What’s the Attraction Here? : Most-Talked-About Film of Year Stirs Strong Emotions About Basic Human Values


It’s been called an anti-feminist film, a “yuppie slasher” movie, an advertisement for safe sex and fidelity, as well as a diatribe against being single. In some cases, it’s been called unmitigated rot.

Like it or not, “Fatal Attraction,” the Michael Douglas-Glenn Close-Anne Archer thriller about the scary aftermath of a man’s extramarital fling, has become the most talked-about movie released this year. The feelings it has elicited make it one of the most thought-provoking and--to some--disturbing movies of the decade.

A psychologist says the film draws out the “latent mistrust” that sometimes separates men and women, and the director of the film says he is baffled by the public’s reaction.


“It’s quite extraordinary,” director Adrian Lyne said in a telephone interview. “I wasn’t prepared for how much of an audience-participation movie it was going to be. In the last act, the reaction is so vocal.”

In California theaters, audiences have been known to erupt with spontaneous hisses, boos and cheers in reaction to gruesome scenes or the villain’s behavior or in support of the film’s heroine.

Times interviews with moviegoers in Westwood, Hollywood and other locales indicate that emotions continue to run high after the movie ends as well. “Fatal Attraction” seems to have left men and women seeing their worst fears of marital infidelity or psychological imbalance confirmed on the screen even as, in some instances, it has provoked them to think about their personal relationships.

“If you look at the surface of the film,” said David Hamilton, 36, of Los Angeles, “it says that the couple that kills together stays together. It’s the ultimate yuppie-fascist film.”

In contrast, West Hollywood model Marja Sundquist said: “It made me feel sort of good. I liked the idea of keeping the family together. There was a lot of love in the movie.”

In the movie, successful attorney Dan Gallagher (Douglas) has, ostensibly, everything a married man could want. He has a loving wife, Beth (Archer), a precocious child, a big old dog and a prestigious job.


Even so, when his wife and daughter leave for a weekend, he takes a previously innocent flirtation with a charming and attractive business associate, Alex Forrest (Close), to the limit, spending two sex-saturated days with her.

Trouble starts when it becomes apparent that Close--whose mental state degenerates through the course of the action--has no intention of letting Douglas walk away from the encounter. Her “fatal attraction” to him ends up threatening to finish off his marriage and his family--something Douglas clearly did not expect from what he thought would be a harmless dalliance.

While several moviegoers interviewed found it refreshing to have Close play a psychotic-type role typically reserved for males, many single women were offended.

“I felt that it depicted the successful, single, intelligent career woman as being psychologically unhinged,” said San Francisco actress Carolyn Gregory, 34, in a telephone interview. “On the other hand, the faithful devoted wife and mother symbolized emotional stability.”

West Los Angeles free-lance accountant Carolyn Hench went further. “It upset me so much. It was so extreme. I didn’t like it,” the 32-year-old single woman said. “The whole movie took the side of the man. The audience definitely empathized with him.”

As for Close, Hench said “her actions embarrassed me. She was off-the-wall.”

USC filmprofessor Marcia Kinder called the film “a clear attack on women’s sexuality, the independent woman and the career woman. It seems quite hateful.”

Some men agreed.

“I’m a male and I’m incensed by this film. . . . The film is all from his point of view. The film takes his side completely,” pointed out USC film associate professor Drew Casper.

“Women, you should be very incensed by it,” suggested Casper. “The woman comes off as a monster. The woman is hideous, a Medusa-like figure.”

However, for other single males, Close’s character brought back memories of troubled women they’d personally encountered.

“It just rang so true,” said John Hilbert, 29, an attorney who recently moved to Westwood from Louisiana. “It reminded me of an old girlfriend who scared the hell out of me,” he said. “It brought back the nightmares of the relationship. She got very violent.”

But, Hilbert added, “I know guys who are just as crazy.”

Married women interviewed also had feelings triggered by the film, and it led them to think about their own marriages.

Terry Smith, 33, an executive secretary at Hughes Aircraft’s Space and Communications Group in Torrance, said: “It deeply affected me. It troubled me all the next day. Having daughters in the same age range (as the child in the movie)--when Alex (Close) took the kid out of school--well, that’s one of my biggest fears.”

Economic consultant Jennifer Polhemus, 31, of Santa Monica found the movie “disturbing in that they had let the demonstrative affection go out of their marriage. It will affect me in that it will remind me to maintain the affection in my marriage despite the distractions of the modern world.”

Smith’s and Polhemus’ husbands--on the other hand--were thinking differently.

“That movie helps you realize how dangerous getting involved in an affair can be. After a movie like this, a lot of men will think twice,” said Jeremy Smith, a 34-year-old operations manager at a picture-frame manufacturing plant.

“I’ve heard some men saying: ‘I’m gonna be real careful about what I do.’ ”

Chicago Title Co. salesman Harlow Sharp (husband of Polhemus), 45, agreed. “This will do a lot for fidelity--at least for a while--for men in general. . . . I think they were showing how infidelity can come back and haunt you.”

None of these reactions are surprising but they don’t go to the real heart of the issue, according to Herb Goldberg, psychologist and author of “The Inner Male.”

“There is a great undertow of fear and distrust between men and women in our society,” he said. “Women are brought up to distrust men--because men might leave them--and men are raised to distrust women’s power over them.”

Said Goldberg: “It doesn’t matter how ‘nice’ a man is in a traditional relationship; most men are vulnerable to the madonna-whore connotation--they crave excitement in a mysterious novel way. Men’s ability to fill that need through a kind of controlled, distant, uninvolved sexual contact is different from women’s.”

Broadcast psychologist Sonya Friedman said the movie brought out among both her male and female listeners similar feelings of wanting to seek revenge for being dumped.

But she said, “women are cheering (the movie) because it’s the first time that there has been a threat to a man in having (an extra-marital) relationship.”

However, the sexes did agree on one thing--”Fatal Attraction” may turn out to be the best safe-sex campaign ever launched.

Toluca Lake tennis pro Rodney Dowell, 29, recalled: “My fiance told me, ‘See what happens if you fool around!’ ”

Actor Gary Adler, 38, who said he “hated” the movie, was vehement: “I think anyone who fools around on his spouse is a jerk. Once you break the monogamy, the relationship can never be the way it was. And to fool around in 1987 with AIDS, you have to be really nuts.”

“Fatal Attraction” director Adrian Lyne was still amazed at the “buzz” the film has created, he said during a recent interview.

Lyne disagreed with those painting “Fatal Attraction” as anti-feminist: “Both main characters are tainted--the only innocent in the picture is Anne (Archer). Actually, I think the audience had a great deal of sympathy with Glenn (Close). It lasted far into the second act.

“The phenomenon that seems to be working is that (the movie) hits so close to home. I guess we’ve all known characters like Glenn Close--where it comes to a point when you realize that anything you say to them will have no effect whatsoever--a sort of singleness of purpose.”

The English director also said he was overwhelmed by the deluge of mail on the film. “So many say the same thing--’I’m married and I’ll never stray from the straight and narrow again.’

“I had no idea it would have this effect, I just thought it was a wonderful thriller.”

Times intern Benesch is a graduate journalism student at Northwestern University, and Caulfield is a Times Staff Writer.