Fatal Attraction's 'bunny boiler' was never the villain

Fatal Attraction's 'bunny boiler' was never the villain

The reboot of Adrian Lyne’s 1987 blockbuster is pop culture’s latest attempt at reframing the ‘crazy woman’ narrative, but does it play into the same toxic tropes?

In 1987, when Fatal Attraction premiered and scared straight men in American into monogamy, Glenn Close never thought she was playing the villain. Her character, Alex Forrest, was an independent, successful literary editor with her own apartment in the Meatpacking District and a closet full of collarless blazers. A modern woman! Enter married frump Dan Gallagher, a lawyer played by Michael Douglas. After a weekend-long rendezvous including elevator fucking, opera and park strolling, Dan is done. But Alex isn't. Her refusal to be ghosted leads her to stalk him, temporarily kidnap his daughter and – in the film’s most iconic scene – boil his pet rabbit. And so, the ‘bunny boiler’ term was born, and has remained a synonym for crazy broads everywhere since. 

Close has maintained that Alex was not the big bad, just a very unwell person. Speaking on Women’s Hour in 2020, she said: “I never in a million years would call Alex Forrest a villain. Because people didn’t know her backstory, they didn’t know the why of her behaviour.” Over the years, she consistently wished for a retelling of the story from Alex’s perspective.

In 2023, she gets her wish. Sort of. Alex Forrest is reimagined in 2023, with the Paramount+ series Fatal Attraction, starring Joshua Jackson as the cheating husband Dan Gallagher – now a hot shot prosecutor en route to being a judge – and Lizzy Caplan as Alex – not a chic publishing executive anymore but a member of the Victim Services Bureau. The show arrives during a cultural intersection around how we portray and talk about villainous female characters, real and fictional. They are misunderstood (see: The Great). They are memes (see: Cruella). They are mother (see: anything Isabelle Huppert does). They are mentally ill (see: Fatal Attraction).

Fetishing mental illness has been a constant since the days that people would pay to ogle women at mental institutions like the Salpêtrière in Paris, which functioned as a dumping site for any and all women who were diagnosed as ‘hysterical’ or were considered undesirable. We know who that applies to: unmarried pregnant women, sex workers and the mentally ill. There, they were studied, experimented on and displayed. Most crucially, they were hidden away from polite society. Recovery was neither expected nor promised, and most of Salpêtrière’s patients would die inside its walls. Salpêtrière might be closed, but we still love watching women lose their sanity, we’ve just discovered new ways of making a meal out of it. Tabloids, reality TV, and, of course, the movies. If we're not profiting, we'd rather keep them hidden away.

Fatal Attraction was a bombastic hit in a way that rarely happens now. It made $320.1 million, spent eight weeks at the top of the box office, made a movie star out of Glenn Close and created a sticky stereotype of a fearsome, demented kind of modern woman. The production history of Fatal Attraction is well documented. Close campaigned hard for the role but was repeatedly dismissed because she was “not sexy” enough. She consulted with psychiatrists about the mental health issues that could give rise to Alex’s actions if untreated and unsupported. Douglas wanted to change the script to be more favourable towards Dan, as he didn’t want to play an unlikeable guy (the irony, considering he’d get his first Oscar nomination for playing yuppie demon Gordon Gekko that same year). The producers changed the ending from Alex committing suicide and framing Dan for her murder to being killed by his homemaker wife Beth, as demanded by audiences in test screenings, who wanted Alex punished – and brutally, at that. In cinemas, people would yell “kill the bitch” and “kick her ass” at the screen. In her seminal feminist book Backlash, writer Susan Faludi reads that the single woman being terminated by the wife was reinforcing the dominance of the nuclear family.

Glenn Close in 'Fatal Attraction' (1987).

Screenwriter James Dearden’s original short film, on which Fatal Attraction is based, was interested in consequences, not punishment. Sherry Lansing, then the head of Paramount, brought this project into being after seeing Dearden’s short film and identifying hard with the obsessive heartbreak of a woman ghosted, having experienced similar issues in her own dating life. Lansing had a tough time getting the film made, however, and before Adrian Lyne got the job, Brian de Palma was on board, but was dismissed because he wanted to make Dan Gallagher more sympathetic. Michael Douglas made his career playing entitled men, variations on the aspirational douchebag. Women – Close in Fatal Attraction, Demi Moore in Disclosure and Charlie Sheen in Wall Street, even – happily threw themselves into ruin for him. At the most recent Cannes Film Festival, where Douglas received the honorary Palme D’Or, the actor was interviewed by a French journalist who asked him, giggling: “Fatal Attraction, Disclosure, Basic Instinct… Michael, why did they put you with all these crazy women?” 

The film’s Dan Gallagher never wrestles with his role in the events that transpire – not the affair, not the stalking, not the violence. He is faultless, seemingly. A man wronged by a scorned woman. Alex, meanwhile, is at the top of the scale of unhingedness. Dan believes that “it was understood.” Dan was cool, and Alex just wasn’t with the programme. Close plays Alex as a brittle creature, hiding her mess underneath a chic exterior, with her monochromatic apartment, tight modern clothing. Before Dan, Alex glided through a party, the room bending around her. All that gets undone after her one-weekend-stand with Dan, who’s got a perfect matching set of wife-daughter-dog-and-bunny at home, yet feels entitled to step out because his wife is out of town for a weekend. Truly, what is a man supposed to do when he is not entertained for a day? 

Alex was extreme, and audiences convinced themselves that she deserved extreme punishment. Very little fanfare is made, though, about the scene where Dan physically attacks Alex, violently choking her. Or the one where he breaks into her apartment. Or the one where he freaks her out by pretending to have a heart attack. Or when he demands her to have an abortion with an uneasy casualness. Dan does a lot of shitty things, but somehow the movie is convinced he’s the hero.

Alex’s hurt, visceral and virulent, is ignored by Dan and invisible to the audience. The film’s most famous line, delivered with lunatic intensity by Close, is “I won’t be ignored, Dan.” As the film progresses, Alex’s power leather coats are replaced with loose white shirts and dresses, reminiscent of the trapped women of Salpêtrière. Alex loses herself in this hurt. As her obsession deepens, her life disappears from view. No more job, friends, or pleasure. Just Dan. She calls him incessantly, leaving long-winded messages on his answering machine, calling him over and over. “This is what you’ve reduced me to,” she says into the silence, “Don’t I make sense?” she asks over and over again.

The Fatal Attraction reboot is the latest attempt in a reframing of the narrative around ‘crazy women.’ A new genre has started appearing over the past few years, that of the maligned women of recent history. Podcasts like You’re Wrong About have dived deep into our ogling treatment of women in the public eye, cataloguing their public perception and media lynching, from Tonya Harding to Lorena Bobbitt. A slew of documentaries, like Framing Britney Spears (2021) or Pamela, A Love Story (2022), have prioritised the perspective of the maligned women in question. Glossy, awards-bait films like I, Tonya (2017), The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2022) engage movie stars to bring pathos to women deformed by pop culture infamy, while TV shows like American Crime Story: Impeachment (2021), have taken a close, sympathetic approach to publicly shamed characters.

Part of the rise of this genre is the evolution of our understanding and language around mental health issues in a more empathetic direction. We no longer tolerate casual abuse storylines as “just the way it is.” Our ongoing cultural reckoning with art monsters has us questioning our relationship with problematic art as well as problematic artists. The setting is perfect for an updated, more generous retelling of a character who epitomised villainy for a full decade, and who we only saw through the cracks of a film dripping in misogyny and double standards.

Alas, no. Fatal Attraction the show introduces Alex on the ‘crazy but in a hot way’ end of the spectrum. She is portrayed as a mysterious, alluring new presence in the office, appearing seemingly out of nowhere just at the right time, making fuck-me eyes at Dan over a corporate buffet. She’s wearing a leather jacket, so you know she’s bad news. The New York Times, in their recent profile of Caplan, describes Alex as “a single career woman with some very bad boundaries.” The latter part of the series spends a lot more time on the evolution of Alex’s troubles – her ongoing, codependent relationship with her father, her heartbreaking need to be liked, her sad manipulations – and how she gradually lets herself descend into a delusion concerning her relationship with Dan. There is a crucial change: Alex is afraid of him. After Dan breaks into her apartment and attacks her, she’s ready to leave. Jumping between two timelines – before and after Alex’s murder – we spend the majority of the series with Dan Gallagher, seeing him grow from an entitled 40-year-old to an entitled 55-year-old, determined to prove that he did not, in fact, kill Alex Forrest. Either way, Alex is dead, and Dan is out of prison. He gets a redemption arc, but she’s dead in both 1987 and 2023.

Fatal Attraction, and Alex Forrest, have gone down in pop culture history as a warning sign for straight men. Close has spoken about how people have approached her over the years, thanking her for saving their marriage. Whenever I watch it, though, all I see is a portrait of a woman cracking open.

Anna Bogutskaya is an author, critic, film programmer and host of The Final Girls podcast. Her first book Unlikeable Female Characters will be released on June 9. Follow her on Twitter.

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