Predator And Prey In A “Fatal Attraction” Patriarchy

Omar Moore
10 min readMar 15, 2024

Which woman is the predator in Adrian Lyne’s 1987 film “Fatal Attraction”?

Glenn Close, left, as Alex Forrest and Anne Archer as Beth Gallagher in Adrian Lyne’s smash hit cultural phenomenon 1987 film “Fatal Attraction”. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

FILM/Essay: “Fatal Attraction” Redux

By Omar Moore
March 15, 2024

So who is the predator in “Fatal Attraction”, the 1987 smash hit film that first scared, shocked, thrilled and riveted audiences exactly 36 years, six months and three days ago (who’s counting)? And who is the prey? The answer isn’t so straightforward. Or is it?

Adrian Lyne’s film — confounding, lazy, restless, scary, misogynistic, satirical, objectifying, dangerous, intense, extremely violent and comical all at once — has, despite its reductiveness much going on beneath its surface. “Fatal Attraction” appears to be a conventional thriller lined with acrobatic sexual escapades (I don’t even find “Fatal” to be “erotic” per se) but devolves into horror as a cheap, expedient way to avoid the nuance and complexity “Fatal Attraction” could have abided by but cowardly sacrifices in its third act.

Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a seemingly unassuming New York lawyer boxed in to family life that I deep down think he doesn’t want. Dan is by his own admission insecure. In many ways (he worries about not being able to afford a house in the ‘burbs for starters), uncomfortable and claustrophobic in family trappings Dan may regret being part of a family to Beth (Anne Archer), the “dutiful”, sunny homemaker wife and six-year-old daughter Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Lanzen). This isn’t to justify Dan’s imminent infidelity whatsoever, though Mr. Lyne tries to in this awkward, well-acted morality play on family, 1980s conservatism and frightful AIDS panic. In “Fatal” Dan is an “I don’t recall” Ronald Reagan (heedless about AIDS specifically or caring about it generally — Dan has unprotected sex) the way fictional economist/capitalist Alex P. Keaton of 1980s TV “Family Ties” was a pontificating William F. Buckley, damn the “Black Monday” consequences — the economic denouement which arrived just a month after “Fatal” was released.

Early on Dan is frustrated sexually — one night Beth has Dan walk the dog and he returns to see Ellen lying in his place next to Beth in bed (“it’s just for tonight, honey,” Beth smiles.) The film plots Dan’s sexual thwarting and emasculation as a metaphor for fear, male impotence, inadequacy and internalized sexual rejection. A subsequent scene heightens Dan’s need to get his rocks off as a bagel’s cream cheese (a stand-in for semen in the “backed-up” Dan?) appears on his nose as a smiling book editor Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) looks on. For bad measure they’d met at a book party where racist jabs against Japanese people are thrown. (Later Alex will sneer when questioning if a black umbrella Dan has significant trouble opening — read: he can’t get it up — was made in Taiwan.)

When Dan and Alex initially explode they make a mockery of familial trappings — the kitchen sink, full of unwashed plates, is a fuck ground — and Dan’s clumsiness as he carries Alex to her bed only underscores his own pathetic station. Dan, who isn’t particularly smart, is a bland, generic stand-in for white male patriarchy, privileged, he is an opportunistic, contemptuous and selfish cad who has nothing to hold onto but a family he has wrecked, fears both financial and sexual, together with a feigned sense of status in a cramped Manhattan (presumably Upper West Side) apartment. Mr. Lyne doesn’t explain Dan much but the film’s point of view is firmly patriarchal and misogynistic as it condemns and destroys Alex, who is more feminist than career woman (she could be both of course, but the film’s politics don’t acknowledge her humanity at all in any conceivable or credible dimension — her cinematic trappings are window-dressing straw woman, waiting to be knocked down by an eager Mr. Lyne.) Alex, it should be written, wants a family but I don’t think she wants the patriarchy that governs it. She wants liberation of her sex and male accountability.

“Fatal Attraction”, a film that lays the pipe out of an authentic adult cinematic landscape before it pulls out and figuratively ejaculates blood all over its prurient and titilated moviegoing audience (the film made over $156 million in the USA and Canada in its initial theatrical run), vilifies and relentlessly attacks Alex, a character somewhat ahead of her film time and space in a cold, abrasive 1980s New York, a woman who challenges and confronts a man and fights the patriarchy in the me-decade Eighties more profoundly even than Barbara Stanwyck in the 1933 film “Baby Face”. It’s the male filmmaker Mr. Lyne though, who seems most terrified of Alex, whom, in the guise of Ms. Close’s powerful and brilliantly crafted display, is “Fatal”’s most potent and subversive character despite the excessive demonizations of her by “Diversion” screenwriter (James Dearden) and the director Mr. Lyne. Both these middle-aged white men slow Alex’s roll and obliterate her righteous, on-point message about male irresponsibility, infidelity and recklessness by contouring Alex as a psychotic hellion on wheels, irrational and violent to the utmost, an archetype on steroids to the point of cardboard cut-out scarecrow for an already-amped “rah-rah, give it to that crazy bitch!” movie audience of male and female filmgoers baying for blood.

Congratulations on getting rid: in a blatantly sexist refrain a detective shakes Dan’s hand in a scene immediately after Alex is killed. The white picket fence isn’t so clean. (Screenshot: Paramount Pictures)

In reality it is the film’s other two main characters the audience should be baying for. It is such hideous and insidious manipulation and diversion to scream holy hell at Alex who is actually on the moral high ground when it is clear that the very family that Alex (“where’s your wife?”, “you’re here with a strange girl being a naughty boy”) is attacking has more than its fair share of issues and contradictions.

One of the things so glaringly hypocritical and sexist about “Fatal Attraction” is that the very family structure Alex attacks albeit with disturbing actions as she says “and you’re playing happy family” in the penultimate bloodbath (literally) is mocked by the film’s lead men. Jimmy (Stuart Pankin), a friend and lawyer colleague of Dan, half-jokingly(?) views Hildy (Ellen Foley), his spouse, as “my wife, ball and chain”, an albatross and barrier to any potential ability for Jimmy to cheat (we see this flirtation and opportunity dashed in the early party scene.) From a mile away Beth spots Dan’s lie about Beth being “the prettiest woman in here” while at the Japanese book party (where he will meet Alex and later cheat with her on Beth.) Beth doesn’t hesitate to call out Dan’s lie out as it leaves his lips.

The film’s most telling (and best scene) is the one in which Dan’s infidelity and claustrophobia smacks him upside his head. Dan is hardly sympathetic, no matter how hard Mr. Lyne, Mr. Dearden and Mr. Douglas try — Dan is a sloppy, unmoored, fearful edition of Gordon Gekko before Mr. Douglas even plays him in “Wall Street” (which would arrive in theaters just under three months later after “Fatal” in December 1987.) The scene (see top photo) is the very kernel of a troubled but admittedly fascinating and for me rewatchable though deeply flawed film. The kernel of the scene and the film is the two women. One woman, Alex Forrest, attacks the patriarchy and for her earnest efforts is presented as an empty, one-dimensional hack-attack psychopath supplemented with Mr. Lyne’s and Mr. Dearden’s cheekiness (“I love animals — I’m a great cook”, Alex says — but don’t tell Grace Slick’s would-be white rabbit that.)

The other woman, Beth, is the virtuous Madonna, familial and mothering, obeisant to Dan’s rather feckless dictat. Yet there is no doubt Beth embodies the patriarchy more than the ineffectual and immoral Dan does. She fights for the patriarchy— kills for it — in spite of the fact that Dan has wrecked the home and family she built. Simply put, Dan is far more of an immediate threat to Beth than Alex is. This prospect seems to petrify Mr. Lyne (“9 1/2 Weeks”, “Flashdance”), who camouflages his fright around this clear truth by demonizing any call from Alex for female liberation and denouncement of toxic masculinity as the sick, mad rantings of a wild blonde lunatic. Beth parrots the toxic masculinity that Dan spews in “Fatal” earlier when he threatens Alex’s life. “This is Beth Gallagher. If you ever come near my family again I’ll kill you, do you understand?” Indicative of the screenplay’s shallow renderings nothing about Beth in the film has set up the audience for this declaration from her. You never knew she had it in her. Notably, the infidelity of her own husband is not appreciably dealt with by her or Mr. Lyne.

The film’s expedient plot devices deliberately and conveniently avoid wading into the deeper waters Hollywood movies almost always avoid. (An alternate, more shocking ending in line with Alex’s brave entreaties and declarations, not surprisingly didn’t test well with early test audiences, so a re-shot cop-out schlock horror ending replaced a devastating and arguably more accurate one where Alex takes her own life and frames Dan with that huge-ass knife he was foolish enough to touch. The rejected ending is on “Fatal” special DVD and Blu-Ray editions.)

Who is this family anyway — the image on the left or the photo on the mantle? Or both? (Screenshot: Paramount Pictures)

“Fatal Attraction” is certifiably and cynically sabotaged by its director while its lead female actor Glenn Close movingly fights for the authenticity of her character as the filmmakers do the opposite. You see and sense this in Ms. Close’s indelible performance which possesses the depth and nuance “Fatal” itself as a movie lacks.

One of the sly things however, that Mr. Lyne does is a reverse take on “Psycho”, upending the notion of white blonde female “superiority” in film by having Ms. Close be a Marion Crane who goes all Norman Bates in the Gallagher family bathtub while the ultimate death blow is handed down by the white female brunette. The scene is a play on noir cinema but “Fatal Attraction” is too much of a satirical tragicomedy and cautionary scare tale to belong entirely to a genre Alfred Hitchcock loved.

The core point to be made here about “Fatal Attraction” is that there is no doubt it is the patriarchy-loving and demure Beth who is the film’s most dangerous character. Even more than Dan or Alex, Beth is the film’s and society’s ultimate villain — for it is the smiling, polite, sanctified Beth who keeps the patriarchy alive with her actions and non-actions and that is the long-term damage and perpetuation of patriarchy-enabling. (See also Laura Linney’s Lady Macbeth-type character at the very end of Clint “Play Misty For Me” Eastwood’s “Mystic River”.) Self-defense or no, patriarchy’s true predator marks and gets her prey in the most vulnerable if not ironic place: the bathtub. (Should the incorrigible Dan, who mocks the marital bed by pretending he has slept in it in one scene, even be defended in the first place for his moral and marital betrayal? Man, patriarchy is a drug. Literally in “Fatal Attraction” it is the new old “white lady”.)

Indicative of the film’s laziness and conceits, we never get an inclination that such a serene and banal family having just moved north of New York City to Mount Kisco in upstate New York would keep firearms in the house — let alone that Beth would be using a gun, particularly with a small child at home. A family with issues indeed. Up until the Annie Oakley firing line arrives, knives and sharp-pointed pencils are all we’ve been treated to in the way of weapons and symbolism.

Crudely and in a sexist way, after Alex has sunk into bloody submission, the very next scene sees a white male detective shake Dan’s hand wordlessly, the subtext being: congratulations, you got rid of that witch. Dan though, still looks scared, dazed and beleaguered, and that white picket fence many people in America have been indoctrinated by as the would-be family gold standard is literally looking more than a little dirty and blemished.

As Beth welcomes Dan back into her arms the juxtaposition of their tightly coiled inseparable embrace of patriarchy and each other (they wear almost-identically colored sweaters) with the photo of a happy but tense family Gallagher looks like a satirical statement by both Mr. Lyne and a final retort from the grave by Alex Forrest. That this image of family slowly fades to black as the end credits roll is meant to leave you guessing: will this (thing called) family survive? Does the family Gallagher ring hollow? Will it have many more tricky and treacherous miles of road to tread? And a divorce — which Dan mentions to Alex that his mother got — is a distinct possibility down that troubled road.

Patriarchy’s puppet master and gatekeeper: The very first person you see in “Fatal Attraction” is Beth (Anne Archer) — and this is how she is shown, in silhoutte. (Screenshot: Paramount Pictures)

Omar Moore is a member of the Black Reel Film Awards body, the Black Film Critics Circle and the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He can be found on such social media platforms as Fanbase, Spoutible, Post and X.

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