve to be ignored.
If you don’t know what to watch next, Fatal Attraction is available to stream on Hulu. The psychological thriller was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture as well as Best Director.
Best Adapted Screenplay nominee James Dearden reimagined the script from his own British short, Diversion (1980).
Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas, who won Best Actor that same year for none other than Gordon “Greed Is Good” Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987)) is a New York attorney with a loving wife named Beth Rogerson (Best Supporting Actress nominee Anne Archer).
While Beth and their daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen), spend the weekend in the country with Beth’s parents, Howard and Joan Rogerson (Tom Brennan and Meg Mundy), Dan indulges in an affair with editor Alexandra Forrest (Best Actress nominee Glenn Close).
Dan dismisses the tryst as a one-night stand, but the stalkerish Alex develops a psychotic obsession with him that threatens to destroy his life as he knows it.
Between Fatal Attraction and Lyne’s companion piece, Unfaithful (2002), wherein the wife (Oscar nominee Diane Lane) is the cheating spouse and the husband (Richard Gere) kills the homewrecker (Oliver Martinez), the filmmaker is the king of the erotic domestic noir.
The three women nominated under his directorship (Close, Archer, and Lane) speak to the humanity and multiplicity with which he characterizes them.
They fluctuate from Close’s hysteria to Archer’s heartache to Lane’s shame, and all of them suffuse these respective, pulpy dramas with a cathartic, tragic whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Close is an artist who deserves greater stardom than she’s been given (like a damn Oscar, for starters), and, unfortunately for her (but thankfully for the rest of us), she created in Alex a villain so classic, nay, so iconic, it typecast her for the remainder of her career.
Alex is all at once a revelation and an enigma, who can communicate so much through a look on her face but can raise just as many questions with what’s left unsaid.
Such subtext, read from between the lines of dialogue, suggests a force of nature of psychopathy so much more than just an over-the-top cautionary tale for adulterous men.
And her fellow nominee, Archer, is written at the apex of this love triangle from Hell, the altruistic promise-keeper to Douglas’s narcissistic oath-breaker, the pragmatic protector to Close’s sadistic predator.
Foreshadowing is the piano we see hanging by a frayed rope above the cast’s heads in a suspense picture, and Archer is the one hacking away at it with a knife.
When Dan tells Alex he’ll kill her if she tells Beth about them, he doesn’t because he’s the one to tell Beth; when Beth tells Alex she’ll kill her if she ever comes near her family again, Alex calls her bluff, Beth stays true to her word, and the “fatal attraction” is consummated.
Bolstering the production’s writing, directing, and editing is Michael Kahn and Peter E. Berger’s award-nominated editing. Their cuts are as sharp as the edge of Alex’s blade, pricking shocked gasps out of you even after repeat viewings.
The jump scare where Beth emerges from the shadows behind Dan to touch his shoulder as the camera slowly closes in on him, Alex’s crazed cassette tape playing on voiceover, is captured not through a loud noise or a heavy-handed musical cue, but with Hitchcockian claustrophobia.
Although Douglas wasn’t up for an award here, he is very much in his element.
If this is a companion piece to Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), wherein he also juggles a devoted brunette (Jeanne Tripplehorn alongside a homicidal blonde (Sharon Stone), then is the master of playing the sleazy everyman.
This morally gray characterization is what distinguishes Fatal Attraction from, say, Steve Shill’s Obsessed (2009), because Dan and Alex actually have sex, thus painting the film’s antihero and antagonist in unsympathetic and sympathetic shades, respectively; we voyeuristically share in Alex’s motivations, and this conflicting internalization sparks hotter tension.
As unfeelingly as Dan uses Alex for his own greedy pleasure before throwing her away, the film does seem to demonize Alex for feeling too much. Psychology academics diagnose Close’s performance as symptomatic of borderline personality disorder.
Statistically speaking, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of it, which is why the original “Madame Butterfly” denouement, though anticlimactic, is preferred by many critics (including Close herself).
Also, women are less often stalkers than men.
That is why, for all its flaws (one of which is the pains it takes to age Jennifer Lopez’s student (Ryan Guzman) so their fling is less morally ambiguous), Rob Cohen’s The Boy Next Door (2015) is a more realistic interpretation of the Fatal Attraction formula than Fatal Attraction.
The intersection between Alex’s mental health and gender is all the more unfortunate when one considers how the film punishes her and her unborn child, even though Dan is the one who plays with her life like it’s nothing.
And the Fatal Attraction formula isn’t even the Fatal Attraction formula – Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me (1971), did it first.
In it, Eastwood hooks up with a knife-wielding Jessica Walters, who slashes her own wrists when he dumps her and then comes after his love interest (Donna Mills)… sound familiar?
Especially after the more sensationalistic finale made it into the final cut, Fatal Attraction all but plagiarizes Play Misty for Me.
But the thing about Fatal Attraction is that it surpasses the campy, auteuristically amateurish Play Misty for Me, and Obsessed and The Boy Next Door are surpassed by both.
As with David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) to come after it and Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s films to come before it, Fatal Attraction isn’t taken more seriously because it’s a genre movie.
But it ought to be reevaluated as one of the only truly “great” releases of its time, for its attention to detail in addition to its transcendent filmmaking.