Saturday, July 7, 2012

What "Fatal Attraction" Taught Me About Love, Cheating and the Battle of the Sexes 25 Years Later

"Love is fair," Barbara Mandrell sang on her 1981 Top 20 country hit, but I, for one, beg to differ. Sure, it breaks everybody's heart, but it's what happens before and after heartbreak that highlights the gross inequity of love, particularly between the sexes.

Take domestic abuse, for instance. On TV and in movies, when we see a woman slap her husband, we don't even flinch. In fact, if the circumstances are right, we might even cheer her on. But if a man hits his spouse, he's immediately labeled a wife abuser. Shouldn't "violence is never the answer" apply to both sexes?

Then there's cheating. As Sammi Smith sang on her 1981 Top 20 country hit, it's a two-way street -- but if we go strictly by our reaction to seeing it onscreen, a man's is usually more riddled with potholes. Cheating wives are generally given far more leeway than philandering husbands. Diane Lane got a Best Actress Oscar nomination and renewed career momentum for screwing Olivier Martinez behind Richard Gere's back in 2002's Unfaithful.

Kristin Scott Thomas got hers for stepping out on Colin Firth with Rafe Fiennes in 1996's The English Patient. Would that film have been such a critically acclaimed sensation, would it have won the Best Picture Oscar, would its central romance have been considered such an epic love story, if Fiennes had been the married one? Would the extreme reaction of Colin Firth (as the cheated-on spouse) have been more acceptable had Kristin Scott Thomas been walking in his shoes?

The division between the accountability of the sexes became even more clear to me last night as I watched a documentary on the 1987 film Fatal Attraction on the Biography Channel. Glenn Close kept talking about how she wanted to bring out the humanity of her Alex Forrest character, make her seem as vulnerable as she was vicious. Being the skilled thespian that she is (indeed, 25 years later, I still think Close should have gone all Alex Forrest on Cher for stealing that Best Actress Oscar for Moonstruck, an inferior film with an inferior central performance), Close realized her aspirations -- but only to a point.

Was Forrest the sympathetic character that Close considered her to be? Not when her moments of vulnerability always came with such a menacing edge. Rejection is part of life. We all experience it at some point. Most of us have a few good cries, toss and turn in bed for several sleepless nights, devour a few pints of ice cream, or, if we're like Joan Allen in The Upside of Anger, become a bitter drunk.

When you start making thinly veiled threats -- "I will not be ignored" -- and boiling bunny rabbits, it becomes less about vulnerability and humanity than insanity and extreme narcissism, itself a blend of insecurity and vanity, both of which, in Forrest's case, approached lethal levels. I don't remember everything about the movie, but I do recall my impression being that she wasn't motivated so much by her burning love for a married man, Michael Douglas's Dan Gallagher, as she was by her ego, while her attitude toward him vacillated between desperate and taunting: "Look at this tasty morsel. How dare you not come back for seconds and thirds?"

"I will not be ignored." Reconsider it. Coming from a female character, it became a mantra of empowerment. I don't think many people were rooting for Forrest, but what effect would that comment have had coming from a male character?

Fatal Attraction's original ending had Forrest committing suicide and Gallagher being accused of her murder, convicted and sentenced to death. Producer Sherry Lansing thought it was the perfect denouement -- "Actions have consequences," she said in the documentary, as if cheating should actually be a crime of passion punishable by death -- while Glenn Close loved it because it preserved her character's all-important humanity.

The horror story ending that the filmmakers ended up going with due to poor test-audience response to the original conclusion, presented Alex as an irredeemable monster, when in the eyes of the producer and female lead, she was a victim of male lust and lack of compassion. In my opinion, the ending made the film -- and I hate horror movies!

As I listened to Lansing and Close argue their cases (and by the time the movie had become the second-highest-grossing film of 1987, thanks, in large part, to the crowd-pleasing ending, both had come around), I wondered if they would have felt the same way if the genders had been reversed. A decade later, the film's director Adrian Lyne would return to similar marital terrain with Unfaithful. What if the Unfaithful script had called for the other man, Olivier Martinez, to turn psycho, boiling pets and threatening Diane Lane's character and her family? Would anyone have looked for the humanity in him?

If Alex Forrest had been a man, would Fatal Attraction have been as big a hit? I suspect that for many women at the time, part of the draw of Fatal Attraction was watching a husband pay for his sex crime. They dragged their significant others to the theater to see the movie in droves, and I can just imagine their warnings as the credits rolled: "See? Cheat on me, and there might be hell to pay."

I imagine many of them were saying the same thing three years later, at the end of Presumed Innocent, just as many of them probably admired Diane Lane in Unfaithful, for looking so good at her age, for landing an extramarital lover as hot as Olivier Martinez. The woman scorned is a pop-cultural touchstone. We may not like her actions, but in the hands of the right actress, we're more likely to accept what she does in the name of unrequited love because, well, she's the victim. A leading man scorned who goes too far is a psychotic who needs to be six feet under by the final frame.

Actions do have consequences. I agree with Sherry Lansing on that one, and it's an excellent main theme for a movie. But it doesn't only apply to cheating husbands. Whether you're male or female, married or single, you never know whom you're getting into bed with. We all look better in the dark, but what the harsh light of day reveals isn't always so flattering.
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