Glenn Close began her movie career by playing the title character’s mother in 1982’s “The World According to Garp.” She was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar and seemed positioned for a lifetime of prestige roles in quality films, a la Greer Garson or perhaps Meryl Streep. However, after five years of playing in classy productions, Close’s performances took an unexpected turn: She boiled the bunny in “Fatal Attraction.” Suddenly the quietly noble actress became a dangerous spoilsport to casual sex, establishing a new twist on Hollywood’s familiar jilted-lover archetype.
Close had taken a big risk. Her career could have been seriously derailed by “Fatal Attraction.” She might have been forever after relegated to playing female gargoyles in low-budget horror films (or maybe Mrs. Danvers in a road company revival of “Rebecca”). Instead, she was nominated for a leading actress Oscar and began to be offered a wider range of roles.
Without that luckless bunny, would Close have been chosen to play the deranged Norma Desmond in the Broadway musical version of “Sunset Boulevard”? Would she have been given the chance to portray two of her best characters, the cool and cruel aristocrat of “Dangerous Liaisons” and the self-destructive Sunny von Bulow of “Reversal of Fortune”? Would she have been anyone’s choice for that immortal villainess, Cruella DeVil?
“Fatal Attraction” turned out to be a landmark film. Few movies really deserve this label, which implies that contemporary audiences recognize the content as significant to an understanding of their times. As the leading topic of dinner party conversations in 1987, “Fatal Attraction” announced new ground rules for extramarital sex. It made clear that Alex Forrest was out there, and she wasn’t going to accept the role of victim. If you messed with her, she would boil your bunny, and how.
Alex was presented as a modern woman with a career, her own apartment and a willingness to be an equal partner in a swift bout of hot sex between two people who barely knew each other. Close’s character was not the usual femme fatale
(a dangerous beauty who lures men to do her bidding), nor could she be reduced to a woman scorned. Scorn was for Greek drama, opera or past melodramas in which women had no position of their own and could be thrown aside. Alex would never let rejection rise to that level. She refused even so much as to be ignored.
“Fatal Attraction” may have heightened a particularly threatening female archetype, but it didn’t invent her outright. Hollywood movies had always cautioned audiences about the danger of ignoring a woman, often within the framework of comedies. Television’s Lucy is a prime example of the humorous type. In one episode, she and Ethel take revenge on their husbands for watching football all day. They climb onto the roof of their apartment house and use giant scissors to cut the TV antenna to shreds. In another example, “Designing Woman’s” Dolores Gray is eating lunch when she learns her lover has unexpectedly married Lauren Bacall after a whirlwind weekend romance; her character dumps hot pasta onto a strategic area of his lap and sails out the door while he suffers. More recently, the abandoned women of “The First Wives Club” work together to hilariously destroy their ex-husbands’ businesses.
Sometimes, however, things were not so funny. In “Leave Her to Heaven,” when her husband spends too much time with his crippled teenage brother, Gene Tierney rows the boy out to the middle of the lake for a daily swim and just sits in her rowboat while he gets a cramp and slowly drowns. In “The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman,” a suburban housewife constantly ignored by her philandering husband has become a lonely lush. When she finds a UFO in her garden, her husband (as usual) pays no attention to her warning. Having been exposed to “some kind of radiation” (it’s that sort of movie), she grows into a gigantic sci-fi version of Close’s latter-day avenger. She goes ballistic, rips the roof off her house and wrecks a neighborhood bar looking for her errant spouse and his sleazy girlfriend.
“Fatal Attraction’s” Alex could be the daughter of the 50-foot woman, commanding her own larger-than-life “don’t you dare ignore me” attitude. Close’s portrait of a crazy stalker is convincing because she is able to communicate a sense of inner power. She’s a very self-contained actress. When she uses her power positively, as in “The Natural,” her character is believable as a truly loving woman. But she is equally credible when she chooses to unleash it as evil anger.
When Close roasted that rabbit — an intrustion into the sanctuary of Douglas’ personal space on par with “The Godfather’s” horse’s head scene — she did so on her own terms. In the process, her performance elevated a potential potboiler to a respectable status and freed the actress from a possibly limited casting future.