Not every erotic thriller is a film noir, but they all owe a debt to the genre. The ‘80s erotic thriller took the formulas established by post-war noir and adapted them for a post-pornographic film landscape, adding scenes of explicit sex and nudity where they were once merely suggested. Like classic noirs, erotic thrillers also revolve around the archetypes of the femme fatale and her hapless mark. These, too, were updated to fit the times, reaching their ultimate ‘80s form in Adrian Lyne’s 1987 smash hit “Fatal Attraction.”
In Lyne’s film the male schmuck in question is a married Manhattan yuppie about to move to the suburbs, and the femme fatale is a single career woman with a loft in the Meatpacking District. Fear of female independence is foundational to the femme fatale archetype. Here, it’s incorporated with Susan Faludi’s “backlash” theory to create what Brian De Palma (who nearly directed the picture) called a “post-feminist AIDS thriller.” Wild-haired and sexually liberated in an era when casual sex could kill, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) is hellbent on nothing less than the destruction of the traditional nuclear family.
Even her name is androgynous. Aggressive. Dangerous.
But she also longs for a family of her own. When Alex reveals her pregnancy to Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), the man with whom she has a hot fling early in the film, she refuses his offer to pay for an abortion. She wants this baby, and wants Dan to be a part of their life. If it weren’t for the fact that Dan is already married to someone else (with their own kid), she’d be on the verge of achieving the aspirational ‘80s dream of “having it all.”
In the end, of course, this turns out to be a delusion. Alex is driven to madness by her desire to combine her life with Dan’s — or possibly to be like Dan. He can have his family and his fun, too; why can’t she?
The idea that being able to balance work and family — in other words, to live as “family men” do — is not only impossible for women, but a lie that’s sold to them by feminism, is key to Faludi’s theory of anti-feminist backlash in the 1980s. And the connection between fun, flirty singles attempting to age into respect at home and in the workplace and Alex’s refusal to be ignored was not lost on critics of the time: Duane Byrge’s review in The Hollywood Reporter opens with a swipe at “‘Cosmo’ girls,” the acolytes of Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown and her 1982 book “Having It All.”
The origins of “Fatal Attraction” lie in James Deardon’s 1979 short film “Diversion,” which Deardon would later expand at the request of co-producer Sherry Lansing. The short follows many of the same beats as the first half of “Fatal Attraction”: its climax appears midway through its feature adaptation, as a single woman cuts her wrists at the end of a weekend fling with a married man. The second half of “Fatal Attraction” was added for the full-length film, and revolves around Alex’s escalating harassment of Dan and his family — all of which makes her look crazier, and him more innocent. The message of both films for men is the same: Think twice before you sleep with one of these modern career girls.
This was not Lansing’s original intention. She saw the story as a revenge fantasy, an interpretation based on her personal experiences with dating. “All of us have made a call in the middle of the night when we shouldn’t have, or driven by somebody’s house when we shouldn’t have,” Lansing told Time in 1987. “I’ve never boiled a rabbit, but I’ve made phone calls.”
The original ending of Lyne’s film reflects this point of view: After a postscript where NYPD detectives in khaki trench coats arrest Dan for Alex’s murder, the movie ends with Alex slashing her own throat with a butcher knife as “Madame Butterfly” — Puccini’s opera about the spurned Japanese wife of an American naval officer that was one of the few personal ties between Dan and Alex — blares in the background.
This operatic ending turns Alex into a tragic, masochistic figure, victimized both by the callous treatment of men and by her own thwarted ambitions towards love and motherhood. She’s tried to “have it all,” in her own damaged way, and failed.
“I always felt Alex was more suicidal than psychotic,” Close told The New York Times in 2016, adding: “Now she’s considered one of the greatest villains ever, and that to me is a mistake. I’ve never thought of her as a villain, just in distress.” Lyne feels similarly: earlier this year, he told IndieWire he “sympathize(s) with (Alex) forever. … The idea that he can just screw her, have sex and then pretend he didn’t and then do it again, it’s outrageous.”
That ending also nods to the traditional family by having Dan’s sweet, domestic wife Beth (Anne Archer) find evidence of his innocence shortly after his arrest, and run off to the police station to free him. But even temporary accountability for philandering Dan was too much for test audiences. In early screenings, viewers overwhelmingly disliked the last 20 minutes of the film, where Dan becomes violent and Alex gets her revenge from beyond the grave. But a line in the second act where Beth threatens Alex, “If you ever come near my family again, I’ll kill you, you understand?,” was a hit.
Egged on by a Paramount executive’s directive to “terminate the bitch with extreme prejudice,” as Lansing recalled in her autobiography, Lyne, Deardon, and Lansing decided that for the film to work, Alex had to die. Violently. So Deardon wrote a new ending, which begins with Beth turning on the steaming hot faucet of an old-fashioned clawfoot bathtub while Dan makes tea downstairs. Even as her desperation has escalated to criminal levels, up to this point Close has portrayed Alex as a character who evokes both fear and pity. In the new ending, she becomes a slasher villain.
When Beth wipes down her foggy bathroom mirror, the glass reflects Alex standing behind her, holding up the same knife she used to threaten Dan in the previous scene. Although Lyne claimed at the time that he swiped the shot from the Czech New Wave comedy “Closely Watched Trains,” the “mirror scare” is a horror-movie staple that was in common use by the time “Fatal Attraction” was reshot in 1987. The sequence also recalls “Psycho” and its famous shower scene, as Alex slices through the Gallaghers’ shower curtain trying to stab Beth. Finally, after Dan drowns her in the bathtub, she rises again — like Jason Voorhees or the dead man in 1955’s “Diabolique,” whose ending Lyne also tacitly admitted to stealing.
Then Beth, who must have fled the room as her husband drowned his lover, appears in the doorway of the bathroom and puts a bullet through Alex’s chest. The “good” woman has defeated the “evil” one. The moral order has been restored through the purging of Dan’s sins by his wife, who forgives him.
If Dan had simply killed Alex, it would be murder. If Beth kills her, it’s revenge. The film ends with a cynical slow zoom in on a family portrait of the Gallaghers smiling.
No one on the “Fatal Attraction” creative team was particularly enthusiastic about their new finale. Douglas, who would later decry feminism in interviews about the film, was the least perturbed by the changes. Close, on the other hand, loved Alex and refused to participate in reshoots. “I fought it for two weeks. It was going to make a character I loved into a murdering psychopath,” she told The New York Times. Eventually, she relented, rationalizing her character’s death as a moment of dramatic catharsis for the audience.
But while Close hated the new ending, audiences went wild for it. Contemporary critics argued that every member of the audience could identify with either Dan, Alex, or Beth — “It’s a Rorschach test for everyone who sees it,” Lansing told Time. The Dans in the audience were, of course, the loudest: As “Fatal Attraction” became a box-office phenomenon, journalists reported on men cheering at screenings during scenes where Dan physically assaults Alex. “Punch the bitch’s face in! Kick her ass!,” they yelled, before getting to the point with a blunt, “Kill the bitch already!”
There’s a social order to be restored here, too — one where liberated women also know their place, and don’t try to overstep by asking too much (or, really, anything) of the men in their lives.
In this way, Alex also serves as a cautionary tale for the women in the audience, telling them to take whatever men are willing to give them and not to expect casual sex to be anything more. Close has pointed out in interviews that we have very little conception of Alex’s backstory, and therefore no idea why this particular encounter pushes her over the edge. Could it be that she’s been through this many times before?
While some ‘80s feminists rejected Alex Forrest as a scaremongering stereotype, others did adopt this sympathetic point of view. In an editorial for The Los Angeles Times called “Fatal Attraction — A Mad Woman’s Case,” Nancy Webber and Lowell Alexander wrote: “The behavior of Alex is ‘mad’ only due to its extremity — an extremity fueled by betrayal and abandonment. If she is not justified, she is at least understandable. But what is justifiable or understandable about a man’s double betrayal — in this case of his marriage and of his intimacy with Alex. What makes that sane?”
“Fatal Attraction” was released at a transitional moment for women in American culture, one where alternatives to traditional marriage and motherhood had been introduced, but not truly accepted. The minimal gains of second wave feminism were eroding quickly. Traditional dichotomies between whore and housewife remained intact, but in different garb — and attempting to transgress these roles was punishable by death. The world was ready for an independent, sexually active woman, but it wasn’t ready for her to get away with it.
Paramount+’s recent “Fatal Attraction” miniseries reframes the narrative, opening 15 years after Alex and Dan’s affair with Dan completing his prison sentence for Alex’s murder. The events of the film have traumatized his daughter Ellen, and his wife Beth has moved on and is married to Dan’s former business associate.
An entire episode recounts the affair from Alex’s point of view, legitimizing Close’s lonely 35-year crusade for someone to consider just that. The implication is that in 2023, men are now being held accountable for their actions— except, at the end of the series, another twist lets Dan off the hook for Alex’s murder this time, too. Women are no longer being blamed for men’s transgressions. But we still want the men to get away with it.