Thursday, April 15, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Fatal Attraction (1987)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at  The awards are coming up fast....

Today's subject is a lurid piece of rather trashy pulp that not only made a fortune but somehow grabbed the Academy's attention, Fatal Attraction, starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close.  You all know the story by now - Douglas stars as Danny Gallagher, a high-powered New York lawyer who has a torrid weekend fling with a work associate, who then becomes a maniacal stalker looking to turn the affair into a relationship at all costs.  Played with complexity and legitimately frightening eroticism by Glenn Close, the character of Alex Forrest is one of the legendary cinematic femme fatales, and the role launched Close's career while earning her a well-deserved Oscar nod.  Douglas's performance is quite strong as well; he's made a career of playing very flawed protagonists desperately slipping to the end of their pitiful rope.  The unsung performance in the film (though she did also get a Supporting Actress nomination) is from Anne Archer as Danny's devoted wife, who doesn't suspect a thing until Alex begins to turn the Gallaghers' lives upside down.  Poor Beth Gallagher thinks her marriage is on solid ground until this whackjob boils her daughter's new rabbit (That's just uncalled for, Alex).  

Watching this film for the first time (I had seen bits and pieces and knew the major beats of the plot), I found myself thinking "THIS got a Best Picture nomination??"  It's obviously a well-made erotic thriller with strong performances by all three leads, and Close became something of a pop culture icon in the process, but let's take an honest look at this thing.  Fatal Attraction is an over-the-top film noir crossed with a checkout line romance novel (even the title evokes it).  Had the filmmakers been a little more daring they could've seriously explored the Alex Forrest character and her terrifying psychological issues, instead of just making her a full-on horror film maniac.  We get glimpses of nuance during the second-act fallout of the affair, as Alex manipulates Danny in different ways to get him to stay in her life.  But the producers changed the climax of the movie from a disturbing but believable suicide/murder frame-job ending to something resembling a slasher film denoument, complete with a "killer's not really dead" moment.  I get why they reshot this; it's a crowd-pleasing Hollywood finish, but it lowers the material from a sophisticated grown-up thriller to popcorn schlock.  They weren't even all that imaginative in the execution either; there are shovel-to-the-face obvious suspense tropes, like the killer popping up in the bathroom mirror behind one of the good guys, or a shot of the married couple sleeping and a slow pan over to the phone just before it suddenly rings at 2am, or a water-level shot of the full bathtub just before the killer pops out of the water.  This stuff is B-movie cheeseball, and simply has no place in a supposedly Oscar-worthy film.
I also found it a little improbable that this very happily married guy would be so easily seduced; Danny meets Alex in passing at a work function, they exchange a few pleasantries, and he goes home.  They unexpectedly cross paths again at work, she sees him outside struggling with his umbrella in the rain, he offers her a drink until the rain passes, they have dinner, and at the first suggestion of a little hanky-panky he's all in.  Wow, that escalated quickly.  Their sex scene is also the most violent thing in the movie.  Hey, why'd they start banging at the kitchen sink?  That's an odd choice, and the moment when she accidentally turns on the water as they're going at it felt like something out of a screwball comedy.  Then when they move the festivities to the bedroom, they just leave it running.  Do people actually copulate like this?  

Equally speedy is Alex's descent into obsession; they begin the fling with her saying "I know you're married but we're both available tonight and we're both adults" and after two nights together it jumps to "How dare you go home to the wife about whom you were totally up front with me, I'm gonna slit my wrists!"  I get that she's a very disturbed person, but it seems a tad far-fetched that this character as written would even be functional in a high-profile job like Assistant Editor for a major publisher.  Maybe take it down a notch with the psycho stuff?

Fatal Attraction could've been a pretty fascinating thriller focusing on Danny's inner turmoil and how far he'll go to cover up his infidelity (especially since it seems to be his first time), while also exploring the madness welling up inside Alex and why she's so completely taken with this particular guy.  Instead we get kind of a rushed seduction leading to almost comical lovemaking, leading to this potentially complex woman quickly devolving into Max Cady from Cape Fear.  She finds Danny's car in a multi-level parking garage and douses it with acid, destroying the engine block, she steals the rabbit, breaks into the house and boils it alive, she picks up the little girl from school and takes her to an amusement park, she breaks in again and surprises the wife in the bathroom after the door's already been closed.  It's all just kinda laughable when you sit back and reflect.  This might qualify as an Awesomely Shitty Movie, as a matter of fact....  

The box office may have rewarded the filmmakers for their lowbrow creative decisions, but the Academy didn't need to.

I give the film **1/2 out of ****.

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