Fatal Attraction 25th anniversary: History of stalker movies.

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Sept. 17 2012 9:06 AM

The Tempted Husband, the Crazy Bitch, and the Rabbit

On the 25th anniversary of Fatal Attraction and the stalker movies it inspired.

Glenn Close in Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction.
Glenn Close in Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Next to the stud horse whose decapitated head winds up in the bed in The Godfather, the most famous mistreated pet in the history of film may be the white rabbit in Fatal Attraction. Those who saw the movie when it was released 25 years ago this week will recall how the crazy bitch stalking the married man kills his kid’s bunny and sets it boiling on the stove. The good wife lifts the lid of the pot to a pretty tasteful reveal—a clipped overhead shot of fur, a discreet dab of blood—and she screams, along with the audience, even though everyone surely knew what was coming.

The “bunny boiler” remains a potent archetype of a dangerous, predatory woman, her mental state as screwy as the coils of her permed hair. Don’t believe her when she claims she’s just after a night of mutual pleasure. This vagina dentata will ruin your life and is emphatically not worth the five minutes of sizzling sex at the kitchen sink.

Fatal Attraction was nominated for six Oscars (including best picture), earned more than $150 million, and was the subject of intense debate about whether its message was offensively sexist. You’d think that a quarter-century later the movie’s melodrama about the dangers of straying would have badly dated. You’d be wrong. Fatal Attraction still expresses our Puritan queasiness about sexual desire much better than the swarm of stalker rip-offs that it has spawned—as well as our insistence on blaming the skank for any threat to marital fidelity.

Adrian Lyne’s movie may be the mother of all stalker films, but it isn’t the father. Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut, features a horndog DJ with a cool crib and a vintage Jag convertible and whose one-night stand results in destruction of property and a suicide attempt. Brave Dave is forced to hurl the nutcase over a cliff to her death. But Dave is single. Fatal Attraction’s hero is a married man. And in case you didn’t get the memo: Infidelity is a bad, bad thing.

For this reason, the surprise international blockbuster had to claw its way to screen. Every studio passed. Hollywood decreed that a cheating husband could simply not be sympathetic. So screenwriter James Dearden made straying lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) more of a likeable “everyman” and Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), his one-weekend stand, spookier, more manipulative. Audiences needed to buy that a guy with a gorgeous wife—but whose cute kid is still crawling into bed with them—is within his testosteronal rights to fall prey to a woman who teases, “When was the last time you did it in an elevator?” (She knows just how to disable one between floors.)

The movie’s original ending, in which Alex kills herself to the swelling strains of Madame Butterfly, flopped in screen tests. So the coda was rewritten as a rousing revenge match between virtue and vixen. “I’m Beth Gallagher,” Dan’s wife (Anne Archer, permanently cast thereafter as The Wife) had warned Alex on the phone earlier. “If you ever come near my family again, I’ll kill you. Do you understand?” And boy, does she—after her hubby’s epic failure to drown Alex in the bathtub, Beth shows up, Dirty Harriet-style, with a gun.

As Susan Faludi wrote about the movie in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women in 1991, Fatal Attraction preached “the incompatibility of career and personal happiness … Women’s lives were framed as morality tales in which the ‘good mother’ wins and the independent woman gets punished.” The movie engendered feminist outrage about the depiction of “crazy career women,” much to the bewilderment of studio executive Sherry Lansing, who had to keep noting that she was a career woman herself—and had been drawn to the story out of sympathy for the mistreated, lonely Alex.

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.

Lisa Zeidner’s fifth novel, Love Bomb, is out now. She is a professor in the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden.