Fatal Attraction scared a generation of men. Can the TV series do the same?

By Louise Rugendyke

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It was a film that launched a thousand boiled bunnies – not literally, but RIP to the one that copped it on screen – and, according to its star Glenn Close, “scared the shit” out of a generation of men.

Now Fatal Attraction, the 1987 sexual thriller that turned a cheating Michael Douglas into a sympathetic figure, has been rebooted into an eight-part series starring Lizzy Caplan and Joshua Jackson that promises to give more context to the troubled character of Alex Forrest.

Lizzy Caplan has stepped into the shoes of Glenn Close, taking on the iconic but troubled role of Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction. Credit: Cibelle Levi

“She remains the villain of the piece,” says Caplan, who plays Alex. “But there’s more room for an audience to have compassion for Alex than maybe was allowed in the film version. In our version, we get to do more of a deeper dive into how her brain works, in her upbringing and why she is the way she is, instead of just branding her as this evil woman.”

Played by Close in the film, Alex initiates an affair with the very willing Dan Gallagher (Douglas), but it spirals out of control when Alex begins to stalk and harass Dan and his family. Cue the boiled bunny and some of the most memorable final scenes in cinema. (A heads up, we will be talking about the end of Fatal Attraction the film, so get over your spoiler drama now. The movie is 36 years old, people.)

Lizzy Caplan as Alex Forest and Joshua Jackson as Dan Gallagher in the TV reboot of Fatal Attraction.

After the film was released, Close talked about how the story didn’t do right by Alex. She said it “played into the stigma” of mental illness, sensationally turning Alex into a crazed villain instead of a woman who needed help. The ending of the film was even changed against Close’s wishes. In the original, Alex frames Dan for murder by slashing her throat and then leaving the knife on the kitchen bench.

But that didn’t sit well with test audiences. “[The audience] want us to terminate the bitch with extreme prejudice,” a film executive declared. So they did. Alex was killed by Dan’s wife. Audiences loved it. Close hated it. Time magazine called it “a nightmare parable of sex in the 80s”. It was nominated for six Oscars, including best picture and best actress.

In Australia, Fatal Attraction became the first non-local film to make $2 million in its opening week, second only to Crocodile Dundee (we must have had a thing about big knives back then).

Glenn Close was unhappy with the revised ending of Fatal Attraction, which she felt stigmatised her character’s mental health issues.

“That is amazing,” says Caplan when I relay this news to her. “I also don’t know if I was aware that Crocodile Dundee was so popular within Australia. I mean, I guess I would have assumed that …”

Oh yeah, we loved it. It’s one of my first cinema-going memories. I even remember where we sat (third row from the back, on the right, at Lismore’s Star Court Theatre).

“Maybe that will be Paramount+’s next remake, Crocodile Dundee,” Caplan continues.

She’s talking over Zoom from London, but Caplan’s camera is off, so I can’t see her “big ol’ bug eyes” that pop with every one of Alex’s more questionable actions.

“Glenn put a lot of very careful work into crafting the character of Alex,” she says. “And I know she feels like it was reduced to this sort of black-and-white, binary, evil character. And that’s not how she saw her. And it’s certainly not how I see her.

“When you rewatch the movie, especially if you know how much careful work Glenn Close put into Alex, it’s all right there on the screen. There is so much depth to that character. But the movie worked even when people weren’t paying attention to all of that depth.”

Fatal Attraction is Caplan’s second knockout role in six months, after starring opposite Claire Danes in the TV adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s critically acclaimed book Fleishman is in Trouble. (She also popped up in the return of another cult hit, but I am not spoiling that one.)

Caplan has been an indie favourite ever since she got her break on the TV comedy Freaks and Geeks and then cemented her cult status as the scene-stealing goth Janis Ian in the 2004 comedy Mean Girls. Caplan then took a decidedly grown-up turn in Masters of Sex, but it’s her dry delivery and air of world weariness that remain, no matter the role.

Now 40, she filmed Fleishman and Fatal back to back last year, starting Fleishman only three-and-a-half months after she had her baby, Alfie.

“Any other year, it would have felt like an insurmountable task,” she says of filming both shows. “And then you have a baby and you realise how much you are capable of. You’re also forced into figuring out a work-life balance. There wasn’t the opportunity for me to come home and really agonise over the day’s work or the work ahead, I had to be very focused when I was at work, and I’m very focused when I am at home. It showed me what I was capable of in a completely new way.”

If that sounds full-on, the bigger commitment perhaps was the spiral perm she had done for Fatal Attraction – in a nod to Close’s wild hair – that fell out after she contracted COVID days before shooting began. “COVID ate my perm!” she says, laughing. “It’s one of the symptoms of COVID. That’s maybe not at the forefront of the research. But I had a bit of a poodle perm. I was very sad to see it go.”

Caplan considers Fatal Attraction the TV series as less a reboot of the film and more of a jumping off point to explore something deeper.

The TV series leans into the mythology of the film, with many scenes having a familiar feel to the film.

“I completely understand people’s knee-jerk reaction to hearing something is being remade,” she says. “The inevitable chorus is, ‘Why would you do that? There’s no need.’ And I have been a part of that chorus. But there’s something about this one and I think it’s partly because of how Glenn Close has been so vocal about how unfairly she thinks Alex was treated.

“She was the only person standing up for her at the time. But now, in 2023, the culture has changed so dramatically that audiences would think [Alex] was treated unfairly, I believe, or they would have more of an inclination to dive a little deeper into why she does the things that she does, instead of taking it completely at face value and siding immediately with the Dan Gallagher character.”

While it’s true the series isn’t a replica of the film, it leans into its mythology – think bunnies, bathtubs and knives – and scenes that feel familiar without being a direct copy. It also offers up a double timeline – before and after Alex dies. The show opens with the release of Dan (Joshua Jackson) from jail, where he has spent the last 15 years behind bars for Alex’s murder.

The story then flashes back to when Alex and Dan meet. Was it a simple meet-cute – they work in the same building, he is a district attorney, while she is in victim support services – or something more sinister? Did she just happen to be in the courtroom at the same time? Was that really biscuit-related small talk at the buffet or a carefully plotted introduction?

Like the film, the series doesn’t explicitly name Alex’s mental illness, although Close and a handful of psychologists have diagnosed her as having borderline personality disorder. Caplan, however, doesn’t want to put a label on it.

Caplan with Adam Brody (left) and Jesse Eisenberg in the terrific Fleishman Is In Trouble.

“Alex is a very lonely woman. I have a lot of compassion for her,” she says. “I feel like she has been let down by the important people in her life since she was a small child. And I don’t think she really stood much of a chance. I think she had the brain chemistry that set her up for who she became, but had she been raised in a more functional, loving household, perhaps she wouldn’t have ended up where she ends up.”

A functional, loving household is the exact thing that Caplan’s character is running from in Fleishman is in Trouble. Her character Libby is a disaffected writer in New Jersey, struggling with the weight of being a wife and mother. She’s nostalgic for her youth and wonders if This. Is. It. It’s a show-stealing performance, capped off by Caplan’s dance over the end credits.

“I loved so much about Fleishman,” she says. “I am so proud to be in it and be a part of it. And to be a part of something that’s so adult. Fleishman felt like the type of film from the early aughts or the ’90s, the films that make you want to be an actress, which was just basically adults talking about being adults, and what they were struggling with.

“And there’s just not a lot of stuff for people in that age group who are grappling with these very universal ideas. There’s clearly an audience for it. Fleishman has led to so many reconnections from my past, so many very deep conversations with my friends about middle-age, about parenthood and jobs and finding your place, that balance that’s so elusive.”

Does she think there’ll be any reconnecting over Fatal Attraction?

“That’s probably a different target market.”

Fatal Attraction streams on Paramount+ from May 1.

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