Fatal Attraction became a flashpoint because it so cleverly rode the discussion of what Time called “retrenchment along the sexual front lines”; due to collective terror about AIDS, “folks on dates don’t know whether to cross their legs or their fingers.” The film was released one year after “The Marriage Crunch,” the controversial Newsweek cover story that claimed that statistically women over 40 were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to ever reach the altar. (Alex is 36.) The movie also came out the year that our last big stock market crash put a temporary end to Yuppiedom, the exaltation of ritzy, childless urban living. When Dan and Alex walk back to her apartment in the meatpacking district, the street is a maze of bloody beef; the couple practically has to shadowbox the cows to get to the apartment door. Humans, Lyne would have you know, shouldn’t live in such a place.
Free vs. married, city vs. suburbs: In this cultural death match, Lyne comes down squarely on the side of monogamy, of dewy trees and Scarsdale safety. The city in Fatal Attraction is as glitteringly seductive—and false—as Alex herself. No woman, the movie insists, really wants casual sex. She’s always after your manhood—your seed, your salary.
Many of the stalker knockoffs that have followed are so formulaic they make Fatal Attraction look like Citizen Kane. They often nearly plagiarize Lyne’s plot points, even his sets: empty parking lots, car crashes on winding roads, death by drowning. The guys, super successful and wildly popular, are always essentially good guys. Sexually, they’re tender—slow, soft kissers; hand holders; hair strokers. “I love you. Nothing’s going to come between us,” Christopher Egan assures his girlfriend in 2009’s The Crush. “I shouldn’t do this,” he then warns the girl in the red bikini who jumps his bones—and holds that moral stance for about 12 seconds. Seven years earlier, in Swimfan, Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) proclaimed to his girlfriend, “I love you. Nothing’s gonna change that,” and informed the temptress (Erika Christensen) “I can’t do this” right before … he did. The Good Partner (whether wife or girlfriend) and the She-Devil always have contrasting hair colors for easy ID, with the bad girl generally blond. (Beyoncé, as wife, says to the blond stalker in 2009’s Obsessed: “You think you’re crazy? I’ll show you crazy. Just try me, bitch!”)
What elevates Fatal Attraction above its clones—other than having gotten there first and Lyne’s skill with portentous atmosphere—is Glenn Close’s performance. The role of Alex was a career changer for her. Because she had been previously typecast as a nice girl, Close had to lobby hard for the role. She campaigned against the revised ending, deeming Alex’s descent into homicidal rage highly implausible, but eventually took one for the team, delivering a pitch-perfect slide from urbane to insane.
Finally, however, creepy and credible as Close’s performance is, it’s not her movie. It’s the man’s movie, and it’s the man with whom we’re asked to identify. Capable of bunny-soft foreplay, of making tea, Dan also gets his hard-pounding, pants-around-the-ankles quickie with a stranger. Talk about wish fulfillment! Is it his fault that he’s irresistible? When Lyne revisited the theme of superbad, A-on-the-forehead adultery in 2002 in the far less successful Unfaithful—this time the wife cheats, with equally disastrous results—Richard Gere plays the Everyman. What woman in her right mind would betray such a soulful-yet-sexy guy? And with a sleazy Frenchman, no less?
The French may have claimed the patent on sex melodramas as far back as Zola’s Therese Raquin (1873). Lyne has owned up to being inspired by French films, especially Claude Chabrol’s. But the double standard about male and female sexuality has far less of a stranglehold in French culture. Perhaps for this reason, French stalker films tend to treat the female characters’ motivations with much more respect. See Nathalie and its sad-sack 2009 English-language remake, Chloe, for a case study in how much better the French do smoldering sex and existential erotic confusion. For a stalker story that actually deigns to consider the deranged woman’s point of view, you can look to Francois Truffaut’s 1975 masterpiece The Story of Adele H—which is set in 1863, in case you need evidence that stalking is not a totally new phenomenon.
Stalking behavior has evolved to make use of the available technology. True, you can still pour acid on a guy’s car. But caller ID has sounded the death knell for hang-up phone calls, and an Internet search engine allows you to keep track of your beloved with far less actual footwork. But what’s really changed is the tone. Since Fatal Attraction, a subgenre has taken an alternate route toward the comical. The movie (along with other thrillers) was directly spoofed in Carl Reiner’s 1993 Fatal Instinct. By 1998’s There’s Something About Mary, the stalker is no longer darkly dangerous but ridiculous—and just as likely to be male. In the more recent Dinner for Schmucks, the stalker is a purely satirical trope; she has a leather corset and, as the script puts it, “powerful thighs that could crush a man’s head.”
What feels most dated about Fatal Attraction today is the very thing that made the film such a huge success: Dan Gallagher’s affable, good-natured innocence. Entering Alex is as dumb as entering an unlit haunted house alone. It begins to look an awful lot like cluelessness. After Fatal Attraction, any man would be suspicious of this big-earring’d witch in her tight dress from the moment she lit her long cigarette and waved it around to highlight her lacquered talons. He would be more self-aware about the possible consequences of thinking with his dick, which is why the hero of Obsessed has to Just Say No from the get-go. Someone as debonair as Dan, who had presumably gotten other invitations to dally, should at least have the good sense to pick someone who’s married herself—someone along the lines of, say, Diane Lane in Unfaithful. They could hook up in the sexy city, then go back to their respective white Cape Cods and cute tots and waggy-tailed Labrador retrievers. In real life and in France, as opposed to in the movies, not every good orgasm has to be punished.