ST. ELMOS FIRE

A celebrity magazine reported that Glenn Close often exploded at director Adrian Lyne on the set of Fatal Attraction, screaming that the script was shit. She was right. The screenplay by James Dearden, expanded from his original Diversion (a 42 minute film made in England in 1979), doesn’t give her much to work with. In playing the obsessive Alex, who hounds married man Michael Douglas after she spends a sex-filled weekend with him while his wife Anne Archer is away, Close has only a few warped bits to use in getting a handle on her: an attempted suicide and a lie about her father not being dead. The first comes on so fast that we probably don’t need much more information—she’s instant loony tunes by then—and the second is discovered by the male-in-deep-trouble but it doesn’t proceed anywhere. This explains why Close sought counsel from three specialists in pathological compulsions—to try to fill in what Dearden left out. We don’t see their help manifested in any recognizable way except through physiognomy—her hard-boiled, tense, masculine face, her this-is-meant-to-be-disturbing hair that looks like loose dangling springs, her deeply regulated, menacing voice. She indeed looks electrified—St. Elmo’s fire is whirling around her. Dearden has some of the required psycho reactions of Close’s character to Douglas’s rejections—the angry persistence, the surprise visits, the late night calls, the threats—but they’ve been restructured for the sake of turning a psychological chiller into a slasher. If the movie might have originally meant to be about the dangers of a married man caught stealing some fresh hot action, it really seems to be about the hazards of loneliness that affect the behaviors of otherwise intelligent people. Had Lyne and Dearden the guts, Alex would have shaken us up to make the frightening disclosure that “I know that person—I am that person.” Close is super-charged to be that kind of scary realization; we see it in her first scenes at a cocktail party when she rebuffs a clod’s advances and catches Douglas’s eye. The edge, the hints of desperation, the chic “I’m more than you can handle” vibes, the overt display of a libertine’s confidence, the bold flirting, the contumacy—it’s all there, especially during the moments she and Douglas are getting acquainted at a restaurant: her begging-for-it eroticism is so startling to Douglas that he has to do shy-boy double takes. He both believes and disbelieves the come-on, and we feel the anxiousness in his tummy—that queasiness experienced in anticipation of sex with a stranger. (The sex that follows is the fiercest in American movies since the first Jack Nicholson-Jessica Lange bang in The Postman Always Rings Twice.) None of us who have had these kinds of encounters forget them and repeat performances are often likely. The peril in it—the excuse which sets in motion the action in the film—is that fuzzy, frightening transference thing. Quickie feverish sex is of course a momentary leveler, but sometimes such lustful acts for the lonely obsessive can be the spring board for insidiousness. When Douglas says to Close that all they had together was one weekend and nothing more, she suddenly goes full bonkers and slits her wrists. The movie ceases immediately its descent into the messiness of assumed NSA sex and becomes the stuff of predictability. Based on the boffo box office, audiences accept the incident as adequate explanation for Alex’s psychotic behavior and didn’t want to go much deeper. Close also stops being character-effective at this point: she becomes just another psycho bitch and all we’re left to watch is how she’ll inflict further damage. She continues to look the part but that’s not much consolation for those of us who see in her a terrifying glimpse into an updated pathology. With a fatty face and paunch, Michael Douglas is quite endearing to most of the audience and as family man he’s helped immeasurably by Anne Archer—she’s got one of the most captivating voices in movies. Yet one doesn’t feel much sympathy for Douglas’s ordeal because of the film’s altered putative objective—that consequence must be put back into extra-martial affairs. Some in the audience watching Douglas untangle himself from his unwitting web might start having second thoughts about such flings—at least that’s what the dumb-dumb moralists, psychobabblists and female authors of the then-latest batch of men-hating books told us on all the talk shows. (Is there any evidence that the numbers of adulterous affairs ever decreased?) Lyne, who directed the insufferable Flashdance and the series of nearly X-rated commercials called 9 1/2 Weeks, can do sex scenes that are by no means shabby; they could even be described as homoerotic. And he’s highly energetic with violence—the fight scenes as speed-induced dances are exhaustively topnotch; with his background in commercials, he accelerates the advantages of razor-sharp editing. And he doesn’t interfere with his actors giving the film’s emptiness their best shot, so this may be the best acted slasher yet. What’s important to note is that it wasn’t intended to be one. Because so many movies are previewed in advance to weigh audience reactions, directors who might have been better off staying with their original conclusions end up changing them to accommodate audience wishes. Preview cards told Lyne the audience was infuriated when bad girl Alex commits suicide and sets up Douglas to make it look as if he killed her. Adamantly opposed by Close and Archer, the cast returned to the studio and in the revised release we get the satisfaction of audience-salivating revenge. With the speed of lightning, Fatal Attraction reenters the pop lexicon as definitive put-down and posits that there’s only one solution to the spread of St. Elmo’s damage.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.