The cultural phenomenon that is 'Fatal Attraction' just refuses to die

Joshua Jackson and Amanda Peet of "Fatal Attraction" visit the Jess Cagle Show at the SiriusXM Hollywood Studios. Picture: AFP

Joshua Jackson and Amanda Peet of "Fatal Attraction" visit the Jess Cagle Show at the SiriusXM Hollywood Studios. Picture: AFP

Published Jun 10, 2023


By Emily Yahr

It was the fall of 1987, and Hollywood studio executive Sherry Lansing had just finished production on the biggest movie of her career.

For several Friday and Saturday nights after its release, she remembers that she and director Adrian Lyne and his wife Samantha would eat dinner at a restaurant across the street from a movie theatre and watch the crowds line up.

When they knew the film had about 30 minutes left, they would sneak into the theatre's projection room and see the audience watch the climactic final scene.

Inevitably, the sold-out crowd started screaming, jumping out of their seats with popcorn flying everywhere, like they were all on a plane that suddenly took a nosedive.

The movie was Fatal Attraction, and the scene was horrifying: Alex (Glenn Close), the spurned pregnant mistress of Dan (Michael Douglas), breaks into his house with a knife and attacks his wife, Beth (Anne Archer), in the bathroom.

Eventually, Dan runs to save his wife and drowns Alex in the bathtub – except Alex pops up like a zombie out of the water and tries to stab him. Then Beth, out of nowhere, grabs a gun and shoots and kills Alex. Cue the screaming.

Lansing loved to follow moviegoers out of the theatre and even into the women's restroom, eavesdropping on their shocked reactions.

The movie would go on to make more than $156 million that year (the second-highest grossing film in the US) and receive six Oscar nominations, including for best picture and best director, with acting nods for Close and Archer.

"I'm so happy when any film I've ever been associated with reaches an audience, and has critical and commercial success. But when it becomes a cultural milestone, that's a whole different level for me," said Lansing, the first woman to run a major Hollywood studio when she took over 20th Century-Fox Productions in 1980.

Like everyone who worked on the movie, she remains blown away by the impact: "And now it's going to be on television, so people will be talking about it again."

Indeed, a reboot of Fatal Attraction started streaming last month on Paramount Plus, an eight-episode series starring Joshua Jackson, Lizzy Caplan and Amanda Peet.

It has been the impetus for new thoughts and think-pieces about Fatal Attraction, even though the series itself has seen rough reviews and minimal buzz.

But realistically, our culture does not need an excuse to talk about Fatal Attraction, because we have been talking and arguing about and debating it for the past 36 years: movies, books, plays, articles, essays, podcasts, a failed remake, this actual remake and more.

"It really took a turn we never expected. We thought we had made a very good movie – we did not think we were making a social statement," said Stanley Jaffe, who executive produced the movie along with Lansing. "But it turned out to be a very real social statement."

The intense reaction started right away. Newspaper articles reported on audience freak-outs at the end of the film, and box office observers were fascinated when it remained No 1 for eight weeks.

"I've never before been involved in a picture that emotionally hits people like this … It's sort of unrelenting," Douglas told the Sunday Mail in December 1987. (Representatives for Douglas and Archer did not respond to a request for comment; Lyne also did not respond to a request for comment. Close was unavailable for this story.)

The movie (written by British screenwriter James Dearden, based on his 1980 short film) kicks off as Dan, a married lawyer with a young daughter, has what he expects to be a one-night fling with Alex, a single publishing executive.

But things go wrong very quickly as Alex wants a real relationship (leading to the legendary line "I'm not going to be ignored, Dan.").

When he callously pushes her away even after he learns she is pregnant, she terrorises him and his family (leading to the famously deranged scene of Alex boiling his daughter's pet rabbit, resulting in the phrase "bunny boiler" as a euphemism for "crazy woman".

Erotic thrillers were hitting their stride at the time – the movie rating system was created in 1968, and films were getting sexier – but "Fatal Attraction" was the lightning rod.

It touched on a wealth of polarizing topics: marriage, sex, infidelity, toxic masculinity, gender roles, mental illness. Many even speculated that it was an allegory for the Aids crisis, as a reminder that sex has consequences.

Some credited it for saving marriages. Others took it as a warning not to engage with strangers. (As Tom Hanks declares of the film in Sleepless in Seattle: "It scared the s*** out of me! It scared the s*** out of every man in America!")

But the main ongoing theme that audiences and critics have discussed for decades is what they think the film has to say about women with careers – sending the message that not only can women not have it all, but the single ones are angry and devious and desperate, and their devastation over not having a husband or family will make them murder your child's pet. One critique in 2014 deemed Fatal Attraction the "horror movie version of Lean In".

When reports surfaced of the 2023 reboot, Susan Faludi immediately heard the news. "I was deluged with emails from people saying, 'Oh no, it's back!'" said Faludi, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the 1991 best-selling book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.

The chapter about Fatal Attraction is often referenced in studies of the film, given her memorable analysis of how it was a prime example of the culture's backlash toward feminism in the 1980s.

The stay-at-home mom is an angelic hero and the powerful executive is comically evil, and they have an epic fight where the wife and mother is victorious.

"Fatal Attraction is the psychotic manifestation of the Newsweek marriage study," one studio executive told Faludi, referencing the infamous (and eventually debunked) 1986 cover story that sparked panic when it stated that women older than 40 were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married.

That cover and Fatal Attraction arriving around the same time, Faludi says now, "really delivered a wallop".

Faludi wrote about how Dearden’s original script was more of a critique of Douglas’s character’s behaviour, and Lansing wanted the audience to feel empathy for Close.

But by the time it went through studio rewrites and test screenings, Close became the true villain, which primed male viewers to yell "kill the b***h" as they watched the final scenes.

Faludi interviewed Lyne, who told her that his research for the film involved looking at photos of apartments of single women who worked in publishing, and he found them "a little sad".

As for feminists, he told Faludi: "Sure, you got your career and your success, but you are not fulfilled as a woman."

The overwhelming response to that chapter, Faludi speculated, might be due to readers seeing those quotes and realising why they felt somewhat uncomfortable watching the movie, even if they couldn’t articulate why.

A common piece of feedback she heard was: "I thought something weird was going on here, but I had no idea that this wasn't just some innocent thriller that happened to have a crazy woman – that it was actually and specifically aimed at feminist advances, in particular in the workplace."

Lansing has always pushed back on the idea that the movie is anti-feminist and said those criticisms "hurt" because she prided herself on being a feminist.

"I was like, 'This is one career woman – this is not every career woman!' We're not against careers," she said, adding that she understood why the movie was analysed in new ways as culture evolves.

In her 2017 biography, Lansing detailed the journey of the film and the controversy over the ending. Originally, they filmed Alex dying by suicide and framing Dan for her murder, but test audiences, disturbingly, wanted to see Alex suffer even more.

Lansing explained that Close initially refused to reshoot the new ending, because she had sympathy for Alex's mental state and hated that she would be a "cliché" of a "female psycho". Close has talked many times through the years about her discomfort with how the character was portrayed.

The filmmakers all have their own theories about why the obsession with Fatal Attraction persists: Lansing said rejection is such a powerful force that people will always relate to Close's unravelling, even if she took things a bit too far.

Jaffe theorised that everyone seeing the movie connected and bought a different history to the emotional subject matter. Some think it's the unforgettable scene with the poor bunny. Everyone involved also makes the point that it's just a very compelling, well made movie.

In Hollywood, even before our culture's current nostalgia spree, a box office hit means there's always an impulse for a reboot. In 2014, a play adaptation launched in London's West End.

In 2017, Fox attempted a TV version but reportedly scrapped the project when they couldn't cast Close's role.

A publicist for Paramount Plus said the creators of the reboot were unavailable for this story, but show-runner Alexandra Cunningham has said in other interviews that she recognised the huge undertaking in remaking such an iconic movie and wanted this show to offer a more nuanced look at the character of Alex.

Billy Hopkins, the casting director, joined Lansing in disagreeing that the movie was anti-feminist.

"It really was of its era," he said. Good conversation or bad, he remains taken aback how much people still talk about the movie.

"I had no idea it was going to become this 'spokesperson' for the '80s," he said, "But that's sort of what it was."