Susan Faludi’s 1991 bestseller, Backlash, was subtitled The Undeclared War Against American Women. It imagined popular culture as a battlefield for the hearts and minds of paying customers and rubberneckers alike, with casualties strewn across the airwaves and movie screens. At its core, Faludi’s thesis claimed that advances made by the contemporary feminist movement had been overstated and even vilified by conservative media, whose simplistic and unflattering depictions of so-called “career” women as frustrated or emotionally stunted belied a deeper and pervasive sexism—one that sought to punish its rivals for wanting it all in the first place. In one chapter, Faludi quotes a 1987 interview with Michael Douglas in which the actor—then probably the biggest movie star in America—claimed to be “sick” of feminists, adding that “guys are going through a terrible crisis right now because of women’s demands.”
A generous observer might claim that Douglas was offering this insight in character, as his Fatal Attraction protagonist Dan Gallagher, a low-maintenance, high-priced New York lawyer who spends the film suffering through a terrible crisis because of one woman’s demands. That’d be Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), the frizzy-haired temptress who seduces Dan while his wife and daughter are away for the weekend and then, for reasons known only to her—and kept skillfully, ominously opaque by Adrian Lyne’s Oscar-nominated direction—refuses to settle for fling status. “You won’t answer my calls, you change your number,” she tells him during one argument. “I won’t be ignored.” In other words: She is woman, hear her roar.
Of course, Helen Reddy never boiled a bunny—a grotesquely hilarious scene that entered the national lexicon and served up some extreme viscera for audiences who normally wouldn’t be caught dead at the grindhouse. (It turns out that the critter in the pot was real.) A glossy, confident piece of studio engineering cast and packaged for maximum prestige, Fatal Attraction was a genuine phenomenon; it was nominated for six Academy Awards and grossed $320 million at the box office. It ended up being one of the most profitable R-rated movies of a decade dominated by all-ages spectacles and sequels—an emblem of that mythical species once known as “movies for grown-ups.”
A widespread nostalgia for that period and its sleazy, skeezy pleasures was palpable last year when Lyne made his comeback with Deep Water, which attempted to resuscitate the erotic thriller genre, of which Fatal Attraction stands as a Reagan-era apex. (It got halfway there on the strength of Ben Affleck’s broodingly hilarious performance as a scheming suburban sociopath.) That nostalgia is still lingering: On Sunday, Paramount debuts its new streaming remake of Fatal Attraction, which stars Joshua Jackson and Lizzy Caplan and, based on the trailer, plays a few of the original’s greatest hits (Caplan isn’t going to be ignored, either). The idea of a pop culture landscape so imaginatively depleted that studios are reduced to renovating R-rated intellectual properties (a Dead Ringers remake just hit Prime Video, by the way) would actually make for a great satirical comedy, but leaving aside the question of whether Fatal Attraction 2.0 is any good, the reboot probably isn’t necessary—and almost certainly not for the reasons its creators may have intended. When Close said in 2019 that she would be interested in seeing things from Alex’s point of view, it was a well-intentioned comment that belied an inconvenient truth: that Fatal Attraction’s power is bound up in its political incorrectness.
The idea that some movies are valuable—and even important—not in spite of their shortcomings but because of them doesn’t have much traction at the moment, when films are primarily used as props in ideological arguments. A more progressive version of Fatal Attraction that sides with Alex is unlikely to channel the same polarizing impulses as the original; the very qualities that made Fatal Attraction and its creators into heavies in Faludi’s book render it oddly monumental 36 years later.
The source material for Fatal Attraction was a 40-minute 1979 British short film by James Dearden called Diversion. Whether or not Diversion is perfect, it’s definitely effective: a quiet, subtle, slow-burning drama that resonates with a sense of dread but never plunges into histrionics. While Fatal Attraction more or less replicates the plot of Diversion (at least until the ending), the version that went into production was more spiritually aligned with Clint Eastwood’s 1971 debut, Play Misty for Me, another movie about a man going through a crisis in the form of an obsessed stalker. The hiring of Lyne—at that point the poster boy for MTV-style vacuity, having triumphed at the box office with Flashdance—meant there would be a swifter, punchier pace than in the short, and Dearden was paired with the clever veteran screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (then the steward of the Star Trek franchise) to properly Americanize the action.
With Meyer’s help, Lyne was able to style Fatal Attraction as the missing link between two crucial, sociologically loaded ’80s subgenres: the sweaty, post–Body Heat neo-noir, and the aspirational yuppie melodrama. In Wall Street, Douglas was an avatar of free-market avarice, claiming with a Mephistophelean grin that “greed is good.” In Fatal Attraction, the message was the same, but stitched into the designer lining of the Gallaghers’ bedsheets and bathroom towels. Because our hero is affluent, he has that much more to lose; that he seems to be an honest white-collar working stiff instead of a corporate raider like Gordon Gekko barely conceals the triumphal subtext.
If Dan is comfortable, Alex is sleek and high-end: The ringlets that helped Close win the part give her a sharp, asymmetrical chic that Lyne plays against the wholesome softness of Anne Archer as Dan’s wife, Beth. Lyne is at his best in the scenes in Alex’s loft, which is in New York City’s Meatpacking District, surrounded by flaming trash barrels; it features a spooky old freight elevator and plenty of sterile stainless steel surfaces, all of which get used for sex. (The choreography that finds Douglas stumbling around her apartment with his pants around his ankles was hailed for its frankness, although the love scenes would have nothing on his pairing with Sharon Stone a few years later in Basic Instinct.) In addition to her bracingly minimalist decor, Alex is full of surprises, including slashing her wrists in front of Dan, impersonating a real estate agent, and abducting a small child in a scene so absurd that the movie seems to rush through it in embarrassment. Even when alone in her apartment, Alex cuts a striking figure: sitting on the floor bare-legged, compulsively listening to Puccini while flicking the lights on and off, she splits the difference between Greta Garbo and Norman Bates—she wouldn’t hurt a (madame) butterfly.
It’s a fine line between pathos and ridiculousness, and Close—who basically had to seduce producers Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing into casting her against fears she wasn’t “sexual” enough for the part—walks it like a velvet tightrope. It’s a great performance that, in its way, forces the movie’s hand against her. Because Close fully inhabits her character’s sensual, upbeat life force—the qualities that make her so attractive in the early scenes where she’s throwing off and receiving signals from her new work pal Dan—it’s that much harder to root for Douglas, whose disingenuous blandness makes him a pretty pallid Everyman. From there, in order for the film’s staunchly male point of view to pay off, Alex has to be twisted into a monster—a straw woman for the supposedly insatiable appetites of second-wave equality-mongers, ready-made to burn in effigy.
Or, as it turned out, to drown, medieval-witch style. Famously, Paramount—or more specifically, its market research department, headed by tastemaker Joseph Farrell—insisted that Lyne change the film’s ending. The upshot of this meddling resulted in something that looked an awful lot like Friday the 13th. In the reshot climax, Dan discovers a distraught, soggy Alex holding Beth at knifepoint in an upstairs bathroom and chokes her half to death; lurching out of the tub like a Shining apparition, she’s then blown away by Archer’s happy homemaker, a gesture that wipes the slate (and Dan’s hands) as clean as the tile.
In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael—not exactly a conventional feminist advocate—rolled her eyes at the conflation of vigilante justice and cozy domesticity: “The family that kills together stays together.” She was making a joke, but there isn’t a whisper of satire in Fatal Attraction, an absence that becomes even more glaring if you compare it to another 1987 horror movie: Joseph Ruben’s adroit, Hitchcockian The Stepfather, whose nameless, itinerant antihero (played with discomfiting intensity by Terry O’Quinn) moves from household to household seducing divorcées and appropriating their family units until he inevitably grows disenchanted with their faults and slaughters them en masse. A wickedly funny riff on consumer culture in which defiant wives and moody teens are perceived as faulty merchandise, The Stepfather prods where Fatal Attraction panders; for all his button-pushing, Lyne doesn’t subvert his genre, or his audience’s expectations.
He also didn’t stand up for the material: In its original incarnation, the ending of Fatal Attraction found Alex martyring herself and fingering Dan for her murder—a trickier (and more noirish) wrap-up that radiated the same prudish, conservative vibes as the finished product but with a wryer, more cosmic sense of irony. Test audiences were mortified, however, leading Lansing to commission the newer, more crowd-pleasing ending, which undermines any complex sympathy for Alex and turns the character into a punch line. (“Didn’t you see Fatal Attraction,” yells Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle. “It scared the shit out of every man in America.”) In the end, the filmmakers, the executives, and the culture got the movie they deserved: one that pushed buttons while upholding the status quo.
It was the wrong choice, but also the right one: Whatever backlash existed against Fatal Attraction and its strategically finessed misogyny ultimately helped its bottom line and left its stamp on the consciousness. (It also made it into a teachable movie—a staple of gender studies syllabi to be deconstructed at leisure.) Not all classics are great movies; paradoxically, some could only be diminished through improvement. If Fatal Attraction endures, it’s not in spite of its flaws and implausibilities, but because of them. They can’t be ignored, and neither can the movie around them.