Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction

Shortly after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, video stores across the country reported a big spike in rentals for two older movies: Die Hard and The Towering Inferno.  It’s easy to see why:  Both movies posited a disaster in a doomed building that tested the resolve of heroes, and a day to be won by a combination of Yankee ingenuity and a refusal to give up.

The fact that so many looked to the movies for emotional support at that moment is not surprising.  The suddenness of the act, though, required us to find comfort in old movies.  Some disasters, though, move at a slow enough pace to give filmmakers the opportunity to respond while it is still in progress.  This may be true with Covid-19.  It was certainly true with AIDS.

By the late 80’s filmmakers had sufficient time to process the disease and its wreckage to create stories that directly tackled its toll.  What few filmmakers could find was an appropriate form of address.  Films like It’s My Party, Philadelphia, and Longtime Companions desperately sought hope in a hopeless situation.  While this is, of course, a worthy task, it must also be said that turning AIDS into a feelgood story wasn’t really a good way to do it.  Longtime Companions, for example, is filled with many moving scenes and performances, but the desperation on the part of the filmmakers to instill some hope led to a mawkish and ill-conceived ending where all the characters who died of AIDS miraculously show up on a Long Island beach for a big hug fest.

There were other films, though, that tackled the subject metaphorically.  In so doing, they were able to use traditional genres to get away from clinical details and tackle the broader social impact of an uncontrollable contagion.  This approach led to a spate of thrillers in the late 80’s and early 90’s that looked at the potentially destructive power of indiscriminate sex.  Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, for example, begins with a woman being sexually abused by her doctor.  Her report and his subsequent suicide unleashes the “virus” that is the doctor’s widow.  She then sets out to destroy not just the victim but those who are closest to her.

The smartest, and certainly most popular of these is Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction.  Set in the world of the Young Urban Professionals (yes, yuppies), Lyne details the way a virus spreads once it is let loose.  In this case, the virus is an attractive but deeply unstable woman named Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), a sociopath who sees no humanity in her victims and therefore no mercy in her relentless destruction.

Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) has it all.  He has a loving wife, Beth (Anne Archer), a precocious daughter, a fulfilling job, and he is about to move from a luxury condo to a big house in the suburbs.  For Dan, such security translates into a sense of omnipotence.  He is so convinced that he controls his world that he’s an easy mark for the most predatory female this side of Double Indemnity.  He thinks he is getting a simple weekend of nookie with Alex.  What he is doing, though, is starting a chain reaction that will threaten his life and the lives of those closest to him.  Even the family rabbit.

Lyne constructs the visual landscape of the film with a scrupulous sense of control.  Alex is frequently dressed in blazing white, but her apartment is sterile, shadowed and heavily laden with deadly objects (does anybody really need that many knives in the kitchen?).  And the placement of her apartment is nicely realized.  It is an upscale unit situated in a neighborhood in the warehouse district.  Lyne backlights the rising steam and wet streets to give the area the eerie beauty of a hellscape, one that Dan has to walk through to get to his deadly tryst.

This world is contrasted by the bright, cluttered and cozy world of the Gallagher home.  These are so distinctly separated that one of the biggest frights in the movie comes when Dan unexpectedly discovers Alex in the living room making friends with Beth.  The virus has entered the personal space and is now free to roam at will.

Over the years, Fatal Attraction has taken a lot of heat for it’s ending, sparking the question:  How many times can Glenn Close die?  It’s certainly true that a new jump shock was added at the end when the original didn’t quite work in previews.  At the same time, the add-on has the effect of maximizing the idea of an unstoppable force, one which strikes in such a way as to make Dan and Beth’s post-virus life wary and insecure.

Fatal Attraction could easily have turned into just another fun but forgettable shocker.  It doesn’t because of three distinct elements.  The performances are uniformly first rate.  While it is certainly true that Close created a character that has become a cultural touchstone (if you think I’m joking, take a look at this:  SNL:Jake Tapper), the emotional power of the film comes from Anne Archer’s deceived Beth.  The film is also an extraordinary document that details a very specific time and place with utter precision.  It’s view of upscale New Yorkers in the late 80’s is far more acute and pointed than the simultaneously shot and starred Wall Street.

Most important, though, is the rigor with which Lyne lays out his metaphor without once overplaying his hand.  At a time when politicians and a significant portion of the populace dismissed AIDS as the “gay plague,” Fatal Attraction moved the observations and the emotional responses to such devastation into the straight world.  In doing so, the opportunity was offered to the naysayers to see and understand the impact of a deadly virus.  After all, most of these people would never have dreamed of going to see a movie about gay people dying. Did audiences see the metaphor at the time?  Surely some did and some didn’t.  All, though, were exposed, and somewhere in all the discussions that Fatal Attraction engendered, a recognition- and a newfound sympathy - may have occurred.

It’s a safe bet that a thousand screenwriters are currently working out ideas for films about Covid-19. The smart ones would do well to sit at home and watch Fatal Attraction.