A week after it was released, the movie "Fatal Attraction" became the nation's No. 1 box office hit. Little wonder. The movie features Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, is redolent of sex and is scary enough to make women shriek in their seats and cause a friend of mine, a World War II combat veteran, to have a post-cinema nightmare. The film's ultimate nightmare, though, is for the women's movement.
That, I hasten to add, is not the way some women see it. The movie, after all, is about a married lawyer (Douglas) who has a brief but oh-so-passionate affair with a successful career woman (Close), a book editor -- not to mention psychopath. For Douglas, a few hours of heaven becomes weeks of hell -- the kind that hath no fury like a woman scorned. Here is the peril of the one-night stand, a morality tale for men as women would like to tell it.
For men, too, the picture has resonance. It suggests the old aphorism: never eat at a place called Mom's, never play poker with a man named Doc and never sleep with a woman crazier than you are. Many men have done the last, although few with the complicating and tragic consequences that befall Douglas. At any rate, for a slick film, there is food for thought here for both sexes. Where AIDS cautions, "Fatal Attraction" screams "Stop!"
And yet the movie says something else. It totally reverses the stereotype of recent years. Instead of the career women being the one who has it all (a terrific job, a sensational apartment and the freedom to sexually engage at whim), it is the non-working wife-cum-mother who is the paragon of mature womanhood. Played by Anne Archer, she exudes contentedness, serenity and, in the end, a formidable strength. She is complete unto herself.
A movie is just a movie, and too much should not be made of it. It's doubtful that the makers of "Fatal Attraction" were attempting to make a statement about feminism. But in the same way that "Rambo" was in sync with the Tarzan ethic of the Reagan years, this movie seems to have struck a cultural chord. Its very premise -- the fulfilled wife-mother, the unfulfilled and (therefore?) crazy career woman -- might well have been rejected just several years ago.
In fact, so acceptable is the stereotype of the successful-yet-wacko career woman that the audience has swallowed it as easily as popcorn. Never mind that it's a contradiction in terms. After all, aside from running Bates Motel, could a psychopath actually become successful in business? Probably not. Conversely, could a bright, educated woman be totally fulfilled playing with a preschooler by day and accompanying her husband to cocktail parties by night? Again, probably not. This, though, is the way both women are portrayed.
The problem with the movie is, in a way, the problem with all movements and counter-movements. There is an absolutist quality to them -- a kind of either/or mentality. In movies, this is understandable because a film script is usually too slight a vehicle to shoulder ambiguity. That's too bad, because lots of people look to movies for role models. But in a movement, such simplicity can be even more disastrous, since it exists to point the way. It asserts The Truth.
Just a short time ago, women were told to follow the career path. A job, a title, a couple of dressed-for-success suits and a stockbroker's card on the Rolodex would add up to fulfillment. When that turned out to be not always the case, a counter-prescription was offered: stay home, stay pregnant and, in the process, stay happy. This is the chirpy advice of anti-feminists.
Neither path is right or wrong. What's right for one woman may be wrong for another, and, just to make things more complicated, right at one age and wrong at another. But none is a panacea -- a ticket to happiness. Yet, the reaction to the women's movement (some of it valid) has gone so far as to proclaim the status quo ante as a heaven that can be reclaimed. It makes no allowance for the increasingly higher educational levels of women, birth control and, of course, the well-documented misery of women who once had to follow the only path open to them: wife and mother.
For both men and women, the challenge is to re-invent the way we live, to grope for the proper mix, to live in the present while retaining an attentive respect for what worked in the past. But too much has changed, and nostalgia itself is often an escape from reality. When it comes to proclaiming a path to happiness, it could be the most fatal attraction of them al