Two Very Different Working Women At The Movies, 25 Years Ago This Week
How long is 25 years?
Well, October 1987 was the month Baby Jessica McClure fell down the well. It was the month when Robert Bork was not confirmed for the United States Supreme Court. It was the month that included Black Monday, October 19, when the Dow Jones had its worst percentage drop ... ever.
And 25 years ago this week, two films about marriage, work and family were in the top 10 at the box office at the same time — both utterly of their shared moment, but so different from each other that it's startling to contemplate the fact that they were undoubtedly sharing the same multiplexes.
In those theaters, people walked down one hallway to see Fatal Attraction, which would go on to gross more than $156 million domestically, becoming the second highest-grossing film of the year (behind Three Men And A Baby). They walked (in smaller numbers) down another to see the comedy Baby Boom, which would gross $26.7 million and then live forever on basic cable in that soft, loved, rainy-Saturday place where While You Were Sleeping and The Cutting Edge hang out.
Fatal Attraction was the first film in Michael Douglas' "In Retrospect, I Should Never Have Taken My Pants Off" trilogy about men foolishly having sex with the wrong women, which also included 1992's Basic Instinct ($117 million) and 1994's Disclosure ($83 million). It may play now like a pulpy, crazy-lady thriller with a last-minute seat-jumping coda of the kind Alan Arkin perfected in Wait Until Dark, but remember: Fatal Attraction was nominated for Best Picture. There were nominations for the screenplay, for director Adrian Lyne, for Glenn Close and Anne Archer, and for the editing. Although it's a story of temptation and infidelity, it's not just any story of temptation and infidelity; if it were, it would just be a sensitive adult drama. The attraction has been done; it's the fatal part that made it controversial, iconic, and massively popular.
The deck is stacked for regrettable pants removal from the beginning, of course. Poor Beth (Archer) starts the movie picking up laundry, brushing her teeth, and making Dan (Douglas) go out and walk the dog right when he comes home hot and bothered from meeting the beguiling Alex (Close). Shortly thereafter, with Beth and their daughter out of town and Alex apparently pleasant, sexy and willing, Dan indulges in what seems to be a weekend fling. Unfortunately, Alex, who seemed so normal at the beginning, turns into a ravenous, unhinged monster essentially the minute he has sex with her. Now-legendary car problems, rabbit problems and bathtub problems follow.
Dan meets Alex, notably, through work. She's not the coy coed or the daughter's friend who so often tempts bored middle-aged married men in the movies by promising renewed youth. This is a meeting of equals, or so it seems. It's what Dan gets for being attracted to a woman who's very much like himself — a business contact, a peer, whom he meets at what you'd unhappily call a "work thing" while resenting your inability to get out of it. It's not one of those genteel cocktail parties where everyone talks low and listens to a smooth jazz, but an awful '80s corporate blowout where everyone is packed in together and it smells like sweat and no one is happy except at the bar.
Looking at the movie now, it's hard not to find it comical how Alex transforms from a source of consequence-free sex to a source of very costly sex all at once, as if sex itself — or at least sex with Dan — robs her of her sanity. It's an over-the-top cautionary tale, to be sure, but it's less certain at whom it's directed.
Is it a story for men like Dan? Is it as simple as "don't cheat on your wife, less for reasons of honesty and more for reasons of women being crazy, clinging nuts who will try to kill you"? Is it "don't cheat on your nice, pleasant wife with a confident, sexually aggressive woman, because they're the ones who will get you"? Is the cautionary tale for wives who make their husbands take the dog out and ferry their phone messages, driving them into the arms of the unbalanced? Or is it ultimately saying to women like Beth about women like Alex, "If you don't want her to tear apart your family, you may have to kill her yourself?" (The one person you know isn't being cautioned is Alex. Despite the fact that she gets dumped and, you know, killed, she becomes obscenely violent so quickly that any sympathy for her is arrested.)
If you question the "cautionary tale" reading, by the way, please know that Glenn Close does not: she's said the role saved marriages by keeping men faithful. Perhaps not the most romantic reason for fidelity.
Alex is alternatingly pathetic and monstrous: she cries and begs as much as she threatens, but when the AFI selected the 50 greatest film villains in 2003, she came in seventh. Among women, only the Wicked Witch of the West and Nurse Ratched ranked higher. She was the most evil woman in movies to ever have a sex life. She landed right behind Mr. Potter of It's A Wonderful Life and just ahead of Phyllis Dietrichson, Barbara Stanwyck's character from Double Indemnity, whose villainy, of course, is also tied up in seduction.
So what's the opposite of Fatal Attraction?
It might be the sweetheart comedy Baby Boom. There, Diane Keaton plays J.C. Wiatt, a high-performing professional who makes big deals at work and then comes home to four-minute sex (that's not salacious gossip; that's specified) with an investment banker. He's played by Harold Ramis, who actually makes his first appearance coming to bed in a blue-green clay facial mask, in case you didn't get it from the four-minute thing. J.C. inherits a baby according to a set of facts only slightly more plausible than "it was delivered to her in a glass case by experimenting Venusians," and suddenly she is up against the big question — "having it all." (Yes, this discussion was going on 25 years ago. If you were hoping we could stop having it soon, this may be disheartening).
J.C. ultimately decides to keep the might-as-well-be-Venusian baby, which means giving up both the bad sex and the consuming job. She moves to Vermont, where she buys a big cozy house with an apple orchard, meets a hot veterinarian who provides substantially more satisfying overnight visits, and becomes an organic baby food magnate.
Of course, "she moves to Vermont, meets a hot vet, and becomes an organic baby food magnate" sounds preposterous, but it's no sillier than "he meets a capable, confident woman who instantly transforms into a bunnycidal maniac." They're both fantasies. Baby Boom is a best-case fantasy; Fatal Attraction is a worst-case fantasy. But they both say a lot about how the wild collective cinematic imagination was thinking about women and work and independence (not to mention emotional stability) in a couple of hugely different ways at the same time. The women you meet at work: plucky heroines or terrifying lunatics?
Are both films cautionary tales? They could be.The easy read of Baby Boom is that women who have careers secretly crave babies and J.C. lucked out by having one sent to her in time. That would make it a warning to working women that if you let it go too long, your baby years will be behind you and you will be at J.C.'s Manhattan job forever instead of in front of the fireplace in Vermont with Sam Shepard where you belong.
But that's not it. J.C. doesn't leave the workforce because she wants kids. She is, in a sense, an early draft of a telecommuter. Not only does she find her job not accommodating of her baby, but she recoils at Manhattan parenthood as the film depicts it, which is a competitive grind full of climbers just like the ones at work. So she goes to live where she wants to raise her kid, and then (with the help of apparently extraordinary wealth that makes the story largely irrelevant to 99.8 percent of working parents, let alone working single parents), she builds her career to fit. She has every intention of remaining in business; it's clear that she wouldn't be happy without her professional life. That's why her instinct, treated in the movie as normal, healthy and admirable, is not to nest; it's to take her homemade baby food out and start selling. She's a born huckster as much as a mom, and she wants both. It's an utter fantasy, but not a warning to careerists.
It really was a big year for movies about men and women, family and work. That's exactly why Fatal Attraction would be topped for the year only by Three Men And A Baby. That one has a lot in common with Baby Boom, in fact, when it comes to the implication that busy single people secretly would benefit from a community infant-gifting program in the tradition of a Bookmobile, but of course, it plays a little differently when it's done with guys. (What's the word for a female bachelor again?)
It's an interesting historical blip, these two films sharing space, but it certainly didn't close out the year in films grappling with working women. After all, what was coming in a little over two months, while Fatal Attraction was still in theaters?
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.