Wives’ Tales




A YOUNG GLENN CLOSE rocks back and forth on the white tiles of her eggshell-painted bathroom. She wears a golden halo of wild, corkscrew hair and a dress the color of milk. Close slowly takes out a large kitchen knife and cradles it like a child. She’s outgrown her usefulness and been tossed aside. Music swells around her: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, about a woman who kills herself after her lover leaves her pregnant. The score crescendos as Close takes the knife and drags it across her throat. The screen fades to black.

This was the original ending to Close’s career-changing film, Fatal Attraction. Directed by Adrian Lyne in 1987, Fatal Attraction was nominated for six Academy Awards and tells the story of a casual love affair gone terribly wrong. Michael Douglas co-starred as Dan Gallagher, a married lawyer who embarks on a weekend-long affair with Alex Forrest, played by Close. After Dan rebuffs her, Alex becomes violently obsessive and does anything to get his attention. She stalks him, kidnaps his daughter for the day, and murders the family’s pet rabbit. It’s this scene, specifically, that spawned the term “bunny boiler,” meant to convey a certain kind of vengeful, unhinged woman.

Initial test audiences hated the original ending — they felt Alex’s suicide somehow let her off the hook. Ticketholders were out for her blood, wanting retribution for what they thought Alex did to Dan’s family. Paramount Pictures executive Ned Tanen summed it up: “They want us to terminate the bitch with extreme prejudice.” Close said they’d have to put her in a straitjacket to refilm the ending, but she eventually caved as pressure from the studio mounted. In the final scene that went to theaters, Dan’s wife, Beth, shoots and kills Alex. Viewers loved this ending and reputedly yelled, “Shoot the bitch,” as the climactic scene neared.

In interviews over the past 25 years, Close has insisted that Fatal Attraction’s alternate coda didn’t sit well with her: “It was going to make a character I loved into a murdering psychopath,” Close has said. She believed Alex was a flawed woman with a history of sexual abuse, currently suffering from erotomania, which The DSM describes as “a form of paranoid delusion with an amorous quality.” In Close’s mind, Alex was an ill woman who should have warranted our sympathies, not our revenge fantasies. Close has often remarked how disturbed she is by Alex’s legacy, and believes we should be understand Alex as a complicated woman: “I think it would be wonderful to write that kind of story from [Alex’s] point of view. That, I think, would be really interesting.”

With Close’s latest film, The Wife (dir. Björn Runge), she may have finally received her chance. Both a successful film in its own right and a corrective to Fatal Attraction’s misinterpretation, The Wife does remarkable double duty. Adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, the film brings to life the pained but powerful marriage of Joan and Joseph Castleman, played by Close and Jonathan Pryce respectively. Joseph is a philandering husband and famous writer in the mold of Philip Roth, John Updike, and Norman Mailer. Joan is his dutiful wife and mother of his children; hers is an identity constructed out of the ability to feed, clothe, and proofread. The action opens with Joe receiving the phone call of a lifetime: the early morning announcement that he has won the Nobel Prize in Literature — though, as we learn, his novels may not be entirely his own work.

In Fatal Attraction, Alex, the other woman, still wants to be seen by the lover who has abandoned her. In The Wife, Joan wants the same thing: recognition. She wants acknowledgment that she’s been taken for granted for too long. This time around, Close isn’t playing the adulterer — Joan is unfortunately tasked with putting Joe’s female “fans” in their place — but both characters, mistress and wife, endure patriarchal injustice. How can each of them be righted by the men who have used them? The difference between the two films is that The Wife gives Joan the agency and respect that Fatal Attraction denies Alex. Yet in doing so, The Wife also offers us the ability to look back and empathize with Alex, even years after audiences practically begged to see her dead.

Most of The Wife is set in Stockholm, where Joe takes too much pleasure in his recent accolades and Joan quietly fumes, recalling the life that led her to being known only as Joe’s spouse. They are joined by their angsty twentysomething son, David (Max Irons), whose main motivation is haranguing his father at every turn for approval over a new short story he’s written. Then there’s Nathaniel Bone, played with a mischievous glint in his eye by Christian Slater. Bone is another writer haranguing the Castlemans, but he’s after the blessing to write Joe’s biography.

Just as Joan begins to realize her resentments, Nathaniel offers to buy her a drink and it’s in a cocktail lounge where he lays his trap. He confronts Joan and offers her his sympathy: Nathaniel doesn’t only believe that Joan writes her husband’s novels; he also knows her frustration at not receiving any credit.

The scene is eerily similar to the first dinner Dan and Alex have in Fatal Attraction. As Alex puffs on her cigarette and smiles coyly over the smoke, she asks Dan if he can be “discreet.” In The Wife, Nathaniel offers Joan something like discretion: a moment to confess — not only to writing the books, but also to her bitterness. Nathaniel reaches across their table to light Joan’s cigarette and tells her he thinks she’s tired, tired of being cheated on, tired of counting her husband’s pills, and tired of picking food out of his beard. The Wife uses scenes like this one to justify Joan’s anger; every character in the film, including Joe, knows it is Joan who deserves to win the prize that night.

Fatal Attraction, on the other hand, has a way of forgetting everything it puts Alex through. Dan verbally and emotionally abuses her; he blames her for not using contraception and tries to bully her into terminating her pregnancy. “This is what you’ve reduced me to,” Alex screams at Dan, perhaps as a way of rationalizing her increasingly bad behavior. But it’s also a line that went largely ignored by audiences. Told through Dan’s eyes, the film reduces its female characters, Alex and Beth, to nothing more than the tired tropes of seductress and homemaker — both of which have a way of excusing Dan of any wrongdoing. It’s Dan’s continued failure to take responsibility for his affair with Alex that ultimately drives her to violence. Upon seeing the film, critic Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker:

Once this woman begins behaving as if she had a right to share in the lawyer’s life, she becomes the dreaded lunatic of horror movies. […] The film is about men seeing feminists as witches, and the way the facts are presented here, the woman is a witch. […] The violence that breaks loose doesn’t have anything to do with the characters who have been set up; it has to do with the formula they’re shoved into.

The irony of Kael’s review is that somewhere there’s a version of Fatal Attraction that feminists would delight in — a film in which the womanizing man is forced to reckon with the consequences of his actions. Fatal Attraction could have ruminated on the psychological ambivalence of marriage and sex, and complicated — for all of its characters — the different facets of relationships and responsibility.

But the film that went to theaters in 1987 allowed the audience to believe that Dan was both its victim and hero. When Beth kills Alex, we are supposed to understand that all is well in the Gallagher household; as viewers, we do not witness any of the emotional or legal repercussions that would inevitably stem from this vindictive resolution. Indeed, in this crowd-sourced conclusion, Fatal Attraction traffics in the shallow plot points of fantasy: the patriarch is forgiven, the bad guy is dead, the nuclear family has been restored, and allowed safely back in their sought-after home in the suburbs. We can even feel the purchase of a new pet rabbit looming on the horizon.

The Wife, by contrast, centers its narrative around irrational motivations and their emotional repercussions. After 40 years of marriage, Joan has every reason to detest her husband — and yet it would be too easy to make the Castleman’s union full of only animosity. Even in their fight scenes, there is love between Joe and Joan, and we see it as much as we see the tension. In the middle of what would have been a blow out, they receive their second most important phone call of the film: their first granddaughter is born. Later that night, joyous over the news, they slow dance, holding each other in the dark. There are times when we want to root for them as a couple, and as much as we side with Joan, the film also insists that their professional partnership was created by both of them equally. In fact, the movie allows a reading in which Joan has brokered their professional deal. At one point, Joe argues that he’s contributed just as much labor as Joan has: he’s cooked, cleaned, and raised their children. (Both times I saw the film, there was an audible gasp of disagreement from the seats. Though Joe is asking that his role as “wife” be taken seriously, his emotional labor is unbelievable, or believed to be leveraged in bad faith.) The Wife relies on psychological ambivalence to tell a story where these bargains and sacrifices are essential to the love/hate relationship at its narrative core. 

A series of flashbacks brings us to the 1950s, when young Joan and Joe first meet. Played by Harry Lloyd, the young Joe is a married professor whose lust for his student outweighs his literary talent. Annie Starke — Glenn Close’s real-life daughter — is young Joan, the naïve Smith student with a crush on teacher and a knack for writing beautiful imagery. The Wife is one of the first starring turns for Starke, and it’s important to note how she begins her career with the complex character of Joan, while for Close, Joan works to correct the mistakes of her early performance in Fatal Attraction. The mother/daughter duo not only collaborate to make a singular fascinating character; their work also establishes hope that a new generation of actresses will have more interesting roles to play, instead of having to reproduce the sexist “crazy lady” archetype or any other gendered formula.

The unhinged female, after all, used to be considered the more serious actress’s pursuit: think of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Kathy Bates in Misery, or Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. The Wife and Close herself suggest that “crazy” is just as uninteresting as any other one-dimensionalization of womanhood. It matters how stories about women are told: the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements aren’t propelled by hashtags, so much as stories of and by interesting women working in systems that fail to see them as such. It takes courage to be interesting. Interesting characters aren’t necessarily searching for redemption — or viewers’ affection or even disgust.

The final shot of the movie has Joan flip to a blank page in her journal. Her hair is the opposite of the manic gold mane she sported in Fatal Attraction; here it is icy silver and cropped short. Close’s eyes betray her excitement at her newfound freedom, but then, in a flash, her features move back to a dignified smooth surface. Joan’s is a face that is so much more than her wounds or her rage. We should listen when she spits at Nathaniel, “Don’t paint me as the victim, I’m much more interesting than that.”

¤

Lacy Warner’s essays can be seen or are forthcoming in Tin House, Guernica, Narratively, and LongReads.


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