Fatal Attraction (1987): AIDS Parable, Women, and Family

At times, a movie doesn’t have to be artistically good in order to become an cultural event, or stir a controversy.  Fatal Attraction, directed by Adrian Lyne in 1987, seized the year’s unconscious obsessions and put them into a vivid dramatic form. Director Brian De Palma deemed “Fatal Attraction” a “post-feminist AIDS thriller.”

The AIDS connection was not lost on anyone. Played by Glenn Close, Alex, the monster-woman, functions as disease and punishes Michael Douglas’s family for his sexual promiscuity. Alex, like Jason in “Friday the Thirteenth films,” condemns the sexually active and sexually irresponsible.

“Fatal Attraction” is a film about the fear of sex and how terrible sex can be. The sex scenes in ther movie are tinged with horror. In the famous scene between Douglas and Close, which begins in the kitchen sink, there’s a sense of foreboding. The Village Voice’s critic Jim Hoberman noted, “Just below the surface, “Fatal Attraction” illustrates the bleak wisdom of popular songs and the craziness implicit in the idea of `love at first sight’ or `it had to be you.’ The film is compelling because, ultimately, there’s no such thing as safe sex.” This may be the reason why “Fatal Attraction” became the definitive film of the year.

It’s really a film made by–and for–the public; the movie found its meaning in the heated debates it sparked wherever it played. The critic Pauline Kael deemed “Fatal Attraction, “a movie almost guaranteed to start sour irresolvable arguments.” Indeed, people were talking and arguing about the principal characters of Alex, the husband, and the wife. Who should have done what Who had been wronged the most What it all meant for their lives Viewers also discussed Beth’s murder of Alex and her baby at the end of the film. One Manhattan psychoanalyst reported that, “I know the picture is a hit, because out of my seven patients, five have brought up the movie.”

Many of the arguments inspired by the film centered on issues of feminism. The film was released around the 25th anniversary of the women’s movement, and the successes and failures of the women’s movement came into play in giving these arguments an extra charge. The film was often compared to the book “Women Who Love Too Much.” To some, it was pro-feminist, to others, anti-feminist. Dan is a feminized male and Alex is a masculinized female: Some people thought that this was progressive and other people hated it. Most people were on the side of Dan and Beth, but others sympathized with Alex.

The role of Alex had its antecedents in 1915’s “A Fool There Was,” the first vamp movie, “Leave Her to Heaven,” “Detour,” and many of Barbara Stanwyck vehicles. Quite a few critics and fans have also noted the formidable similarities between Fatal Attraction and the 1971 Clint Eastwood film Play Misty for Me. In fact, both John Carpenter and Brian De Palma refused to direct “Fatal Attraction,” because they felt it was a rip-off of “Play Misty for Me.” Other films that “Fatal Attraction” borrows from include “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “Les Diaboliques,” and even a shot from “Closely Watched Trains.”

Couples were convinced to stop cheating on each other by “Fatal Attraction.” In an interview, Glenn Close told of how she was approached by a woman in her mid-40s, with husband in tow: “She had enjoyed ‘Fatal Attraction,’ and was taking him to see it `so he’ll never cheat on me.’ And he goes `Huh-huh’–this nervous little laugh.” Jim Stegall, a 35-year-old Miami ad salesman, reported that: “I saw a lot of couples looking at each other sideways as they walked out. The meaning of that look was obvious: Don’t even think about having an affair.”

When writer James Conlon went to see Fatal Attraction, he overheard a man telling his companion, “Well…so much for fooling around” as the lights came up. And Adrian Lyne confessed that, “I’ve had men ring me up and say, `Thanks a million, buddy, you’ve ruined it for us.'” The film suggested that Alex’s assumption that a one-night stand is something grown up do, was an idea way out of bounds in l987. The word-of-mouth was that every couple should see “Fatal Attraction” as a precaution against betrayal.

Along with the film’s stern precautionary tone came a new familialism, and people became interested again in having traditional families–and bonds. Pauline Kael humorously mentioned in her review of “Fatal Attraction” that one of the film’s implicit messages was that, “the family that kills together stays together.” At the same time, “Fatal Attraction” caused working women to reassess their lives, especially single working women. This is primarily a result of Alex’s negative image. Supermarket tabloids carried pictures of Glenn Close with the subtitle of “The Most Hated Woman in America.” The Sunday Express in Britain termed this kind of antagonistic reaction, “the Alex effect.” At the end of the film, audiences were known to scream “Kill the bitch! Kill the bitch!”

The film played off of women feeling used by men. Alex is sexually liberated and successful in her career, yet she is still obsessed with a man. Her talk of responsibility and commitment is made of the same aggressiveness and anger of feminist rhetoric, and yet she is addicted to a married man. Alex is also a woman who has sought independence through her career, but suddenly finds she has lost the option to go back home. Glenn Close gave the script to three psychiatrists (including her own) to help her come up with this loaded portrayal of the 1980s woman gone wrong.