The bunny boiler is back
It was the film that shook the '80s. Fatal Attraction's writer James Dearden relives the controversy it caused – and explains why he has changed its explosive ending for the stage
Published 25/03/2014 | 02:30
It is hard, even for me, to fully recall the furore Fatal Attraction caused on its release back in 1987, appearing on the cover of both Time and People, and generating hours of charged and sometimes hysterical debate.
It was seen by some as a parable about AIDS, by others as a critique of the permissive society, and by others still as an attack on feminism in general and single career women in particular. All of which could not have been further from my mind as I was writing the screenplay.
It was even alleged that the cop shaking Michael Douglas by the hand at the end is actually congratulating him on a job well done – the crazed career woman put out of her misery, the family saved, the status quo preserved.
For those who haven't seen the movie, or have forgotten what it was about, Fatal Attraction tells the story of a man who has a one-night stand with a woman who refuses to let go, and who ends up terrorising him and his family to the point where his whole life unravels.
The movie actually spawned an expression, "bunny-boiler", to describe a certain kind of vengeful, unhinged female. This has since gone into the lexicon – a dubious honour, but an honour nonetheless, I suppose.
In fact, I originally wanted Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close, to grill the unfortunate rabbit on a rotisserie. Somehow, I don't think "bunny-broiler" has quite the same ring.
People may be surprised to hear that I initially conceived Alex as an essentially tragic, lonely figure, worthy of our sympathy. Yes, she does go a bit far, but I think we can all recognise how close to obsessive behaviour we can be driven by love – or the illusion of love.
So why did Alex come to be seen, in the popular imagination, as such a monstrous harpie? The answer lies in the long, grinding process known as development hell. . .
After four years of neverending rewrites, of countless stops and starts, we finally have Michael Douglas attached as the male lead and Adrian Lyne, hot from Flashdance, as director. Yet there is still resistance from Paramount.
"How do we root for this guy?" they keep asking. "He cheats on his wife!" Hollywood likes its leading men unequivocally heroic, and it seems there are far too many shades of grey to Dan Gallagher, Douglas's character.
So gradually, remorselessly, Dan is made more and more blameless, while Alex turns inevitably more and more into the villain of the piece. The changes are subtle, almost imperceptible, but they accumulate, so that she has become – without us fully realising – this predatory and eventually deranged character.
Still, all in all, the film we end up shooting is not that far from what we set out to make. When Adrian delivers his immensely stylish, edge-of-your-seat thriller, the studio is delighted.
Then the dreaded test screenings begin, the ghastly focus groups – at the time a relatively new concept. The audience loves the first 90 minutes, but absolutely loathes the ending. If we don't change it, we will have at best a modest success, a $40m domestic hit ("What's wrong with that?" I ask).
But if we do give them what they want, which turns out to be Alex blown away by Dan's wife, we will have a monster break-out smash. So, kicking and screaming, I agree to write a new ending, in which Alex is shot dead in the bathroom of the family home.
There is only one problem: Glenn categorically refuses to do it, seeing it as a travesty of the character she has created. The fact that it is I, the writer, who is wheeled out to persuade her. I will never forget the single tear that rolled down her cheek as she sat there in the producers' office as I explained the new ending.
Glenn turned slowly to the producers and delivered the immortal line: "You can take me to Bedford in a straightjacket, but you can't make me do it!" However, as anyone who has seen the movie can attest, they could – because, after a quiet word from her agent, who no doubt warned her of the dire consequences of refusing, Glenn did indeed agree to do it.
And, the tealeaf-reader was proved right. The film was a monster breakout smash, generating more than $300m worldwide. I read the final image of the film, with the camera panning down the hall onto a smiling photo of the family in happier times, as deeply ironic.
It was only when I found myself on a late-night chat show in London a few months later – being savaged by Shere Hite, the impassioned feminist spokesperson of the time – that I realised that all those bizarre and, to my mind, unwarranted interpretations of the movie might have some rather unpleasant consequences.
So, more than 20 years later, when a friend suggested turning Fatal Attraction into a play, I realised this would be a wonderful opportunity to revisit Alex, perhaps to redress some of the wrongs we had done to her.
I am not going to claim that she is suddenly Miss Normal, nor am I suggesting that dear little floppy-eared creatures are no longer an endangered species. But [spoiler alert] I can reveal that they will not be scraping Alex off the bathroom tiles, because Alex is emphatically not a monster. She is a sad, tragic, lonely woman, holding down a tough job in an unforgiving city.
As I watch Trevor Nunn rehearsing the cast, I find myself wondering: is Alex borderline psychotic? Who knows, perhaps me least of all. Was she not just driven to it by a series of disappointments in love? Love, at least initially, is a form of madness.
We say "madly in love" without really meaning it. In the end, does it matter what label we try to pin on her? I know that Glenn has sought to distance herself from the movie, worried that it trivialises mental health issues. Well, with all due respect, I think she is wrong. Alex is not a study in madness. She is a study in loneliness and desperation.
When Natascha McElhone – a woman who would, I am sure, consider herself a fully paid-up feminist – agreed to play Alex on stage, it was on the strict understanding that Alex would not be demonised. So this time round, she'll be given a fair shake of the (admittedly still loaded) dice.
Will it generate the same level of controversy? In the late 1980s, all manner of currents were swirling around: the disintegrating ideals of the 1960s, the onset of AIDS, the backlash from the moral majority.
For the first time since the advent of the pill, sex was dangerous again. Well, times may have changed, but I can already hear the knives being sharpened.
All I can say is that the story is one of the oldest in the world. If only I had a dollar for every time a man came up to me and, only half-jokingly, said: "Thanks, pal. You've ruined it for us married men for ever!"
But, despite claims that Fatal Attraction would change men's behaviour, I very much doubt it did, at least not for long, given that the one thing that changes very slowly and very little is human nature.
I am often asked if I regret the movie, or at least how it portrayed single career women. Yes, I regret that some people may have been offended. Do I regret the fact that audiences shouted "Kill the bitch!" at the screen? Of course. But I think it tells you more about the audience than the movie.
Did Fatal Attraction really set back feminism and career women? I honestly don't believe so. I think that, arguably, it encouraged a vigorous debate from which feminism emerged, if anything, far stronger.
I actually think the film is like one of those Rorschach tests beloved of psychologists, where you are invited to interpret an inkblot. People, especially passionate advocates of one cause or another, will always see what they want to see, even subconsciously – finding meaning where it may not exist, offence where it wasn't intended.
So my answer is that Fatal Attraction is in the end just a story, and a pretty simple one at that.
FATAL ATTRACTION IS CURRENTLY BEING PERFORMED AT THE THEATRE ROYAL HAYMARKET, LONDON