The Dangerous Attraction of Close

Times Staff Writer

Could this really be Glenn Close? The actress whose portrayal of the obsessive, vengeful Alex Forrest last year left audiences screaming, “Kill her! Kill her!” as “Fatal Attraction” moved toward its violent climax? The same Glenn Close who is now flirting with audiences as the deliciously malicious Marquise de Merteuil in “Dangerous Liaisons”?

Something is not quite right here. The woman who opens the hotel door is demure and soft-spoken, her small frame drowning inside baggy jeans and an oversized sweater. Her face has the distracted look of a mother struggling through a first overnight separation from her baby. (Eight-month-old Annie stayed behind on a film set in Vancouver with her father, producer John H. Starke, while mom made a quick trip to Los Angeles.)

For the record:

12:00 AM, Dec. 29, 1988 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 29, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 4 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Lawrence Kasdan is executive producer of the upcoming Columbia Pictures film “Immediate Family” starring Glenn Close, not the director as stated in Tuesday’s Calendar. Jonathan Kaplan is the director.

She may not look--or act--the part off camera, but Glenn Close is fast becoming one of Hollywood’s cultural ensigns. More than just about any other actress on screen today, Close is taking on roles that touch a raw nerve in a society still sorting through the emotional chaos left behind by the rise of feminism.

“She’s acting out our worst fears and fantasies,” says Ellen McGrath, a New York clinical psychologist who has studied the impact of “Fatal Attraction” on film audiences. Close’s recent roles, McGrath adds, are keeping with the increasingly more conservative tenor of the times--that is, “if you violate the traditional norms, you’re going to be punished.”


In reality, “Fatal Attraction” was simply the story of a psychotic woman who becomes obsessed with a married man. But that is beside the point: Enough moviegoers interpreted the film as the triumph of the traditional woman over her liberated sister that heated debates erupted over dinner tables everywhere, as well as at such unlikely gatherings as the American Psychological Assn.'s annual meeting.

Close doesn’t pretend to be any kind of expert on American popular culture. But as she settles into her chair, rearranging the pictures of her infant daughter on the coffee table, Close says she is beginning to understand why that film touched off such an emotional response. “We went through the liberation of the 1960s and feminism, which I think was vital,” Close says. “But it stirred up the waters very deeply. We’re supposed to be enlightened now.

“Men are trying very hard to understand, but there is a lot of resentment, a lot of miscommunication that may have been building up in our national consciousness. You’re supposed to not care if your wife is working. We’re all supposed to be enlightened now but you can’t get away from the differences in the two species. I think people feel betrayed and angry, and (“Fatal Attraction”) taps that dark side of it all.”

In her current film, “Dangerous Liaisons,” Close also plays a single, “working” woman. But this time, the setting is pre-revolutionary France and the character is the cunning, haughty--and very controlled--Marquise de Merteuil. Her “career” is as master of sexual parlor games. The Marquise may be an 18th-Century version of a feminist, but the treatment she gets is solidly in tune with many of the signals arising out of 1980s culture--punishment for her indiscretions.


There is a comforting distance of time separating the audience from the characters in Lorimar’s “Dangerous Liaisons,” directed by Stephen Frears and based on the 1782 novel by Choderlos de Laclos. (“Amadeus” director Milos Forman is at work on a rival film, called “Valmont,” based on the same novel.)

But Close’s next film, Columbia’s “Immediate Family,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan (with whom she worked on “The Big Chill”), could strike much closer to home. Close plays a thirtysomething working woman who learns that she can’t have a child--a story that some feminists no doubt will regard as another Hollywood warning to women who buck traditional roles.

In any case, the film is likely to strike a responsive chord with baby boomers who have had similar experiences or have watched their friends go through the traumas of infertility. “We’re tackling a subject that I think is becoming a phenomenon in our country--couples who are trying to have children and can’t,” says Close, who gave birth to Annie last April at age 41. “I thought this would be an easy role. But it’s not. It’s quite emotional.”

Close is an unlikely harbinger of her generation’s cultural currents. The daughter of a surgeon who spent the first years of her privileged childhood on a Greenwich, Conn., farm, Close says firmly that she is not a political person. And she is reluctant to describe herself as a feminist. “I am not a . . . " she starts to say, but quickly adds, “I don’t know what feminist means anymore. Does feminist mean sticking up for yourself because you’re a woman? If that’s what it means then I’m a feminist.”


In reality, Close’s latest round of roles are in keeping with a desire she expressed four years ago to break away from the “motherly, strong, serene” types that followed her 1982 breakthrough from stage to screen in “The World According to Garp” at the age of 35. After winning her first Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the eccentric but warm-hearted nurse Jenny Fields in that film, Close’s roles included the nurturing friend Sarah in “The Big Chill” in 1983 and Robert Redford’s angelic first love in “The Natural” in 1984. She earned Oscar nominations for both of those roles as well.

But in real life, says Close, she say she would feel more comfortable with those “earth mother” kind of people--particularly Jenny Fields: “I think she’d be a great friend.” In contrast, Close says, she would be “totally intimidated” by the Marquise de Merteuil.

Although Close describes the Marquise as a feminist, she says firmly that she didn’t want the role for that reason. “I did this part because this is an extraordinary woman who survived 200 years as one of the great figures in literature,” Close says.

“I think she is acutely aware of her position in society and its limitations. She was a brilliant woman, cursed with an intellect she had no place to go with. She had to create herself, she lived in an age of hypocrisy and artifice. She saw how people were manipulated and she decided to be the puppeteer rather than the puppet.”


That is where the 18th-Century Marquise and the 1980s’ Alex Forrest of “Fatal Attraction” part company. Both women were engaged in war with the opposite sex, but for the Marquise “this is a game she is very much in control of.” In the 1980s, the Marquise would be a woman “in a position of manipulation, which in our society would be big business or government. She’d be extremely successful at whatever she was doing.”

In contrast to the self-possessed Marquise, says Close, “Alex was totally out of control. I played Alex as though nothing was calculated. She was only reacting unreasonably to the moment. Her sickness was that, to her, what she was doing seemed rational.”

That sickness--so much a part of the Alex character--is why Close finds the interpretation of the film by her feminist critics puzzling. “They generalized (the film), making her every working woman,” Close says, “and she’s not. She’s a very specific character. “

Indeed, clinical psychologist Michael F. Enright, a friend and fishing partner of Close’s father in Wyoming, developed a case history of Alex to aid the actress in her performance. According to Enright’s case study, Alex’s father--a personally and politically powerful man--abuses her sexually at an early age. Enright describes the child’s resulting conflict of feelings toward both her mother and father. For example, he notes that she has a growing rage toward “your father whom you want to have and to destroy at the same time.”


Both Enright and his colleague Ellen McGrath showed “Fatal Attraction” at the American Psychological Assn.'s annual meeting in Atlanta last summer and chaired a lively discussion on it afterward. While McGrath agrees with Enright’s conclusions about the character’s emotional illness, she insists that Alex was also a symbol for the battle being waged between traditional and feminist roles in the 1980s.

That symbolism, McGrath argues, was strengthened by a change in the ending written after the film was viewed by test audiences. In the original, the obsessive Alex commits suicide after failing to lure away her lover (Michael Douglas) from his wife (Anne Archer) and child. Douglas is then arrested for murder.

But test audiences couldn’t bear seeing Douglas suffer any more punishment. They wanted revenge on Alex. In the new ending, the audience gets what it wants, and Anne Archer, the beautiful and very traditional mother, is its weapon. The ending credits roll by alongside close-up shots of family photographs. The audience, McGrath maintains, found this reaffirmation of the traditional family--and the film’s rejection of feminism’s forces of change--"comforting at a subconscious level.”

Close says she doesn’t think the audience was ready for the original ending. “It was too strong,” she says. “In the new ending, the audience got what they wanted, which was my blood.” Close received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Alex Forrest, a role that, she says, took a toll on her life and her marriage. (Her second marriage, to New York financier James Marlas, ended during that period.)


Whether the role of the Marquise earns her a fifth nomination remains to be seen. But her performance has generally been praised by critics. ( “Malice, as ‘Fatal Attraction’ showed, “brings out the best in her,” Newsweek critic David Ansen wrote, echoing several other reviewers.)

Perhaps in real life Close would, as she says, be intimidated by a woman as calculating and witty as the Marquise. But, clearly, it’s the kind of role she relishes playing on screen. “Women are a powerful species,” says Close, “and strong women are something to contend with. Maybe they’re more honest than other people.”