(This review has spoilers because I felt like it and I’ll do whatever the Hell I want.)
Today, we continue embracing the melodrama by taking a look at the 1987 best picture nominee, Fatal Attraction.
Fatal Attraction opens on a scene of domestic bliss, with lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) and his wife Beth (Anne Archer) in their luxurious Manhattan apartment, getting ready to go out for the night and waiting for the babysitter to arrive. Dan would appear to have it all: a successful career, a fat best friend, and a beautiful wife. However, when Beth and their daughter go out of town for the weekend, Dan ends up having an affair with Alex (Glenn Close). Dan assumes that it was just a weekend thing but Alex is soon stalking Dan. Trying to escape her, Dan moves his family out to the suburbs but Alex follows them. Soon, pet rabbits are being killed, Alex is breaking into the house with a knife, and it’s up to Beth to step up and reclaim her man.
I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about Fatal Attraction. On the one hand, it’s an undeniably well-made film. It’s well-acted and director Adrian Lyne pushes all of the right emotional buttons and keeps the action moving quickly. That the film is predictable doesn’t make it any the less effective. As a lover of horror movies, I appreciated the skill with which Lyne crafted the film’s scare scenes. Watching the movie, it was easy to see why Fatal Attraction was a huge box office success and why it continues to influence our culture to this very day.
And yet, at the same time, Fatal Attraction really annoys me.
The film is so well-made and so manipulative that it’s easy to miss the fact that Dan Gallagher is not only never punished for betraying his wife but he’s actually not held responsible for his actions in any way. Instead, the only person who is truly punished for their transgression is Alex. The film, after all, makes clear that Alex is the one pursuing Dan. In fact, it could be argued that when it comes to Dan and Alex, the traditional gender roles have been reversed. Alex (who, as opposed to the idealized Beth, has a name that is both masculine and feminine) is the aggressive one while Dan is the passive one who gives into temptation and, afterwards, feels guilty. After admitting his transgression, Dan is allowed to reclaim his manhood and continue on with his perfect life. However, Alex has no place in conventional society and therefore, she must be destroyed.
And so much the better if she’s destroyed by Beth, a woman who has no problem with accepting a traditionally domestic role.
Far too often, in the past, I know that my girl friends and I always assumed that men were simply incapable of resisting temptation. Therefore, if your boyfriend cheated on you, it really was not his fault. He was just being a guy. Instead, it was the other woman’s fault because she was the one who tempted him. (And, though we acknowledged this a lot less, it was also his girlfriend’s fault for allowing him to get into a position where he could be tempted in the first place.) But it was never truly guy’s fault and, as long as you made him suffer for a bit, it was always expected that you would forgive him and take him back.
That’s the same mentality that runs through Fatal Attraction (not to mention countless daytime talk shows where girlfriends and wives always beat up mistresses while their boyfriend or husband stands over to the side and watches, untouched). Yes, Dan did cheat on his perfect wife and yes, he feels terrible about it. But the real threat comes from the woman who pursued him despite knowing that he was married and then, afterwards, had the nerve to demand not to be ignored. (If anything, the film seems to be suggesting that everything would have been okay if Dan had just fucked someone who works in his office, as opposed to someone who he can’t control through money or the threat of societal shaming.) When, at the end of the film, Beth shoots Alex, it’s a crowd-pleasing moment but it’s also Beth’s way of reclaiming her man. Since Dan — being male — can’t be expected to exercise any sort of self-control, it’s the responsibility of Beth to step up and destroy the temptation.
For not respecting the vows of marriage, Alex is a monster who must be destroyed. Dan, on the other hand, is merely inconvenienced and ultimately, he ends up with a far stronger marriage as a result of having strayed.
In Fatal Attraction, the only thing more dangerous than sex with Alex is examining subtext.