(Welcome to Tales from the Box Office, our column exploring successes, failures, and everything in between at the box office, as well as what we can learn from them.)
The likelihood is that one film will stand out above all others whenever the word “erotic thriller” is used in reference to cinema, and that film is “Fatal Attraction.”
Adrian Lyne’s cinematic portrayal of an affair gone bad is still a cornerstone of the genre well over three decades after its initial release. In a year crowded with legendary films, it managed to stand out from the crowd as the highest-grossing film in the world in 1987. Any movie that tops the charts in a given year is a tremendous accomplishment, but in this case, it is an accomplishment that is made all the more astounding when considering the current franchise-dominated Hollywood environment.
We thought it would be a good time to look back at “Fatal Attraction,” which remains a landmark achievement in terms of sheer cultural penetration just shy of 35 years after its original release. Lyne is making his return to directing after 20 years with “Deep Water,” a new erotic thriller starring Ben Affleck and Ana De Armas. We’ll examine the creation of the movie, the debate surrounding its conclusion, and how it managed to surpass every other major motion picture made in a significant year for cinema.
The movie: Fatal Attraction
Diversion, a 1980s British television short film, served as the inspiration for “Fatal Attraction.” James Dearden, the creator of the short, ultimately turned it into a film. Nicholas Meyer (“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”) contributed some ideas and wrote a draught of the screenplay that finally became the shooting script that Lyne, who at the time was best known for directing “Flashdance” and “9 Weeks,” used. He didn’t necessarily scream, “This is our guy to make the most infamous erotic thriller of all time,” from the rooftops. Nevertheless, here we are.
Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), the protagonist of “Fatal Attraction,” is a happy man who works at a New York law firm and is wed to Beth (Anne Archer). Their daughter is theirs. It’s all good. But after a brief but passionate relationship with book editor Alex (Glenn Close), everything changes as she develops a complete obsession with Dan, who only wants to put the whole incident behind him. Things deteriorate quickly from bad to lethal.
According to the legend, casting Alex proved to be extremely challenging for producers Sherry Lansing and Stanley R. Jaffe since Barbara Hershey (“Hoosiers”) rejected them. Close, on the other hand, had never played a role like this but was excited to take on the job. Despite reservations, it was over once she showed up for the read, as Lansing recalled to The New York Times in 2017.
“In less than five minutes, Adrian calls us in and says, ‘I think you should see this.’ There was Glenn, her hair unrecognizable. She did the ‘Are you discreet?’ scene, and we were blown away. Now I can’t imagine the film with anybody else.”
As a result, filming took place in New York, and the process of creating a massive hit started. But the ending played a crucial role in that equation. In the original version of “Fatal Attraction,” the conclusion saw Alex cutting her throat in an effort to frame Dan for murder. But audiences didn’t see that conclusion, and getting there was a great difficulty. Close vehemently disagreed with the conclusion in which Alex turns into a murderer before appearing to have drowned in a tub and terrifyingly emerging again, only to be shot dead by Dan’s wife Beth. Close reportedly battled the studio for weeks over the decision to turn a character she adored into a murderous monster, according to that same New York Times article. However, the studio prevailed, and as Dearden put it:
“The critics decided we were saying, ‘Well done, you put another crazy bitch out of her misery.’ That was absurd. But that ending probably put another $100 million into the box office.”
The decision to portray Alex as a crazy killer when she was obviously suffering from mental problems raises questions that should be considered in retrospect. Over the years, Close has been outspoken about her attempts to portray Alex as a “disturbed woman” as opposed to a maniac and how much she despises the finale as it is. Although there weren’t the same protests from the public at the time, Dearden is probably certainly correct regarding the box office.
The financial journey
On September 18, 1987, Paramount Pictures released “Fatal Attraction” in theatres. Let’s not forget that things were very different in this era prior to the internet and the ability to just watch trailers online. This was a time of TV advertisements, trailers before other films, posters, newspaper ads, and word-of-mouth marketing. To make the point, pretend you are a person from the late 1980s and show them this trailer. The picture will become evident.
It’s simple to understand how that would interest enough moviegoers. Despite having a relatively low $14 million budget, the movie concluded its run with an astounding $156.6 million in North America and a remarkable $320 million globally. It only had a $7.6 million domestic opening weekend. In Hollywood, that’s what dreams are made of. However, back then, movies would stay in theatres for a lot longer, giving them time to develop a following. And “Fatal Attraction” achieved exactly that, with its weekend total actually increasing rather than decreasing in the weeks that followed. This movie became popular through word of mouth, and it is undeniably a film that deserves attention even now. It was the kind of movie that people would watch and then recommend to others. That is how the biggest movie of 1987 was created.
In this scenario, the numbers by themselves don’t fully convey the story. Examining other films released and doing well at the box office in 1987 is both very interesting and crucial. The highest-grossing domestic film that year was “Three Men and a Baby,” with “Beverly Hills Cop II” filling out the top three. Moonstruck, The Untouchables, Lethal Weapon, Dirty Dancing, and even Predator are examples of films that use the phrase “Good morning, Vietnam.” all excellent movies. all timeless. All were among the top 20 in North America in 1987. But, especially in a time before the internet, it’s very simple to understand how “Fatal Attraction” distinguishes out from the competition.
It is also crucial to note that Disney, which acquired Fox in 2019, decided to let Lyne’s “Deep Water” stream exclusively on Hulu this weekend. There isn’t room for something like this in theatres anymore, despite the presence of two A-list actors and a filmmaker who is returning to the genre that first made him famous behind the camera after a 20-year absence (or at least, not right now). Let alone the sheer miracle that making “Fatal Attraction” the most popular movie in the world for a specific year looks to be in hindsight. Just mind-blowing material for thought, and a prime illustration of how times have changed.
The lessons contained within
The fact that “Fatal Attraction” was lightning in a bottle should be the main message from this. It’s pretty challenging to glean anything of value for contemporary Hollywood, which has become streaming-obsessed, and with the theatre market going through a significant period of upheaval as we try to recover from the pandemic. Simply put, “Fatal Attraction’s” astounding box office success is unimaginable today. “The Greatest Showman” may have been the closest example, but even it was before the pandemic. Now? It’s difficult to even imagine.
However, Hollywood’s propensity for copying other things and taking the wrong lessons from their success still exists. As a result of this movie’s success, a tonne of imitation erotic thrillers appeared, such as “Basic Instinct” (which also stars Michael Douglas), “Body Double,” “Whispers in the Dark,” and “Disclosure” (which also stars Michael Douglas!). But in the more than three decades since the release of “Fatal Attraction,” neither of these films nor the other imitations have tried to replicate that same wave in the public’s psyche. Although imitation is the highest form of flattery and can result in quick money, it is not the path to success at this level.
In the end, studios and streaming services would be wise to look deeper into why something succeeded than just its outward appearance, particularly in the present period when there is so much stuff to sort through. It’s more important than ever to stand out from the throng. However, Paramount+ is developing a “Fatal Attraction” TV series, proving that in today’s media landscape, everything does really circle back around. Even the studio that brought this movie to life is going to try and recapture that magic on the small screen … which seems in some ways like a fool’s errand.