Through a Glass, Oldly: "Fatal Attraction"
It's always amusing to look back on many "controversial" movies of the past and see how tame, even quaint, they are from a modern perspective. Watch Midnight Cowboy today, and you'll be baffled as to why it earned an X rating. The only truly shocking thing about Basic Instinct is how boring it is. Sure, Scarface is pretty violent, but no worse than what you'd see on FX now. A lot of it is the work of savvy marketing departments, helped along the way by well compensated entertainment media and curious audiences who more often than not come away underwhelmed and even a little let down. Few of these movies have aged well, either because of their innate tameness, or because what made them shocking in the first place is no longer something anyone wants to see, and now comes off as cheap and lazy.
Fatal Attraction is an interesting study in how a so-called controversial movie's takeaway message can completely change, largely because audiences have changed. It's a stylish, well-crafted movie that spawned dozens of lesser imitations, and comes off as totally different when viewed from a 21st century perspective. Its largely manufactured controversy was that it would both scare people away from casual sex (it didn't, that was mostly the AIDS crisis), and make men think twice about cheating on their wives (nope, didn't do that either, the number of men who admit to marital infidelity has hovered at just below 25% for the past forty years). It was sort of like saying The Fly would scare people away from going through a telepod: maybe so, but for some folks, the benefits always outweigh the risks.
It's a tough, tight race, but Fatal Attraction is probably the quintessential 80s movie. A masterwork in almost sterile monochromatic set and costume design, and taking place in a New York City populated entirely by wealthy white people who all work as lawyers and book editors, it somehow manages to make you envious of the characters' lives even as they're falling apart. I first saw it when I was 16, and it was an instrumental piece of pop culture in my desire to eventually live in New York, mostly because Glenn Close's character, Alex Forrester, lived in a loft apartment with a freight elevator that opened directly into it. Let me reiterate: she had an entire floor of an apartment building to herself, with an elevator for a front door. That seemed incredibly chic to me, and I often daydreamed about (please, hold your laughter) living in an apartment like that someday, paid for by my fruitful career as a novelist. I did eventually, many years later, manage to move to New York City, and I even managed to write a book, but I've never so much as been inside a loft apartment. I'm not even sure apartments like that exist anymore, and if they do, they probably cost as least as much as a mid-sized sedan per month to rent.
But I digress. I don't need to explain to you the plot of Fatal Attraction, because, like Forrest Gump, even if you've never seen it, you probably feel like you have. There's an immediate explanation as to why it no longer works the way it was originally intended to, and that is with the casting of Michael Douglas as hero/protagonist Dan Gallagher. At some point in Michael Douglas' career, probably right around when he was cast in this very movie, he transitioned from sensitive bearded boyfriend roles to playing smug, middle-aged scumbags, and just stayed there until the early 2000s. Despite the film's best efforts, Dan doesn't come off as merely unsympathetic, but so irredeemably sleazy that if Alex sent him his kid's head in a hatbox you'd think he deserved it.
Dan's easy confidence upon meeting Alex suggests that this isn't actually his first time at the old infidelity rodeo, though the audience is supposed to think it's a one-time mistake of an otherwise honest and faithful husband. Dan is the type of guy who thinks it's funny to fake a heart attack in front of someone, in one of the strangest scenes in the entire movie, and expresses surprise and annoyance that, after spending an entire weekend with someone fucking, dancing, going out on dates, and ostensibly, publicly acting like a couple, that person might think there was something meaningful happening between them.
Now, let me carefully clarify: I don't think any of what Alex does is right or justifiable. I'm just saying it is a chore to accept Dan as a blameless family man whose biggest crime was sticking his dick in crazy. Test audiences certainly didn't have a problem with it, though, which is why the ending was infamously changed to something less tragic and more like a slasher movie, with Anne Archer, playing Dan's wife, delivering the kill shot and thus reclaiming her family from the clutches of the evil single career woman. All is instantly forgiven, even though it could have been avoided if Dan had simply gone out to see a movie instead. Alex is put down like the monster she is, to viewer satisfaction.
Similar to why it's so hard to accept Michael Douglas as the innocent victim of a psychopath who can't understand that he just wanted to have a good time, it's hard to accept Glenn Close as a relentless maniac powered entirely on neediness and want. It would be incredibly easy to play Alex as a sort of dead-eyed sexbot who operates on only two settings (those being "fuck" and "kill"), but Close just had to go ahead and try to find the broken humanity in a largely one-note character. We know virtually nothing about who Alex is, even by the end of the movie, nor do we know if she's ever done anything like this before (unlike a lot of similar movies, we're thankfully spared the "grizzled detective is murdered for knowing too much" moment, or any scenes involving characters sitting in front of a microfiche machine). Yet, she's at least as much a person as Dan's wife, who, up till the last half hour or so, does little more than smile and look lovingly at Dan. You're not supposed to sympathize with Alex, and yet you do. You want her to win, as long as winning means accepting what a craven piece of shit Dan is and getting the help she needs.
When even the YouTube commentariat agrees that much of what transpires in Fatal Attraction is Dan's fault, you know that public perception of it has changed significantly in the past thirty years. Should a remake be produced (and lord knows they've been threatening one for years), it would either have to lean all the way into self-aware camp, or own up to what we've long come to realize about the original: that no one's hands are clean, and that someone knowingly toying with the emotions of a fragile woman is no "hero."