Fatal Attraction was made during the “Fuck Period” of Michael Douglas’ career, during which he made a series of films wherein he had sex with approximately everyone who drifted too close to his personal orbit. (Specifically, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure.) Truly, no woman could resist the erotic singularity that was Michael Douglas in the late 80s and early 90s.
But even though the argument can be made that all three films of the Douglas “Would You Like to See Me Naked” Oeuvre are about the vilification of women’s sexuality, Fatal Attraction remains unique among them. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress), whereas Basic Instinct only received two technical Oscar nods and Disclosure politely watched the ceremony from home. Glenn Close gives a haunting performance as Alex Forrest, an independent career woman burdened by mental instability and a dipshit attorney who opportunistically sleeps with her for an entire weekend while his family is out of town. Sharon Stone’s portrayal of Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct became similarly iconic, but Catherine is a film noir caricature of a femme fatale, whereas Alex is a real human being. That is, until the film’s ending.
If you’ve never seen it, Fatal Attraction is about Dan Gallagher (Douglas), a successful New York lawyer with a loving, supportive family who randomly decides to have an affair the instant the opportunity arises. He meets Alex, who is an editor for a publishing company whom Dan’s firm represents, and the two spend 48 hours having desperate, pawing sex, as if a planet-killing meteor is hurtling towards earth bearing the judgment of the cosmos. Alex “catches feelings”, and spends the rest of the film stalking Dan in increasingly self-destructive ways, including slashing her wrists, boiling the Gallagher family rabbit, and briefly abducting Dan’s daughter Ellen from school. In the film’s original ending, this spiral reaches a predictable conclusion – Alex slashes her own throat and stages the scene to make it look as if Dan murdered her. Dan is arrested but ultimately exonerated by a tape Alex sent him in which she explicitly threatens to kill herself to ruin him, and in a final flashback we see Alex commit the act while listening to Madame Butterfly. The tragic opera is a repeated motif in the film, so make note of that, because we’re going to come back to it later.
Test audiences did not care for the original ending, so against Close’s wishes, a new one was shot – Alex comes to the Gallagher house with a knife and tries to kill Dan’s wife Beth (Anne Archer), but Dan intervenes, apparently drowning her in the bathtub. Alex pops back up out of the water like Jason fucking Vorhees and Beth shoots her to death with the family gun. The crowd cheers (presumably), the film fades out on a shot of a framed photograph of the happy Gallagher clan, and the credits roll. Close really did not want to film the new ending, as she felt it turned her character into a slasher movie “psycho killer” stereotype, and not the realistically troubled person she was trying to portray. But the addition of an unsophisticated popcorn ending arguably helped make Fatal Attraction the biggest worldwide box office hit of 1987, which is absolutely wild to think about in 2020, a year in which that honor is reserved for films containing at least one character made entirely of digital effects.
The new ending certainly undermines Alex’s character, both in the way she was written and in the way Close chose to play her. But the new ending also creates some truly horrifying implications that were merely tragic in the original. Partway through the film, Alex tells Dan that she is pregnant with his child. The movie never refutes this claim, and indeed Dan seems to accept it – he calls Alex’s doctor to confirm it, and when he finally admits the affair to his wife, he also tells her that Alex is pregnant. So, when Dan and Beth team up to kill Alex in the film’s climactic handicap match, they’re teaming up to kill a pregnant woman who is carrying Dan’s child.
I have to stress that the movie never, ever tells us that Alex was lying about the pregnancy. Nobody addresses it after Alex is killed – we’re breezed right into the end credits within 60 seconds of her death, and we’re riding so high on the action movie ending that we’re just basking in relief for the Gallagher family, and not thinking about poor dead Alex. And we could be forgiven for assuming that the pregnancy was fake, considering the extreme lengths to which Alex went to insert herself into Dan’s life. However, it seems pretty clear from the text of the film that the pregnancy is 100% real, and for proof you need look no further than Madame Butterfly.
As I pointed out earlier, Madame Butterfly is a repeated theme in the film. Alex mentions it as her favorite opera (as does Dan), and after their weekend affair she offers to take Dan to a performance of it to apologize for her erratic behavior. And in the film’s original ending, she commits suicide while listening to it. Why is that important? Well, Madame Butterfly is about a young girl in Japan named Butterfly who is married off to an American serviceman briefly stationed there with the Navy. Butterfly absolutely adores him and is excited about their marriage, but he has no intentions of staying married to her and intends to divorce her as soon as he leaves the country, which he does soon after their marriage. She waits several years for him to return, giving birth to his child in the meantime. He finally does show back up, but he does so with his new American wife in tow, to take the child back to the States to raise as their own. He didn’t realize how deeply Butterfly cared for him, and can’t bring himself to actually face her. When she hears this, she sends word to him that she’ll give up the child if he comes to see her one last time, but then kills herself with a knife before he arrives.
Alex’s obsession with Dan is not the same as Butterfly’s heartbreaking unrequited devotion to a husband that never truly cared for her, but the inclusion of Madame Butterfly so specifically and repeatedly throughout Fatal Attraction is absolutely intended to create a thematic connection. That connection is most explicitly clear in two areas – the film’s original ending (in which Alex kills herself with a knife while listening to the opera), and the idea of an “inconvenient” pregnancy. Given Alex’s pregnancy claims juxtaposed with the story of Madame Butterfly and the context of the original ending, the evidence seems irrefutable. She absolutely was pregnant, and killing her unborn child along with herself and then framing Dan for the crime was the ultimate expression of revenge for his rejection. Like the serviceman in Madame Butterfly, Dan rejects the family he could have had with Alex in favor of his life with Beth and Ellen. That’s clearly the direction in which the movie was heading, and in terms of Alex’s character, this is the only way it was ever going to end. (Interestingly, the version of Fatal Attraction that screened in Japan contained the original ending.)
But instead, Alex gets blown away like a Die Hard villain so Dan can have a happy ending with a wife he cheated on for no discernible reason, and nobody mentions the pregnancy ever again. And to be honest, I totally get it – I’ve always felt that Madame Butterfly should’ve ended with a Naval Destroyer shelling Butterfly’s house into the Pacific Ocean after she tries to assassinate the president. However, the Destroyer must be played by a strong baritone, otherwise you risk shattering the illusion.