On Sunday, Glenn Close may achieve what she’s never before accomplished in a 45-year career. A decorated actress who’s earned three Emmys and three Tonys, the venerable star could finally win an Academy Award. If she does take home the Oscar, it will be for The Wife, a drama about a married woman, Joan, who’s been staunchly loyal to her husband Joseph (Jonathan Pryce), an egotistical, celebrated author about to receive the Nobel Prize for his literary brilliance. But on the eve of the ceremony, a snooping reporter (Christian Slater) pokes around to investigate an old rumor: Was Joan actually the genius behind all those epochal novels? Has she sublimated herself so that her husband could flourish?
The Wife is Close’s seventh Oscar nomination, and her victory would be viewed as the culmination of an impressive body of work that’s included playing everyone from elegant schemers (Dangerous Liaisons) to an anguished butler who’s lived her life disguised as a man (Albert Nobbs). But the role that perhaps remains her most memorable — certainly her most debated — occurred 32 years ago. Nobody can decide if Alex Forrest is a victim or a villain. And, likewise, arguments still rage over whether Fatal Attraction was merely channeling the zeitgeist or exploiting society’s worst tendencies in service of a titillating, provocative thriller about an affair that goes wrong. But for decades, the movie — and Close’s performance — has stayed with us.
Before it was an Oscar-nominated film, garnering six nods, including Best Actress for Close and Best Picture, Fatal Attraction was a short film. In 1979, a rising British writer-director, James Dearden, produced the 40-minute Diversion. His aspirations were simple. “I just wanted to make an inexpensive film,” he told The New York Times in 1988. “I was sitting at home thinking, ‘What is a minimalist story that I can do?’ My wife was out of town for the weekend, and I thought what would happen if a man who has just dropped his wife at the railroad station rings this girl who he’s met at a party and says, ‘Would you like to have dinner?’”
Diversion introduces us to Guy (Stephen Moore), a married man and working writer who stumbles into a seemingly no-strings-attached affair with Erica (Cherie Lunghi). But as Erica becomes more infatuated with him, the more Guy realizes that there’s no such thing as a simple affair, the film ending with Erica obsessively calling him. In the final scene, Guy’s wife at last picks up the ringing phone — presumably about to learn of his infidelity, which will forever shatter the couple’s outwardly perfect life.
Watch Diversion now and what’s remarkable is how many of the short’s scenes would later be replicated in Fatal Attraction. Unlike that thriller’s violent twists and turns, however, Diversion has a more mournful, paranoid air — although it does feature a scene where Erica slashes her wrists in a similar way to how Alex does in Fatal Attraction. But Diversion leaves its ending unresolved, letting its main character’s guilt (and the audience’s anxiety) linger as the credits roll.
“It’s a little fable about the perils of adultery,” Dearden said of his short. “It is something that men and women get away with 99 percent of the time, and I just thought, ‘Why not explore the one time out of 100 when it goes wrong?’”
Hollywood took notice in the form of producer Sherry Lansing, who would later go on to run Paramount. In a 2017 oral history of Fatal Attraction in The New York Times, she recalled, “Diversion would not leave my mind. I had my own experience when I was rejected [by a man], and I felt like he took my soul.” The producers asked Dearden to develop the script into a feature, eventually landing on Michael Douglas to play Dan, a New Yorker lawyer, and Close as Alex, a book editor.
Like with Diversion, Fatal Attraction’s male character doesn’t have an obvious reason to want an affair. By all appearances, Dan has a good life: He’s married to the beautiful, smart Beth (Anne Archer), has an adorable daughter (Ellen Hamilton Latzen) and a great job. But there are tiny fissures in that happy foundation. The family is preparing to move out to the suburbs, a prudent decision but one that doesn’t seem to entirely sit well with this big-city guy. Plus, as opposed to the demure, slightly drab Beth, Alex comes across as cultured, adventurous and flirty — she’s got an edge to her. Dan never says it explicitly, but the viewer can infer that one of the things that draws him to her is that she represents the high-octane, Manhattan-in-the-1980s energy that he’s losing in his home life. He gives in to the temptation, only to discover that Alex is unhinged, willing to kill herself if she can’t have him. What starts out as a fun fuck soon turns deadly for poor Dan — especially after she reveals that she’s pregnant with his child.
That’s, at least, how the story of Fatal Attraction has always been explained: Boy meets girl, boy has affair with girl, girl goes crazy and gives boy all kinds of problems. The movie makes it fairly clear how we should feel about both of its characters, our sympathies aligned with Dan as we’re fearful of the vindictive, monstrous, deranged Alex.
This, however, was never how Close intended it. Speaking to The Guardian in 2017, the actress said, “That character had a lot of secrets. But there’s no way for the audience to know what her past was. It’s only hinted at.” To prepare for the role, Close spoke with a psychiatrist to try to understand Alex’s backstory, why she would slash her wrists, or in one of the film’s most famous moments, boil the daughter’s beloved bunny. What she got back was that Alex might have been sexually abused as a child. “Someone who’s been abused like that has absolutely no self,” Close said. “I mean, there’s a hatred for one’s self because you’re made to be a sexual object way before you’re ready.”
Ironically, though, before Alex could make sense to Close, the actress had to sell the studio on her in the role. Before Fatal Attraction, Close had already received two Oscar nominations (for The World According to Garp and The Big Chill) but she mostly played everyday, sensitive characters. In a 2017 Entertainment Weekly interview, Close revealed, “Producer Sherry Lansing told me about five years ago that they were so convinced I was wrong for Alex that they didn’t even want to be in the room when I auditioned. They said, ‘Well, can she be sexy?’ And I thought, ‘Well, you know, yes!’”
Close transformed herself, making her hair frizzier, working out and getting more toned. She didn’t look like the actress who had been in those previous films. “One is always looking to stretch yourself,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “And [Fatal Attraction] was really the first time I’d had a part that started in one place and ended in a totally different place. It had a huge emotional arc to it and a lot of different shades. So it was wonderful to play.”
While Close burrowed into her character’s psychology and look, the filmmakers conceived the story’s thematic arc and cautionary tone. Calling from his home in the U.K., Fatal Attraction cinematographer Howard Atherton tells me, “It was approached as a drama, a human drama, a family story. You start off with this fantastically happy little family unit, and then it turns slowly toward the end into horror.”
In an age when AIDS was becoming a mainstream subject — in other words, when heterosexuals were finally worrying about it — Fatal Attraction put the terrifying consequences of infidelity front and center. Not only could you knock up your mistress, the movie warned, she might come at you with a knife. Directed with stylish aplomb by Flashdance and 9 1/2 Weeks filmmaker Adrian Lyne, Fatal Attraction underlined the notion that married men should be wary of the Alexes they come across, a ratcheting up of the paranoia that began with Dearden’s adaptation of his original screenplay. “To turn it into a mass-audience film,” Dearden later said, “I knew there would have to be an escalation of the psychological violence, which in the end becomes physical.”
That violence reached one of its apexes during a scene where we discover just how far Alex is willing to go to terrorize Dan’s family. After establishing how much innocent young Ellen wants a bunny, the screenplay shocks us by having Alex boil the pet on the family’s stove. “The thing that put me off was the bunny-boiling aspect,” Close said in that 2017 Entertainment Weekly interview about Dearden’s screenplay, which initially had featured a different fate for the rabbit. (“I had her grilling the bunny,” he told The New York Times. “But I thought that was too grotesque. So we boiled the bunny instead.”)
Close may have disliked the scene, but it would become iconic — not that filming it was particularly easy. “It was a shot we kept setting up and not shooting,” says Atherton, chuckling. “The prop guy had a freezer full of rabbits, so wherever we were, he had a rabbit he could bring out. One night, they whisked us back to the location to shoot it, and he got the rabbit out. They boiled the pot. This rabbit was so frozen, it wouldn’t relax and go in the pot. It just sat rigidly sticking up.”
When Paramount started testing Fatal Attraction, the studio sensed it had a hit on its hands — but also a problem. Audiences were swept up in this morality play, but they hated the ending, which saw Alex kill herself, her death pinned on Dan. As Douglas explained in the Times’ oral history, “The audience viscerally wanted to kill Alex, not allow her to kill herself.”
A hastily conceived new ending was filmed — one in which Alex, in a nod to Psycho’s shower scene, goes after Beth in her bedroom with a knife, leading to a frantic fight. After Dan seemingly drowns Alex, she springs up one last time — only to be shot dead by a steely Beth. Paramount knew it had the right ending when audiences reacted wildly to Alex’s bloody demise.
Ordinarily, when actors look back on their biggest hits, you’ll hear feel-good but familiar stories about how unlikely last-minute changes that seemed disastrous turned out to be strokes of genius — in fact, they helped make the movie the masterpiece it became. With Fatal Attraction, Close has spent the last several decades telling everyone how much she resisted the film’s new ending — and she still resents it.
“When they told me they were going to reshoot the ending, I thought they were joking,” Close told Entertainment Weekly. “I didn’t get it. At all. The new ending made her into kind of a psychopath. Somebody like Alex, especially if they were abused when they were little, they’re more self-destructive than destructive. I really rebelled against it. I said, ‘I can’t do that, that’s not who that character is.’ I fought against it for two weeks. We had screaming fights. I was basically told that if I didn’t do it, they wouldn’t release the movie. I was beside myself because I really believed in the character I had created.”
Eventually, she acquiesced. In that same interview, Close admitted, “Shakespeare and the Greeks weren’t wrong: Catharsis is important and the easiest way to get catharsis is to shed blood. We gave the audience the catharsis that it needed.”
That catharsis was clear at Fatal Attraction’s L.A. premiere, which Atherton attended. The crowd’s reaction shocked him. “I had been to cinemas in America before,” he tells me, “but they were really screaming and shouting at various points and getting totally involved in the film. And this was a premiere. British audiences, by and large, just sit and watch — they’re not very vocal at all. I was a bit upset that they were making noise when they should’ve been listening to dialogue. But they were just getting totally wound up by the goings-on — they were totally drawn into it, which was quite an eye-opener, really.”
So much so that “Kill the bitch!” was reportedly screamed at a New York screening after the film opened in September 1987. (Guardian writer Regina Nadelson documented the phenomenon at the time, noting, “The audience was getting it into now, the walls of the theater alive with the noise of New York at holiday time.”) As much as Close wanted to make Alex complicated, crowds wanted something else from her — an easy villain with a screw loose who could be dispensed with.
That violent, conventional ending angered some who had been engrossed by Fatal Attraction’s story to that point. In a negative review, Roger Ebert declared, “Fatal Attraction is a spellbinding psychological thriller that could have been a great movie if the filmmakers had not thrown character and plausibility to the winds in the last minutes to give us their version of a grown-up Friday the 13th. … [I]t’s a shame that the film’s potential for greatness was so blatantly compromised. The movie is so right for so long that you can almost feel the moment when the script goes click and sells out.”
Audiences and Oscar voters didn’t seem to mind. Fatal Attraction was the second-biggest film of 1987, with Three Men and a Baby the only movie to gross more that year. The thriller was one of five nominees for Best Picture. Dearden’s screenplay was also nominated. Interestingly enough, so was Anne Archer, for Best Supporting Actress, although Douglas didn’t receive a nomination. He did, however, win Best Actor that year for a different film, Wall Street. Perhaps even more significant, though, was the fact that Fatal Attraction and Alex became lodged into the public’s imagination. If 1971’s Play Misty for Me had explored the dangers of an obsessive female lover, Lyne’s movie tapped into an unspoken marital anxiety.
“[Fatal Attraction] was part horror film, but it had a truth in real life — this whole thing about casual sex within a marriage or within a relationship,” Atherton says, pointing out that the culture was exiting the free-love era of the 1960s and 1970s and moving into a more conservative time. “There was that whole [sexual] revolution,” he says. “The pill had been brought out, which suddenly freed girls up. [There used to be] shame on a person [who had] a baby out of marriage, or abortions.”
But that liberation also brought with it a backlash. “There was a lot of promiscuity going on [in the 1980s], and [the movie] just seemed to hit that chord,” Atherton suggests. “Guys were absolutely terrified of what these lovelies they meet casually in a pub can actually turn around and do to their lives.”
Close has often commented on how many people have told her that Fatal Attraction helped save their marriage. And Hollywood was only too happy to cash in on the film’s box-office success, producing a steady string of thrillers in which an untrustworthy, possibly unstable woman conspires to ruin (or kill) the main character. Often, these films starred Douglas — Basic Instinct and Disclosure come to mind — but others (e.g., Misery, Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Obsessed) furthered the societal impression that “crazy” women were a menace to be feared.
Not surprisingly, many women objected to this trope. Suzanne Leonard, an associate professor of English at Simmons University, has written and taught extensively on feminism and cinematic portrayals of female characters and gender roles. As well as being the author of Wife, Inc.: The Business of Marriage in the Twenty-First Century, she has explored the lasting impact of Fatal Attraction, writing a book-length critical reassessment of the 1980s blockbuster. She published her book, simply titled Fatal Attraction, in 2009, but 10 years later she’s still fascinated — and frustrated — by the film.
“My entire academic career has been centered around thinking about issues of marriage and sexuality, and particularly, adultery,” she tells me. “Fatal Attraction was such a cultural touchstone in the 1980s and remains so resonant when we think about iconic adultery stories, stories of scorned women and quite illicit sexuality.”
The movie also has been taken to task for its suggestion that women like Alex, who are more focused on their career, are inherently dangerous, as opposed to the nurturing stay-at-home mom Beth. Alex is a progressive, liberated, sophisticated woman, and therefore, can be perceived as a threat to traditional marriage. As Pauline Kael wrote in her New Yorker review, “[Alex] parrots the aggressively angry, self-righteous statements that have become commonplaces of feminist fiction, and they’re so inappropriate to the circumstances that they’re proof she’s loco. They’re also the director Adrian Lyne’s and the screenwriter James Dearden’s hostile version of feminism. The film is about men seeing feminists as witches, and the way the facts are presented here, the woman is a witch.”
But that’s not before Fatal Attraction makes Alex seem like a fun flirtation with the dark side for straight-and-narrow family man Dan. “There’s an exoticizing of her when they go to that salsa dancing [club],” notes Leonard, adding that the character lives in New York’s funky, hip Meatpacking District. “There’s just a sense of the exotic and the forbidden, this kind of underworld. But what’s interesting is, ultimately, the woman who’s presenting the exotic sexiness really just wants to have a baby. In so many ways, that has become the resounding drumbeat for women in popular culture: ‘It’s okay if you want to have your career, but don’t miss out on your opportunity to have a family, because you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.’”
Because Simmons is a women’s college, Leonard is especially curious how her students react to Fatal Attraction, which she regularly teaches. “I see an increasing ability [in my students] to articulate the ways in which the film is unfair to her,” she tells me. “There are things that [Alex] says to [Dan] when she’s pregnant, that actually, if not put in the mouth of crazy person, would be pretty logical things to say. ‘No, this is your baby, and I want to have it, and you bear a responsibility, and I’m not going to be thrown away.’ But because she says them — because it’s coming out of somebody who’s such a loose cannon — it feels ridiculous.”
Leonard also points out that one of the reasons why we’re geared to be sympathetic to Dan’s plight is that Fatal Attraction is told from his perspective — there are very few scenes in which we see what Alex does independent of Dan. And there’s also an interesting contradiction within Fatal Attraction, which ostensibly sides with Reagan-era traditional, conservative values — except in one crucial regard. “The film makes you root for the abortion,” Leonard says. “You’re thinking, ‘If this woman would just get this abortion, this would all go away, and Michael Douglas could go back to his family.’ That’s bizarre in this moment of family-values celebration.”
I wondered how Leonard’s pupils respond to Dan, who the movie presents as the wronged party, an upstanding citizen who just made one mistake. Do they dislike him? “More and more,” she says, and then laughs. “I’m at a woman’s college in Boston, so consider my community here. But it’s interesting to me the nuance with which they’re able to look at the film and be like, ‘Wait a second, why does she have to suffer so badly? He’s the one who had the affair. She wasn’t even cheating on anybody.’ The injustice of it, I do think [they pick up on]. My students really impress me: Their feminist principles now really [shape] the way they view popular culture — and frankly, in a way that I didn’t have when I was their age.”
Then there’s the harmful, simplistic depiction of Alex as “crazy.” Rather than giving Dan a compelling sparring partner — someone as astute and reasonable as he is — his mistress quickly devolves into madness. (You know Alex is deranged because, in one scene, she obsessively turns on and off the light in her apartment while staring into the distance.) In her book The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema, film studies professor Linda Ruth Williams talks about Fatal Attraction’s destructive dismissal of Alex’s mental stability, saying that the film “casts Alex as always and entirely insane,” and therefore, not worth rooting for.
But Williams hits upon another intriguing contradiction within Fatal Attraction in terms of how audiences responded to Dan and Alex. If Alex is so “crazy,” why then is she essentially right about his responsibility to their unborn child? And if married men recognized in Dan a loathsome quality in husbands who stray, why were they cheering Alex’s death? “If the drive of the film enforces identification with Dan as protagonist,” Williams writes, “the film also provokes a contrary response to its politics. Viewers wanted the bitch to be killed, but also recognized, and debated, her point-of-view. Disliking the feckless philandering male, they also rooted for his survival.”
It’s in these contradictions where Alex’s complicated hold on our psyche proves so fascinating. We can be angry at Fatal Attraction’s treatment of the character, but there remains something enormously satisfying about watching her tear apart this spineless man’s life. (Similarly, you might have been one of those people yelling “Kill the bitch!” when the movie was in theaters and still harbor an acknowledgement that Dan was the film’s real heel.) Alex might be unstable, but she’s far more vivid and emotional than the dully honorable Dan, whose morals quickly fade away. There’s no there there to Dan, and so, as Williams suggests in her book, male viewers felt complicit, wondering what might happen to them if they cheated on their wives. Could any of them have resisted Alex’s potent charms?
All these decades later, Alex still lives on, sometimes in strange ways. Real-life murderers such as Jennifer Reali and Carolyn Warmus were dubbed the “Fatal Attraction Killer” because they slayed their romantic rivals, an allusion to Alex’s maniacal vengeance. Meanwhile, in 2014 in a post sponsored by H&M, Grazia declared the character “our unexpected style icon,” the site touting Alex’s “totally monochromatic wardrobe,” “her square shouldered, collarless white blazer” and “black leather belted jacket.”
And, of course, “bunny boiler” has become a euphemism for an obsessive, possessive, unstable girlfriend — with some dating sites offering “advice” to guys on how to spot one in the wild. Even those who praise the movie — and that particular scene — fall into an unfortunate shorthand. Speaking on the occasion of Fatal Attraction’s 30th anniversary, Dave Karger, a special correspondent for IMDb and a TCM host, said of the bunny-boiling scene, “It’s the one moment that caused people to tell their friends to see Fatal Attraction when it was in theaters. And 30 years later, it’s still the most iconic crazy-person movie scene of all time.” The scene isn’t meant to reveal Alex’s cunning — it’s there to cement how insane she is, precisely why Close thought it was so over-the-top.
Yet, that image of the boiled bunny has been seared into our consciousness — so much so that Leonard featured a bunny on the cover of her Fatal Attraction book. Not that she wasn’t conflicted about it. “There was a real negotiation when the designer designed that, because I actually loved it,” she recalls. “But some other people that I was working with, like my editors, said, ‘This is so gimmicky’ — and that it feeds back into that idea that women are gonna boil your bunny if they’re crossed. The cartoonish nature of the lengths she goes to — the acid on the car, the freaky tape [she makes for Dan] — it’s so over-the-top, right? But there are a lot of people who think women’s emotions are over-the-top and are afraid of them. I do think that the film contributes and reinforces those stereotypes, but the funny thing is, it’s something people really remember about that film.”
For what it’s worth, Lyne (whom Close has called “brilliant — just the most wonderful director”) has resisted the implication that he was criticizing certain kinds of women, telling The New York Times, “The idea that I was trying to condemn career women and say they’re all psychotic is just nuts. I’m a feminist.” And to be fair to Lyne, in his subsequent film Unfaithful, he did try harder to understand an affair from a woman’s perspective. Diane Lane was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the wife who cheats. The character isn’t crazy, and in fact, is allowed a whole range of emotions regarding the infidelity.
“I tell you, that scene on the train, when she leaves [her lover’s] apartment and she’s reliving the first time that they have sex, I just think is really brilliant,” Leonard says of Unfaithful’s most iconic scene. “The emotions that she goes through on that train — from glee to horror to being aghast to being titillated — I just think that is a moment of brilliant acting. In terms of that question of getting into maybe more female subjectivity, that has always stood out for me.”
There might be an irony, too, to the fact that Close, the woman who brought Alex to vibrant life, may finally win an Academy Award for The Wife — essentially, the polar opposite character from her portrayal in Fatal Attraction. “If she goes from playing the crazy mistress to getting an Oscar for being a dutiful wife, is that really progress?” asks Leonard, whose book Wife, Inc. examines how wives are represented in popular culture. “I don’t know. I mean, I’m just asking a rhetorical question, but it’s pretty interesting that even in Glenn Close’s own very storied career, she’s playing characters that exist in relation to male characters. And that relationship to male characters is in some ways the defining aspect of the role.”
Close, not surprisingly, saw The Wife differently. When she won the Golden Globe for her performance back in January, she spoke of the movie’s message of the need for women to “follow our dreams”:
“I’m thinking of my mom, who really sublimated herself to my father her whole life, and in her 80s she said to me, ‘I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything.’ And it was so not right, and I feel what I’ve learned through this whole experience is that women, we’re nurturers. That’s what’s expected of us. We have our children, we have our husbands, if we’re lucky enough, and our partners, whoever. But we have to find personal fulfillment. We have to follow our dreams. We have to say, ‘I can do that and I should be allowed to do that.’”
It’s a busy time for Close, who has been on the awards circuit campaigning for The Wife. In interviews, Fatal Attraction occasionally comes up — and she’ll get asked about the possibility of a remake. “What I think would be interesting is to literally tell the exact story but from her point-of-view,” she said recently. “Because she’s become a tragic figure.”
In a separate interview, she reiterated her wish that the character hadn’t been painted as “crazy.” “Most people, it’s very easy when someone is being perceived as mentally unbalanced, it’s very easy to make them the antagonist,” the actress said, adding that it was a “stigma that has been perpetrated in movies like that, and I was part of it.” Along those lines, in 2010 she started a foundation, Bring Change to Mind, “dedicated to encouraging dialogue about mental health, and to raising awareness, understanding and empathy.” Mental health issues hit close to home for Close: She has battled depression for years, her sister Jessie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her nephew Calen lives with schizoaffective disorder.
For Dearden’s part, he’s also felt regret about how he presented Alex to the world — up to a point. Writing in The Guardian in 2014, the screenwriter commented, “Did Fatal Attraction really set back feminism and career women? I honestly don’t believe so. I think that, arguably, it encouraged a vigorous debate from which feminism emerged, if anything, far stronger. And are there not more women succeeding in high-powered careers today?” He went on to suggest that the film serves as a Rorschach test for the viewer. “People, especially passionate advocates of one cause or another, will always see what they want to see, even subconsciously — finding meaning where it may not exist, offense where it wasn’t intended. So my answer is that Fatal Attraction is in the end just a story, and a pretty simple one at that.”
Even so, when Dearden brought Fatal Attraction to the West End in 2013, he restored the screenplay’s original ending. (Californication actress Natascha McElhone took on the Alex role, telling The Scotsman, “I got bizarre letters from men saying, ‘I’ve just finished an affair that I’ve been having for 15 years after seeing your play’ or ‘I’ve just stopped a second night stand happening.’ They are really strange, confessional letters.”) Dearden also sought to make Alex a more nuanced figure, saying at the time, “[I] wanted to return to my original conception of the characters in a sense to set the record straight. Because while Alex is undeniably borderline psychotic, she is also a tragic figure, worn down by a series of disappointments in love and the sheer brutality of living in New York as a single woman in a demanding career. So whilst remaining faithful to the storyline, I have introduced the ambivalence of my earlier drafts. Nobody is entirely right and nobody entirely wrong.”
Still, from script to stage, there was one scene that had to remain. “You can’t do Fatal Attraction without the bunny,” he told Time Out London, “that’s just a given. People want the bunny boiled or else they’ll want their money back.”