Fatal Attractions: The Sordid History of Sexy Stalker Movies
Like most things these days, it all comes back to Clint Eastwood.
‘American Sniper’ reigns supreme at the box office, and the only movie that would seem to have a fighting chance of dislodging it from the top spot this weekend—the Jennifer Lopez thriller ‘The Boy Next Door’—owes its very existence to the movie that Eastwood was finishing up when he got cast as “Dirty” Harry Callahan. That’d be ‘Play Misty for Me,’ which has earned its place in cinema history as the answer to a trivia question—What was two-time Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood’s first movie as a director?—but is also one of the most influential American movies of the 1970s; the primal scene of an endlessly replenishing sub-genre of sexy stalker movies.
Released in October of 1971, ‘Play Misty for Me’ was received warily by critics who weren’t sure how to treat Eastwood’s move behind the camera. Was it the whim of a world-beating movie-star or the beginning of an entirely separate career? By casting himself in the lead role of a Carmel, California disc jockey seduced and menaced by a devoted listener (Jessica Walter), Eastwood was being both practical and provocative: He was indicating a personal connection to the material while simultaneously shoring up the project’s box-office ballast. “‘Play Misty for Me’ is not the artistic equivalent of ‘Psycho,’” wrote Roger Ebert, but while the comparison was dismissive, it was also telling; no less than Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, ‘Play Misty for Me’ illuminates the tensions and terrors of its era.
The murder of Marion Crane a quarter of the way through ‘Psycho’ has been cited as the moment that exploitation-movie practices broke through to the mainstream—the slashed celluloid canvas of the shower scene opened up a portal through which anything and everything was now permissible. It’s entirely coincidental that ‘Psycho’ lifted the (shower) curtain on an American decade increasingly defined by its (lone, male, white) psychopaths, from Lee Harvey Oswald to Charles Manson, but the steady proliferation of horror movies big and small in its wake was a definite case of cause-and-effect. If Norman Bates represented something like the return of the repressed—a mama’s boy to finally freak out Sigmund Freud—then Jessica Walter’s Evelyn Draper signified something equally unsettling to the filmgoing nation: a vengeful, possessive, and sexy doppelganger for Mrs. Bates, sans the drag act.
Where the femmes fatales of the 1940s were typically strong and self-possessed—think Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Double Indemnity’—Walter’s character in ‘Play Misty for Me’ is a clinging vine, albeit one who feels she has a right to hang off of Eastwood’s Dave Garver. After learning that she’s the longtime caller who keeps requesting Errol Garner’s “Misty,” he takes her to bed, which she takes as an invitation to insinuate herself into every aspect of his life—much to his chagrin. Freewheeling and sexually aggressive—at least until she’s rejected, at which point she mutates into a hysterical harpy—Evelyn seems in hindsight like a (rather ghoulish) caricature of a liberated woman. She has no job, no values, and no aspirations beyond possessing her handsome new lover, whose horror at his partner’s sharp left turn into Crazyville is supported at every turn by the filmmaking. In ‘Play Misty for Me,’ “The Feminine Mystique” is a cover for something far more malevolent, and “the problem that has no name” is solved not through a reconsideration of gender roles but defenestration; out of the window, and out of mind.
‘Play Misty for Me’ was a box-office hit and a conversation piece; like ‘Klute’ (1972), which starred activist-icon Jane Fonda as a prostitute being protected from a serial killer by a devoted police officer, and ‘Straw Dogs’ (1971), in which Susan George seemingly initiates her rape at the hands of two burly strangers, it represented an intersection—however chaotic and convoluted—between the inherently retrograde qualities of genre filmmaking and the incipient legacy of second-wave feminism. More specifically, however, ‘Play Misty for Me’ provided the template for Adrian Lyne’s ‘Fatal Attraction’ (1987) which came out 15 years later but repped a very similar agenda.
Once again, the hero was a successful white male professional—an attorney played by Michael Douglas—with the added frisson of him now being a philanderer: When Douglas’ Dan Gallagher hooks up with Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), it’s behind his wife’s back, a detail that screenwriter James Dearden uses rather diabolically to make the latter even more of a villainess. She’s not just a woman scorned, she’s also a homewrecker. (Alex doesn’t ask Dan to play “Misty” for her, but she does obsessively listen to Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”—on top of it all, she’s a culture vulture, too).
Nominated for six Oscars and famously panned by Pauline Kael—who detected amidst its trashy plot particulars a distinct strain of Reagan-era family-values moralizing—‘Fatal Attraction’ was the sort of gigantic, demographic-crossing commercial smash that begs for imitators. In short order, a number of movies appeared that took its basic tropes and reconfigured them to suit every possible taste and proclivity. By way of inventory, these include (but are not limited to):
- A meet-cute between two attractive, upwardly mobile strangers.
- A subsequent romantic fling (hot-sex-on-top-of-kitchen-sink optional).
- One partner’s growing suspicions that their lover is not right in the head (or else hiding some dark secret about their past).
- A conversation in which they disclose their fears to a friend (whose reward for lending an ear is getting murdered by the villain).
- A final confrontation in which the hero/heroine vanquishes the threat once and for all (at least until the here-we-go-again-epilogue in which the villain is shown flirting with another potential victim).
The variations were endless. ‘Single White Female’ (1991) reimagined ‘Fatal Attraction’ within the (sleazily slippery) boundaries of a distaff roommate relationship; ‘The Crush’ (1993) tweaked ‘Lolita’ (1962) into the tale of a writer preyed upon by a nymphomaniacal nymphet (instead of the other way around); the truly screwy ‘The Temp’ (1993) presented a corporate striver accosted by his ambitious, short-skirted office underling (played by Lara Flynn Boyle, whose victims include Faye Dunaway, a symbolic passing of the crazed-career-woman torch that has to be seen to be believed).
By the time that Jim Carrey was making bedroom eyes at Matthew Broderick all through ‘The Cable Guy’ (1996)—a film whose pitch-perfect if ultimately timid generic satire was obscured by media hype over its inflated budget—it was clear that Hollywood had exhausted the possibilities of playing this sort of stuff straight. The cycle continued anyway; the campy vibe of movies like ‘Swimfan’ (2002) (‘Fatal Attraction’ for teenagers ... and swimming), ‘The Roommate’ (2011) (‘Single White Female’ for pre-teens) and ‘Obsessed’ (2009)—which climaxes with a defiant Beyonce Knowles dropping a chandelier on the would-be-usurping white girl who tried to steal her husband—are every bit as suggestive of its post-modern cultural moment as the ardently reactionary ending of ‘Play Misty for Me.’
Based on its hilariously dopey trailers (“I love your mother’s cookies!” chirps Ryan Guzman to one of Lopez’s kids, who is hopefully not old enough to understand what a double entendre is), ‘The Boy Next Door’ certainly looks like it falls on the self-conscious side of the divide. But its particular variation on the ‘Play Misty’ model is intriguing. In comedies and dramas alike, sexualized middle-aged women are presented as predatory creatures—exiles from Cougartown—so flipping the script to have the 45-year-old Lopez cast as the object of unwelcome advances from a baby-faced man (the 27-going-on-18-year-old ‘Step Up’ refugee Guzman) is resonant, even if it dubiously implies that this uncharacteristically gender-flipped May-December fixation is a sign of aberrant pathology. (Lopez already did a ‘Fatal Attraction’ knockoff, 2002’s ‘Enough,’ where she learned krav maga and kicked the crap out of her abusive husband.)
There’s something a bit Norman Bates-ish about this mommy-dearest scenario: Poor Norman was also the boy next door, even if his was the only house for miles around. It’s probably fair to say that J. Lo’s comeback vehicle will also not be the artistic equivalent of ‘Psycho,’ or even ‘Play Misty for Me.’ But in the doldrums of January, we’d definitely settle for ‘The Temp.’