The Problematic Legacy of Fatal Attraction

by Gabriel Hood

When a major motion picture is released to the general public and receives critical acclaim, it becomes a major part of pop culture. A movie that becomes a staple of pop culture usually invokes some sort of cultural significance. Oftentimes, a film is memorable due to its engaging plot and well-written dialogue, as well as the dynamic between the lead actors. However, when consumers of media (including myself) analyze a popular film, it is always disappointing when we realize how problematic it was. The classic 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction is one example of a popular film that has some very problematic views, particularly in regards to its gender politics, as single career women were often villainized.

In the movie Fatal Attraction, Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas) is a married lawyer living in New York. On one fateful weekend, Dan’s wife Beth (played by Anne Archer) and his daughter Ellen go out of town to visit Beth’s parents, leaving him susceptible to temptation when he meets a book editor named Alex Forrest (played by Glenn Close). Soon enough, he develops an attraction to Alex, and they engage in a weekend affair. From that point on, everything changes. Once Dan calls off the affair, Alex begins to unravel. Eventually, chaos ensues, and Dan’s situation becomes less about hiding his affair and more about saving himself and his family from Alex’s increasingly violent streak.

The legacy of Fatal Attraction begins with the short film entitled Diversion, which was written and directed by British filmmaker James Dearden. Similar to the 1987 blockbuster, Diversion’s plot was focused on an unfaithful husband whose one-night stand with a former lover has consequences. Hollywood producer Stanley Jaffe watched the short film, and he was pleased with it. In fact, he took it to his producing partner Sherry Lansing, who also believed that it had feature film potential. Soon after, Jaffe and Lansing convinced Dearden to convert his short film to the feature length film we now know as Fatal Attraction. Unfortunately, the producers were met with bad luck, as none of the major studios were interested in making the film, especially with Michael Douglas in the lead role.

As Lansing recalls, “The film got rejected twice by every studio. They would say, ‘A guy who cheats on his wife for absolutely no reason!’ Michael hadn’t done ‘Wall Street.’ He had done the ‘Romancing the Stone’ films and ‘The Streets of San Francisco’ on TV, but he wasn’t big enough to get a movie made with a script they didn’t like.” (Bruce). Then Paramount Pictures got behind the film when acclaimed director Brian De Palma not only expressed interest in directing, but also wanted the screenplay the feeling of a horror movie. Dearden states, “The first draft ended with Alex running around with a mask and a 12-inch kitchen knife on Halloween.” However, De Palma backed out of the project because he felt that Michael Douglas was unsympathetic. Ultimately, Adrian Lyne, who had previously directed the smash hit Flashdance for Paramount, was hired to direct Fatal Attraction.

The biggest obstacle was finding a lead actress. Every available leading lady turned down the role of Alex Forrest because they felt like the role was demonizing women. Ultimately, Glenn Close decided to seize the opportunity. However, there was initial opposition. She states, “I just wanted a character that would demand more of me. I’d never played a character who was supposed to be sexy. I knew I could do it. They were so sure I was wrong. They didn’t even want me to read because they were embarrassed.” Michael Douglas agreed, and as he claims, “We were doing a big favor for Glenn’s agent by letting her read with me. I don’t think any of us had high hopes — she’s a wonderful actress, but she always projected a Puritan vision. The moment I saw her, I was like, ‘Whoa!’” Close was able to win the producers over, and as Sherry Lansing claims, “In less than five minutes, Adrian calls us in and says, ‘I think you should see this.’ There was Glenn, her hair unrecognizable. She did the ‘Are you discreet?’ scene, and we were blown away. Now I can’t imagine the film with anybody else.” With both Douglas and Close as the lead characters, Fatal Attraction was finally greenlit.

Fatal Attraction is primarily memorable for the moment when Alex Forrest terrorizes Dan Gallagher by boiling his pet bunny rabbit on the stove. As James Dearden recalls, “Initially, I had her grilling the bunny. But I thought that was too grotesque. So we boiled the bunny instead.” Adrian Lyne expands on that as he states, “The stench was unbearable. It permeated the whole house.” Another thing that the film is known for is its controversial change to the ending. The original ending had Alex Forrest committing suicide by slitting her throat in way that frames Dan Gallagher for murder. Unfortunately, it did not go well with test audiences. Michael Douglas states, “The audience viscerally wanted to kill Alex, not allow her to kill herself.” Glenn Close was opposed to redoing the ending, and she states, “Six months after we finished shooting, I got a call that we had to reshoot the ending. I fought it for two weeks. It was going to make a character I loved into a murdering psychopath. I was in a meeting with Michael, Stanley and Adrian. I was furious! I said to Michael, ‘How would you feel if it were your character?’ He said, ‘Babe, I’m a whore.’” Eventually, she relented and filmed the new ending, in which Alex has a final confrontation with Dan and is gunned down by his wife Beth, played by Anne Archer. Upon its release on September 18, 1987, it received positive reviews and grossed $320 million against its $14 million budget. It was even nominated for but lost 6 Academy Awards.

However, in re-watching the movie, there were certain aspects that didn’t quite sit well, particularly the fact that the filmmakers had audiences rooting for a protagonist that was not really worthy of anybody’s sympathy. Dan Gallagher cheated on his wife with Alex Forrest and impregnated her, yet Alex is made out to be villain of the movie. Although she crosses the line by boiling Dan’s bunny rabbit and attempting to murder him, he brought the situation upon himself by betraying his family. As entertaining as Fatal Attraction continues to be, I do agree with some feminists’ argument that the portrayal of single career women in the film is highly misogynistic because Alex Forrest’s negative image sends a bad message to career women that they are unfulfilled without the prospect of marriage or family, and it’s a narrative used to gaslight women.

Feminist writer Susan Faludi makes the argument that Fatal Attraction “holds up Forrest as an example of the barren career woman, so desperate for love, marriage and a child — the things she’s rejected for years — that she’s willing to kill for it.”  (Lopez). In addition, Faludi states that the character of Alex Forrest represents the shifting ground that women are forced to stand on, lamenting that women were told to find their own identities and careers in the 1970s, only to be shamed for doing so in the following decade. I absolutely agree with Susan Faludi on this, because the character of Alex Forrest represents the righteous anger that women have been expressing for years about being encouraged yet simultaneously criticized for following their own goals. In addition, I believe that women should be in charge of their own destiny and not be dictated by the patriarchy.

Glenn Close has stated in recent years that she would want to see a new spin on Fatal Attraction where the story is retold from her character’s point of view. In my personal opinion, I would love to see a remake of the movie where the character of Alex Forrest is portrayed more sympathetically because Dan Gallagher is not some innocent victim. In fact, he knew what he was doing and what he was putting at risk when he made the choice to cheat on his wife. The conventional ending gave audiences some catharsis, but Glenn Close was right to feel as though it was a betrayal to her character because Alex Forrest was a tragic figure as opposed to the knife-wielding psychopath the movie makes her out to be. Moreover, the original ending in which Alex commits suicide might be more favorable today than it was back 1987 because Close intended Alex to be self-destructive rather than psychopathic.

We should revisit this movie in the modern age because a remake in the Me Too era would require a nuanced examination of the consequences of infidelity that would put as much accountability on men as well as a nuanced portrayal of mental health on behalf of Alex Forrest. More importantly, a remake of Fatal Attraction, in my opinion, should also confront the issue of misogyny and slut-shaming. That would be significant for the 21st century because the stigma around singer career women has died down significantly, and married (especially prominent) men are nowadays being held accountable for their impropriety. Furthermore, with the right amount of nuance, a modern update of the film can reflect on the changes in societal attitudes and how that has affected the power structure.

Works Cited

Fretts, Bruce. “’Fatal Attraction’ Oral History: Rejected Stars and a Foul Rabbit.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2017,

Gabriel Hood is a Writing major at HBU. In his spare time he likes writing screenplays and obsessing over the news.

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