The laws of Fatal Attraction: the sanctity of family vs. the female villain

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.

Fatal Attraction Glenn Close

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.

Fatal Attraction Glenn Close

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.

Fatal Attraction Glenn Close

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.

Fatal Attraction Glenn Close

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”.

Fatal Attraction Glenn Close

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.

Fatal Attraction Glenn Close

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.

Fatal Attraction Glenn Close Fatal Attraction Glenn Close

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.

This post is part of The Great Villian blogathon hosted by the dastardly Silver Screenings, Speakeasy and Shadows & Satin. Check out all the villainous entries here… you won’t be disappointed!

21 thoughts on “The laws of Fatal Attraction: the sanctity of family vs. the female villain

  1. A great review. I like the complications you delve into here, as Alex is a far more interesting character than Dan, and deserved a fuller characterization. I always find it funny that they chose Anne Archer for the wife and made her tone down her considerable sensuality–is it possible for Anne Archer not to be sexy? I pair the film now with Unfaithful, and wish that, as in that film, the spouse was the one who had become unhinged in Fatal Attraction, as that far more disquieting possibility would have implicated Dan more. I still like the start of the film because Glenn Close is so compelling in it, so riveting as this sexy career woman. It’s too bad that she wasn’t given more screen time.

  2. Fine review and context of the film and villain, miss v. I always thought The Madame Butterfly angle was laid on a tad thick and using Alex as a counter to “family” and “family-values” a bit of a cheat. But, then again this was the 80s under Reagan. The popular ending was unfortunate. Much preferred Deardon’s original. But then again, I also like better the film that inspired this (remake). Play Misty For Me. If you’re interested, I wrote a piece a few years ago why I do.

    As usual, you write with deft insight. Great blogathon article. Thanks for this.

  3. Great review! It’s always interesting to see how a movie ages over time, and it sounds like this one is a product of the 1980s. It’s discouraging to think about Michael Douglas’ character getting off rather lightly in the end, while Glenn Close’s character has to take all the punishment.

    You touched on an interesting point: How much more complex and interesting would the movie be if it were told from Close’s point of view?

    I’ve never actually seen “Fatal Attraction” in its entirety, which defies explanation because – despite its flaws – is such a compelling movie with terrific performances. However, I’m keen to see all of it now with your insights in mind. Thanks for this contribution to the blogathon!

  4. This was an excellent analysis of Fatal Attraction and the character of Alex. I haven’t seen this movie since I saw it at the show when it came out, but I remember well how everyone was talking about it. I greatly enjoyed your take on Alex as well as Dan and his wife. Really good stuff. Thanks so much for contributing it to the blogathon!

  5. I was thinking, as I wrote this, how I’ve never had much enthusiasm for either Douglass or Close as actors and I think that it has to do with the characterizations in this film, in which both of them arrived in my (then-juvenile) consciousness. In my youth, I didn’t like the Douglass character because he was behaving dishonorably–but the sentiment for Close’s character wasn’t so high-minded. Her instability repulsed me, not for the fictional danger she represents, but the underlying weakness. At that time in my life, relationships were short–not quite like the hook-up culture we hear about today, but there was plenty of fooling around. Some girls, though, guys talked about keeping away from even though they might be attractive or (ahem) consistently receptive–they got the title “friend for life,” as in, “if you fool around with her you’re going to have a friend for life.” That’s the Close character’s perceived crime here, too–she didn’t want to play the one and done game and wouldn’t go away–although we hide it beneath scorn for her mental frailty. I remember thinking how depressing the story becomes absent the illness–if she’s just a regular, sane person looking for a human connection: the resolution is her sadness. Yep, I’m pretty sure I still hate this movie.

  6. Great article. I’ve always loved this movie, but it’s been quite a while since I saw it last. You make some excellent points that I honestly just didn’t consider when I watched it all those years ago. I need to rewatch this and I definitely need to see that original ending which I never have. It sounds wonderfully dark and thought provoking.

  7. Great review. Aside from the bunny boiling, as a woman, I felt sorry for Alex for all of the reason you mention. INstead of the bunny, she should have thrown Douglas in the pot.

  8. This is a big one in the cinema villains lineup, good choice and writeup, I saw this when it came out but like some other commenters I look forward to reviewing it after reading your points. Thanks for taking part in the blogathon.

  9. I’m another one who saw this film on release, but haven’t revisited it for many years. I do remember feeling it was unfair to Alex and over-kind to Dan. Very interesting to learn how the ending was changed to wife versus mistress. Great contribution to the blogathon!

  10. Well done (as always). It’s been years since I saw this, but I remember my thought at the time was that I was sorry that what began as a great, nuanced character (Alex) was reduced to being a shrieking caricature in the films finale. I thought that showed a profound disrespect for a great character.

  11. The 80s was a weird time in terms of gender-relations. In the 20s and 30s women made great strides – the ideas of careers and sexuality were opened up…only to be shut back down again by the 1950s. And then the EXACT SAME cycle happened again, through the making progress through 60s/70s only to face a backlash in the 80s.

    I would say what is dis-empowering about Alex isn’t that she’s alone…but that she minds. She can’t just enjoy being young and sexy and having a great job. She can’t be happy to just hump-and-dump a coworker, no. These have to be shown to be unfulfilling.

    (I accidentally left this comment on the wrong story essay originally – apologies. Feel free to point and laugh.)

  12. Beautiful feminist essay! Thios reminds me of a movie I saw days ago, David and Batsheba with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. I was disgusted by the way Batsheba was seen as a sexual predator in some moments. Luckily, she wasn’t judged and condemned to die by the hands of the hysterical crowd!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

  13. Good article, although I would say that Dan, as far as Alex is concerned, is blameless. He was a dick to his wife, but not really to Alex. Alex knew Dan was married and decided to go on with the affair anyway. I feel sympathy for Alex, even if she has the character traits of an abuser (for instance, self harm when she does not get her way) and obviously her reactions to the situation go far above and beyond whatever Dan has done to her.
    The feminist criticism is still necessary– the fact that Alex is a career woman, and the fact that Borderline Personality Disorder is almost always seen as a female disorder. I can say from personal experience that men can act in similar ways to Alex.

  14. Very late to this but very appreciative nonetheless. Wonderful article. I cannot believe how the world, or myself in it, has changed over the last decades, but just finished watching the film again and was deeply moved and stricken for Alex throughout. And it was only after watching it again that I saw Ms. Close’s concerns posted on the Amazon IMDB material. I’ve always appreciated her and her work, and sad, really, it wasn’t until now, in middle life, that I saw how extraordinarily deep Glen took her character down inside to bring us all to look more keenly, and compassionately, at human pain, however it’s painted.

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