Sometimes, a phrase can so perfectly encapsulate a character or situation it enters into popular conscious. Such is the case with the term ‘bunny-boiler’. Used to describe Glenn Close’s femme fatale Alex in Fatal Attraction (directed by Adrian Lyne and released in 1987), it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary and remains a short hand for a particular kind of jealousy, or obsessive or vengeful behaviour. A dubious honour, but an esteemed mark of cultural relevance – and of course it helps that the original film is far superior to the formulaic imitators it initiated.
As is the case with many femme fatales, Alex Forrester’s reputation precedes her. Her increasingly desperate attempts to exact revenge on her married lover Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) remain a ‘lesson’ to men who fail to face up to their responsibilities, and feeds the cliché that women are either sexual predators or contented home-bodies. Yet the film could’ve had a very different legacy. The ending – in which Alex is shot dead by Dan’s wife Beth (Anne Archer) – was only implemented after test audiences made it clear they expected a ‘happy’ conclusion. According to the film’s scriptwriter James Deardon: “The single biggest cheer the film got in previews was when Dan’s wife said the line, ‘This is Beth Gallagher. If you ever come near my family again, I’ll kill you.’” The conclusion was amended accordingly, although not without protestations from Close, who thought it undermined her character.
In the original ending (available on the DVD release) Dan is arrested after Alex is found apparently murdered. The suspected murder weapon – a kitchen knife – has his fingerprints on it. Dan protests his innocence, claiming he’s been framed but the police cart him off to jail anyway. But then, Beth finds a tape Alex made in which she admits she’ll kill herself if she can’t be with Dan… cut to a final flashback in which Alex slits her own throat whilst as aria from Madame Butterfly plays in the background. Much more complex and considerably darker, and one in which Alex is the victim and Dan defies the ‘hero’ role – after all, he’s not exactly blameless. For the studio and audiences, it was easier to paint Alex as the villain, rather than the ‘wronged woman’, a construct that sat uneasily with the idealised vision of family.
And whilst it’s true that the ending is too neat, neither director, writer or actress can complain too much – the film was a commercial success, and the highest grossing movie in its year of release. The success can partly be attributed to the furore the film attracted, which included a Time and People cover, and hours of debate: was it a parable about Aids? A commentary on a permissive society? An attack on feminism and career women? When the film was released it incited a feminist backlash, which criticised Lyne’s negative portrayal of career women, the idea that women still had to choose between men and a career, that single women really were better off dead.
Yet Fatal Attraction isn’t completely anti-feminist. Alex’s demands that Dan face up to consequences of his actions aren’t unreasonable – they are rational and understandable expectations. It’s his inability to manage them that escalate the problem and set in motion a desperate chain of events in which Alex becomes increasingly psychotic. But it’s difficult to really feel any sympathy for her character because the film is told through the eyes of Dan. Everything that’s threatened belongs in his world, nothing is considered through the eyes of a single female. The message? That women who seek liberty or equality pay with empty beds and incomplete lives: the sanctity of family triumphs over everything. Passion is – and will be – punished.
Watching the film almost 28 years later, questions about attitudes to sex and women still arise, forcing considerations about what has – and hasn’t – changed. Generally, there’s a greater sympathy for Alex. It’s much more difficult to buy Douglas’ ‘everyman’ performance and give credibility to his innocence. Dan knew what he was doing – and endangering – when he slept with Alex. He might not have known the extent of her mental illness but there was a line that he crossed and everyone, especially movie characters, knows that all actions come with consequences. Especially those that involve sex.
Of course, one of the film’s major flaws is that the audience never really gets close to understanding what drives Alex’s actions. Her early suicide attempts are an undeniable act of manipulation, but one that’s never fully explored other than through the problems that they cause Dan. Perhaps audiences in the 1980s were satisfied with the ‘woman scorned’ angle, but now that seems like an oversimplification. This is a woman with deep-seated physiological problems that don’t excuse her behaviour but go a long way to explaining it. In a more liberal era, it’s harder to buy the left-on-the-shelf fear as motivation. There has to be something else – from past relationships, childhood or any other Freudian cliché you care to float – that can explain her evil, because ‘career girl goes mad in the face of domestic bliss’ just doesn’t seem ample justification. The fact that the audience never gets an insight deep into Alex’s psyche increased the stigma around mental illness – in more recent interviews Close has come close to apologising for the portrayal, claiming that actors have a ‘moral responsibility’ to explain the complexities, rather than simplifying the issue: “Most people with mental illness are not violent… it is immoral to keep that perpetuated”.
In contrast to Dan, Alex doesn’t seem to have any friends (another lesson to independent women?) who can counsel her actions or offer advice. The scene where she sits on her bedroom floor listening to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly whilst repeatedly switching a table lamp on and off is heartbreaking. Her apparent confidence – both in her career and in her sexual encounters – exists only on the surface, a mask that she wears to complete a performance that doesn’t really capture who she is. Madness doesn’t capture the nuances – Alex is a study of desperation and loneliness. At the most superficial level, the moral of Fatal Attraction (for women) is that casual sex should never be construed as anything more and that (for men) it’s wise pick your one-night-stand partners carefully.
Despite the dramatic final scenes, there’s one line of dialogue that sums up both the film and its legacy. ‘This is what you reduced me to’, screams Alex. She might be referring to her increasingly irrational actions, but the sentiment has broader meaning within the context of Fatal Attraction where women are either/or, but never and. Consider: Beth is a wife, a homemaker – but never sexy. In fact, she’s wholesome even when she’s applying lipstick (most of the family home scenes are infused with a warm yellow light). Alex is sexy and independent, a career girl who exists in an industrial city setting that’s reached via a cage lift. There’s nothing warm about her stark white walls and bed linen. Trapped in a femme fatale construct she can’t escape from, her outburst is a challenge to Dan but also to audience and cultural prejudices that have placed her in a box. Yes, the film takes characterisation to the extreme, but it also creates an archetypal template for a certain kind of femininity and puts the stamp on what it means to exist within those confines.
Ultimately, Fatal Attraction is a psychological thriller that short-changed its most interesting character in pursuit of box office success. Close was right to protest against the reshot ending – it might have pleased the masses but it redirected attention to secondary issues. This shouldn’t be a hysterical film about a man’s experience with a ‘bad’ woman and the merits of subservient wives, rather rumination on relationships and responsibility, the line between rationality and madness and the emotional facets of marriage. This is a film that has relevance for both men and women, it’s disappointing that it chose cookie-cut out characters and easy explanations.