Review and Analysis of a Cult Classic – Fatal Attraction (1987)

I’ve wanted to do this film for ages. There’s no doubt that ‘Fatal Attraction’ has had an influence on popular culture and is definitely a classic but I think that a little retrospective and analysis would be beneficial at this time. After all, ‘Fatal Attraction’ is a character driven film which documents every man’s worst nightmare.

With that, lets take a look at the plot.

Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a happily married man, loving father and a New York attorney. One weekend, while his wife, Beth (Anne Archer) is away visiting her parents with their daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen), Dan gets into some ‘extra-marital’ activities with an editor for a publishing company, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). In the aftermath, Alex begins to demand more and more time with Dan and he reluctantly obliges but when his family returns, he ends their very brief relationship. Enraged by his rejection, Alex becomes obsessed with Dan and starts stalking him and his family and as her threats and actions become more and more aggressive and psychotic, Dan finds himself facing his own responsibility. He’s unable to defend his actions but he can defend his family.

The script for ‘Fatal Attraction’ was written by British screenwriter, James Dearden and was based on a short film that he’d written and directed in 1980. Originally titled ‘Diversion’, and starring Stephen Moore and Cherie Lunghi, the plot was basically the same as ‘Fatal Attraction’. A guy sleeps around while his wife is away and the mistress becomes obsessed with him.

Bringing this little-known script to America was down to film producer and co-founder of Jaffe-Lansing productions, Mr Stanley R. Jaffe. Jaffe had discovered the script for ‘Diversion’ and approached screenwriter, Nicholas Meyer into helping Mr Dearden with re-writing the script and adapting it for a longer running time. Various plot suggestions and a new ending were put forward and once director, Adrian Lyne had been hired, he too put in some suggestions for the script. James Dearden and Nicholas Meyer rewrote ‘Diversion’ based on the suggestions they were given, and the subsequent shooting script was renamed ‘Fatal Attraction’.

Having seen ‘Diversion’, I can see the elements of what would become ‘Fatal Attraction’. Several lines and scenes from Diversion were used for the American adaptation. Given that Diversion is only 40 minutes, there’s not enough time for the characters to be developed properly so it doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot at stake.

I think it’s fair to say that ‘Diversion’ had some limited resources in terms of funding, largely that’s the case for short films. It’s not necessarily the case that ‘a film is only as good as the budget’ because there are plenty of examples of low-budget films being great and becoming big successes. Having said that, of the two, ‘Fatal Attraction’ is better. ‘Diversion’ is up on YouTube and just scrolling through the comments, the vast majority seem to hail ‘Diversion’ as significantly better and I’m struggling to see why.

I’ve seen far superior performances from Stephen Moore and whilst Cherie Lunghi is a very beautiful lady, I couldn’t help but notice the significant age difference between her character (Erica) and Stephen Moore’s character (Guy). There’s about 15 years between them so when Guy is giving the speech that Dan gives to Alex when he’s about to leave, right before she slits her wrists, it feels like Guy is talking to a petulant teenager rather than a fully grown woman because it looks like she’s behaving like one. On the flip side, in ‘Fatal Attraction’, Michael Douglas and Glenn Close are closer to the same age and so their interactions actually feel like conversations being spoken by real adults.

Whilst we’re veering near the subject, the ‘wrist slitting’ scene is also in ‘Diversion’, but it doesn’t hold the same ‘shock factor’ that it did in ‘Fatal Attraction’. It became an iconic scene in that movie and it’s portrayed in the same way as in both films, she puts her hands to the side of his face to conceal the blood and it’s only noticeable once the blood is on his face but Guy is surprisingly calm about having blood on his face and seeing that his lover has just slit her wrists whilst Dan reacts with shock and horror and seems more concerned and compassionate with Alex.

‘Diversion’ ends when Guy leaves Erica after her ‘suicide attempt’ and his wife comes home with the baby. The last scene is Erica constantly ringing Guy and his wife picks up the phone.

I’m done talking about ‘Diversion’ now. I wanted to talk more about ‘Fatal Attraction’ and so that’s what I’m going to do.

The concept of infidelity is a hot-button topic in reality and so in this film specifically, a man commits an act of infidelity and is punished for it. That’s one way of looking at it. However, even before the craziness, neither one of them have anything to be proud of. He offers to take her for an innocent dinner but she actually propositions him, fully in the knowledge that he’s married. Granted, he shouldn’t have accepted because as far as I could see, he had no reason to stray. His wife, Beth is lovely, he clearly loves his daughter and it didn’t look like he was having any problems either with his personal or professional life.

It could be that he didn’t have a very strong will. What I saw when they were having dinner is Alex coming on to him without being too forthright. It’s all in the subtle suggestive comments that she makes like asking him if he’s discreet and telling him that having dinner with her is not yet a crime. In short, she manages to seduce him without being slutty and that’s a masterful achievement of behalf of the script and Ms Close’s performance.

Glenn Close was remarkable in this film. Can you believe that the producers didn’t want her? At that time, Ms Close’s image was of a more ‘wholesome’ nature and the prospect of her being cast in an overtly ‘sexual’ role was something the producers couldn’t see. Nevertheless, Close read the script and felt that she was right for the role. She persisted and was granted some taped readings with Michael Douglas and she was handed the role outright and rightly so. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in that role, but I think I know the kind of person the producers wanted… and it would have been totally wrong.

I have a suspicion that they wanted someone with the look of Elizabeth Hurley circa ‘Bedazzled’. Someone who was absolutely, drop dead gorgeous. Someone who would portray the kind of character that would seduce a man by going ‘I’m not wearing any panties’ in some cut-rate interpretation of ‘Fatal Attraction’. I suspect that’s who they wanted but they struck gold with Glenn Close because she’s… well… meaning no disrespect, of course… normal. You know what I mean? She looks everyday, normal, unassuming. Still pretty but not in an overly obvious way which I think added greatly to her character. Alex doesn’t seduce Dan with her looks, but rather with her femininity.

Believe it or not, proper academic people have analysed and written reports about this film, specifically about the character of Alex and even more specifically, her mental state. After receiving the role, Glenn Close visited a few psychiatrists about her character to be able to gauge the mental state of Alex and be able to give a convincing performance.

One reported and also possible underlying condition is ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ which is also known as ‘Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder’ which sounds more on the mark for Alex. According to Wikipedia, the disorder is ‘a long-term pattern of abnormal behaviour characterised by unstable relationships with other people, unstable sense of self and unstable emotions’. I had a flick through the symptoms of ‘BPD’ and there are a few that Alex displays.

For example, ‘Intense or uncontrollable emotional reactions that often seem disproportionate to the event or situation.’ In the scene where Dan and Alex have just had sex, Dan gets up and gets dressed as he’s about to leave. Alex is disappointed and wants him to stay and so she starts to take his clothes off again but as he tries to stop her, she starts hitting him and lands back on the bed. When it’s clear that Dan wants nothing more to do with her, she kicks him off the bed, telling him to ‘get out’. That sounds shit with me just describing it but if you watch it, you’ll see what I mean.

I think the comparison of Alex’s behaviour to the condition of BPD mostly stems from the sufferer’s attitudes to ‘interpersonal relationships’. To those who have watched the film, does this sound familiar? ‘People with BPD often engage in idealisation and devaluation of others, alternating between high positive regard for people and great disappointment in them. Their feelings about others often shift from admiration or love to anger or dislike after a disappointment, a threat of losing someone, or a perceived loss of esteem in the eyes of someone they value.’

There are numerous examples of this throughout the movie and although there is a gradual deterioration in both Alex’s mental state and her regard for Dan throughout the film, she does tend to ‘flip-flop’ between liking him and loathing him throughout. A prime example is the notorious ‘I won’t be ignored’ scene which became very quotable in pop culture.

To give the scene some context, Alex has told Dan that she’s pregnant and still, Dan ignores her calls and so Alex becomes bold and shows up as a prospective buyer for Dan and Beth’s apartment. Dan comes home and finds his former mistress chatting to his wife. Later, Dan is fuming and goes to confront Alex at her apartment. When he arrives, she’s very accommodating, offering him drinks, etc but he’s at boiling point and shouting at her and yet, she remains calm. As the scene progresses, Dan makes it very clear that he wants nothing to do with Alex or their child and so she makes a speech about facing up to his responsibilities and commenting that she won’t let him treat her ‘like some slut’ he can just ‘bang a couple of times and just throw in the garbage’ and she makes a good point. Since she’s going to give birth to his child, she wants some respect and Dan begins to leave at which Alex’s tone changes completely and she’s apologetic before making one last attempt to make him stay by threatening to tell his wife which doesn’t go down well.

There is another very sad aspect to this disorder that I’ll get into more when I talk about the ending.

The other condition that has been mentioned and I actually think fits better is ‘de Clerambault’s Syndrome’ which is more commonly known as ‘Erotomania’. Again, does this sound familiar?

‘Erotomania is a relatively uncommon paranoid condition that is characterised by an individual’s delusions of another person being infatuated with them. The object of the delusion is typically a male who is unattainable due to high social or financial status, marriage or disinterest’.

Aside from the ‘sex’ part, Dan ticks all four of these boxes. Again, according to Wikipedia, the onset of Erotomania is sudden so Alex could have shown no signs of it until her weekend fling with Dan.

On the flip side, Dan isn’t doing himself any favours. Granted, he shouldn’t have slept with her in the first place and granted, he may not know that she suffers from any delusional mental condition and also granted, she may not know herself but what really doesn’t help is the mixed messages that he keeps sending. There’s a scene where Alex turns up at his office and offers him a ticket to see ‘Madame Butterfly’. He generously declines and she takes it well but just as they’re saying goodbye, when he should be affirming that he has no feelings for her whatsoever, he gives her a hug and kisses her on the cheek. The very next scene is the notorious sequence where Alex is sat on the floor and turning the lamp on and off whilst crying.

It is not suggested throughout the film that Alex could be suffering from a mental disorder and in fact, the true genius of the film is that it doesn’t paint anyone in a positive light. Everyone is human and everyone makes mistakes. No one is saint in this film.

I’ve seen people make the argument that because Dan cheated on his wife that he deserved everything that he got in this film and I disagree. I will slightly defend Dan in that, yes, he shouldn’t have done what he did but in all fairness, he didn’t actively set out to cheat on his wife. You could say that he was ‘caught up in the moment’ and he made a split-second decision to act on it which isn’t a great defence, I know but it’s miles apart from genuinely going out and finding someone to cheat with.

Of course, every great film has one memorable sequence that engrains itself into the popular culture. For ‘Fatal Attraction’, it’s the bunny boiling. All along, Ellen has been begging her parents for a rabbit and so, possibly out of guilt, Dan buys a very cute white rabbit for Ellen which she calls ‘Whitey’. While the family are out, Alex kills Whitey and puts him in a boiling pot for Beth to find when they return home. So far, Dan has gone to great lengths to cover up his infidelity but now, he can no longer deny that something is wrong and so confesses to his affair with Alex. Beth is so enraged that she kicks Dan out of the house.

That scene became infamous and coined the phrase ‘bunny-boiler’ which is the name given to a clingy and obsessive woman. What with me being English, I knew about this phrase long before I knew where it was from, but to my surprise, this phrase is only really popular in England and isn’t really used in US.

I made the comment that no one is painted as a saint in this film. Well, all that changes when we come to the ending. ‘Fatal Attraction’ had two different endings and (in my opinion) one was better than the other. I’ll talk about the theatrical ending first.

Alex takes Ellen from school and takes her to an amusement park. In the meantime, Beth has realised that Ellen is missing and drives frantically around the town searching for her. Whilst she’s looking at the people on the sidewalk rather than the road, she accidentally rear-ends another car and ends up in hospital. Dan is absolutely fuming and ends up attacking Alex at her apartment. After stopping himself from throttling her, she attacks him with a kitchen knife. Dan wrestles the knife off her and sets it on the kitchen counter. He then leaves without saying a word.

Dan then goes to the police and tells them that Alex kidnapped his child and the Detective promises to get Alex in to question her. However, Dan is later informed that she’s nowhere to be found.

By this time, Beth has allowed Dan back into the house having seemingly forgiven him or he’s there to look after Ellen while Beth is recuperating from the accident. Whatever the reason, Dan is back home. As Dan is downstairs, Beth is running a bath when she sees that Alex has broken into the house and is brandishing the same kitchen knife that she attacked Dan with earlier. After a brief skirmish, Dan comes to his wife’s aid and after taking a few slashes from Alex, he seemingly drowns her in the bathtub. But Alex rises for round two and is shot in the chest by Beth. In the end, the police are leaving and Dan and Beth embrace, relieved that the nightmare is over.

I won’t deny that this ending was exciting and tense and all those other words but to my mind, when compared to the original ending, it’s … well… it’s less clever.

All the way through ‘Fatal Attraction’, there are a few foreshadows to the original ending, the most notable being the inclusion and references to ‘Madame Butterfly’.

For those of you who don’t know, ‘Madame Butterfly’ is an opera from the turn of the 20th Century which tells the tale of a young Japanese lady, Butterfly, living with an American soldier called Pinkerton in Nagasaki, Japan. They are married and Pinkerton leaves, presumably to serve his time in the Navy. In the intervening three years, Butterfly gives birth to their son and is exciting to discover that Pinkerton is returning. When he does come back, he brings his new American wife and it turns out that Butterfly was only told half of the story. Pinkerton was returning to Japan but not for her, rather for their son. Pinkerton’s new wife has agreed to raise the child but once he sees how much Butterfly has missed him, he realises that he’s made a huge mistake and leaves once again. Butterfly, devasted by the loss of her husband, the only man she’s ever loved, agrees to give up her child to Pinkerton but only if he sees her once more. Butterfly takes her own life with a knife just as Pinkerton rushes in but he’s too late to save her.

This opera is playing as Alex is making dinner for Dan and he shares a sensitive story from when his father took him to see the opera when he was child. As I mentioned before, Alex offers to take Dan to see ‘Madame Butterfly’ but he declines and that night, Alex listens to ‘Madame Butterfly’ and cries as she turns the light on and off.

I felt that the fate of Butterfly would be a foreshadow to the end of the film and also, the film is called ‘Fatal Attraction’ and if the title is to be taken literally, no one had died up to that point… except for Whitey. Well, with all the foreshadows, if the original ending had remained intact, I would have been right.

Dan is approached by the police and told that Alex has been found dead with her throat slit and she’s believed the have been murdered. Dan proclaims his innocence, but the police want to check his fingerprints against the knife they found by her body as they know that Dan had an affair with Alex and he’s a suspect. Dan remembers that he did handle the knife when he took it off Alex earlier on and if you’ll remember, she was smiling when he left.

As Dan is arrested and taken away by the police, Beth runs up to Dan’s office to find the number for their attorney but instead finds the tape that Alex made for him in which she tells him that she will kill herself if he doesn’t leave his family and he with her. Beth grabs the tape to take to the police. The last shot of the film is Alex sitting cross legged on her bathroom floor as she cuts her own throat with the kitchen knife and she falls down dead… as ‘Madame Butterfly’ plays in the background.

I think that ending is better. OK, it’s not as climactic but all the symbolism and the foreshadowing comes full circle and actually, leaves a lot more for interpretation. Did Alex intend to set Dan up for murder? She knew that he’d handled the knife and maybe taking Ellen away so Dan and Beth would think that she’d been kidnapped just a ploy to get Dan to attack her so she’d have an excuse to go at him with the knife and he’d take it off her and get his fingerprints all over it. That could have been why she was smiling when he left. It’s entirely possible that all the things that she’d done to him like ringing his house, pouring acid on his car, killing their rabbit and kidnapping Ellen were all revenge tactics and the one card that she had tucked away, the one thing that she could have over Dan was that at any time, she could tell his wife but then Dan told her and Beth forgave him in the end. In her mind, Alex realised that she couldn’t destroy Dan’s life as revenge for destroying hers, BUT she could still have the final word by taking her own life in a way that made it look like murder and use the knife that had Dan’s fingerprints all over it or was she just another victim of unrequited love? History is littered with examples of the ill-fated lover. Was Alex Forrest just another name on that list?

And also, I mentioned earlier that there was another aspect of BPD that is, sadly, that people who suffer from this condition are prone to acts of self-damaging behaviour which include self-harm and tragically, up to 10% of the people who have this condition take their own lives. So indeed, if Alex did have this condition as a number of psychiatrists and experts who have analysed this film believe that she did, it would have been much more likely that she would take her own life rather than turn homicidal like in the theatrical ending.

As it turns out, everyone involved in the film loved the original ending too. However, when they screened the film for test audiences, they hated the ending and the majority wanted Alex to die by Beth’s hands. Glenn Close in particular was against changing the ending and fought for two weeks against the changes but decided to do what was best for her colleagues and came back six months after the film had wrapped to shoot the new ending. Close did insist on the inclusion of Alex cutting her own leg whilst she’s confronting Beth in the bathroom as is showed that she was ‘as self-destructive as she was aggressive’.

To me, all they did in the new ending was take a tragic and complicated character and they turned her into a villain to be hated and then killed in the final act. All that symbolism and foreshadowing was wasted on a typical, American ending when they had the chance to do something that really made the audience think about life and love and mistakes and rejection and responsibility but most of all, morality.

Released on September 18th, 1987, ‘Fatal Attraction’ opened at #1 and stayed there for eight weeks, taking in $156.6 Million domestically which made it the second highest grossing film of 1987 just behind ‘Three Men and a Baby’. The film also grossed $163.5 Million internationally to bring home a total box office gross of $320.1 Million against $14 Million budget making ‘Fatal Attraction’ the highest grossing film worldwide of 1987.

On top of all the positive reviews that were showered on this film, ‘Fatal Attraction’ was nominated for six Oscars at the 1988 Academy Awards for Best Director (Adrian Lyne), Best Adapted Screenplay (James Dearden), Best Editing (Michael Kahn and Peter E. Berger), Best Supporting Actress (Ann Archer), Best Actress (Glenn Close) and Best Picture (Stanley R. Jaffe and Sherry Lansing). Michael Douglas was not nominated for ‘Fatal Attraction’ but did win an Oscar for Best Actor that year for ‘Wall Street’.

All in all, ‘Fatal Attraction’ is an awesome movie and I always look forward to watching it because you can watch it as it is, as a thriller or you can go deeper into the characters and find out more about their world just by watching the performances and I like that kind of movie. I didn’t want to take the piss as much as I normally would but what is funny is that this film has mostly been used by wives as a warning to their husbands because after all….


‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’.

William Congreve, 1697.

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