ST. ELMOS FIRE

A celebrity magazine once 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 to scream; the screenplay by James Dearden, borrowed 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 warpy traits 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, granted, we probably don’t need much more information about her—she’s instant loony tunes by then—and the second is discovered by the male-in-deep-trouble but it doesn’t point to anything. This explains why Close sought the counsel of three specialists in pathological compulsions—to try to fill in what Dearden left out. If they were of help, we don’t see it 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 about her. (She might even pass as descendent of Cloris Leachman’s Madame de Farge in Mel Brooks’ History of the WorldPart 1.) 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’re used for the sake of making a thriller instead of a true chiller. Taxi Driver is an example of the latter: the throbbing psychosis in Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle scares us because he’s what we have the potential of becoming. Had Fatal Attraction dealt with Alex in a similar way, the public’s reaction to the picture wouldn’t be so cursory. It’s not about the dangers of a married man caught cheating, and please, no more nonsense about the fear of AIDS. It wants to be about the hazards of loneliness that many otherwise intelligent people get trapped by. Had Lyne and Dearden the guts, Alex would have shaken us up to make the frightening disclosure “I know that person—I am that person.” Close is super-charged to be that kind of scary realization; you 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 hot come-on, and you 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 peril which sets in motion the action in the film—is that fuzzy, frightening transference of emotions. Quickie sex is of course a great leveller, but sometimes such intimacy for the lonely obsessive can be the spring board for an insidious series of neurotic acts. When Douglas says to Close that all they had together was one weekend and nothing more, she’s not about to take no for an answer. Instead of a more premeditated succession of reasonably subtle episodes to further entrap him, she suddenly slits her wrists. The movie ceases immediately its descent into the mess of sex and becomes the stuff of a predictable slasher. Based on the boffo box office, audiences seemed to accept—or wanted to accept—the incident as adequate explanation for Alex’s psychotic behavior. 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 beginning the promise of a terrifying glimpse into modern ache of loneliness. The major weakness is that Close isn’t really the star of the movie. Michael Douglas is. With a fatty face and paunch, he’s 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 tantalizing voices in movies. Yet one doesn’t feel much sympathy for Douglas’s distressing ordeal—probably because he did so little to find out who he was actually dealing with. (He breaks into her apartment but what he discovers is dismissed; why didn’t he look for an address book?) The lack of response to Douglas may have to do with the film’s silly, putative objective—that guilt must be put back into extra-martial affairs. Some in the audience watching Douglas untangle himself from the difficulty he’s unwittingly gotten into might start having second thoughts about such flings—at least that’s what the dumb-dumb moralists, psychobabblists and female authors of the latest batch of men-hating books tell us on all the talk shows. Are they kidding? It’s takes much more than a movie to alter biological urges. (Almost thirty years after the movie’s release, is there any evidence that the numbers of adulterous affairs have decreased?) Adrian 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 are exhaustively topnotch; they’re like speed-induced dances. If you’re willing to think of Fatal Attraction in slasher terms, then he’s the right director because with his background in commercials, he knows the advantage 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. It didn’t start out as one. Because so many movies are previewed well in advance to weigh audience reactions, directors who might have been better off staying with their original conclusions end up altering them to accommodate audience wishes. Preview cards told Lyne that the audience was infuriated when bad girl Alex commits suicide and sets up her finale to make it look as if Douglas killed her. Back to the studio and in the revised release we get the satisfaction of the audience salivating  revenge. As quick fix, it’s just like us to want to kill instead of attempting to understand the disturbing social disease. Fatal Attraction enters the pop lexicon as a descriptive put-down; but it doesn’t extinguish the spread of St. Elmo’s fire.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.