People who go to the movies on a professional scale don’t go to the opera much, or it would have been observed that Fatal Attraction is a version of Madama Butterfly. This is still more true of the film as originally conceived and shot, which ended with the suicide of the abandoned mistress.
If Puccini’s opera were known as a book, there would be a reiterative cry of unfaithfulness. When Arthur Miller casts about in his mind for a means to express the dire situation of drama in the world today, he compares it to opera. In New York, people buy tickets to see Elton John’s version of Aida. There’s not much fear of the opera-going public.
This is not the place for a discussion of Madama Butterfly, except that one might mention among its many perfections it allows for the poetic convention of addressing a rebuke to the ruler in the form of a lover’s complaint.
There is amusing satire of the book industry in Fatal Attraction (it was reportedly filmed in part at the HarperCollins building in New York), its parochialism and provincialism are well-portrayed with an idea of putting the best light possible on a necessarily disagreeable subject.
Glenn Close prepares her part so well that the seams don’t show in the revised version. Here is a woman rather seared by her experiences, and a few degrees away from burning out altogether. Michael Douglas is the callow cad who offers to pay for her abortion.
What was no doubt meant to be a consideration of Madama Butterfly in the stark realm of New York City, where Lt. Pinkerton does not board a battleship for America but rather moves out to the suburbs, has simply been turned so that Butterfly’s homicidal act is not ultimately directed at herself but at the other woman (Anne Archer). As notably in the case of Hitchcock’s Suspicion, this alteration is merely another way of putting it.
Lyne has genius, unmistakably, and you can see it if nowhere else in the performance of Ellen Hamilton Latzen as the young daughter.
One or two critics may be crazy, most of them don’t know what they’re doing, but Indecent Proposal revealed how stupid they really are. Of course, I once had it in mind that they were bought off, and quick as a wink Roger Ebert denied it, on television.
These hapless birds were so bugged out by the initial premise, they never got over it, couldn’t stop talking about it (read Ebert on the discussions he had with various persons), and never saw the rest of the film for the glaze creeping over their eyes. Imagine, money corrupts!
Oh, but there’s more. The rich fuck doesn’t pay! He pays, he wants more, he wants love, he retails Bernstein’s speech from Citizen Kane (the one about the girl on the boat) to get it, and he does!
Now, in the critical mishmash, the usual legends have arisen about the casting, though obviously Harrelson and Moore are ideal. There is a great deal of mickey in this tale (which, as I say, the critics took at face value), and Lyne greatly mickies up the production with stylized camera movements and like bizarrerie. Harrelson is the great demickeyfier, you just can’t string him on a Peter Pan wire. So there is a counterpoint set up, and this is reflected for example in the awesomely tacky Las Vegas hotel suite the young couple occupy, compared with the intimate luxury of Redford’s black-tie affair, accompanied by a refined jazz group delivering “The Nearness of You”.
Overall, the view of rich folks is rather like Allen Garfield’s speech on virgins in The Candidate. You feel about them, these absurd bluffs, the way a Hollywood “blockbuster” makes you feel nowadays—unbegrudging and aloof. They’re like the fog the lovers are in at the end, big and impressive and whatnot, if you like, but a vapor for all that.
The real thrust of the story is these poor galoots who are stunned and fall into the trap, like that. They don’t know enough about money not to think like Ebert and his friends, that it’s a subject for discussion. It really happens every day, the Jonathan Swift Competition was won in 2004 by an Irish novelist whose publishers rearranged his novel for him comme il faut. Television’s run on this principle, nowadays, the principle of money (as for rewrites, Robert Redford took a hand in Indecent Proposal, according to Amy Holden).
And then, the so-called “feminist” uproar! “Look at Hooker Row,” said Lenny Bruce, aghast they were at a Buddy Hackett joke and the temerity of a performer overtopping their gabble.
Harrelson the young architect may not know the world, but he knows Louis Kahn. As for Moore his wife, she’ll take the million with cool objectivity, or play along with a billionaire’s fantasy, or chuck the whole affair when the deal is done, because she’s as reasonable as Redford is cunning, and as hopeful as her husband, who’s neither more nor less dull-witted than she is.
And that’s enough discussion of the setup. The punchline is that, well, pluck and brains and integrity (and your wife) are worth more than hoarded gold, but you know the rest.
There’s a veiled reference to Franklin J. Schaffner’s The War Lord in all this, and another to Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen in an unforgettable episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. There is even, behind it all, a vague evocation of Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman, and a rather strong suggestion of The Great Gatsby around the edges. The last close-up of held hands is an equally refined allusion to Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (and speaking of Albee, there’s also his play, Everything in the Garden, floating around like Jack’s ghost), the sort of thing that’s the mark of someone who knows the business and doesn’t play the fool by trampling it underfoot or giving it to you.
The transmuting of words into pictures and sound is an absurd, irrational process like all art, and I don’t know exactly how Lyne improved on the novel in some ways, or how he achieved the economical flashback that is patently incorrect but miraculously plants a memory that is vital for the understanding of the story.
Morricone’s score is a vital part of it, too. It sets off the sterling intelligence of the play and the painstaking labors of the mise en scčne. It’s a period piece, you see, laid in 1947. Melanie Griffith is the Charlotte whom Nabokov knew, Dominique Swain is the Lolita he studied. Jeremy Irons is Nabokov himself in one artfully-constructed scene of fountain-pen and inkwell and extreme close-up, one bespectacled eye.
Reviewers who saw only one-half of Kubrick’s masterpiece saw its other half in the half of this they saw. Both are tragicomedy.
Everything the critics missed in Lyne’s film is there. What above all I should say is the overwhelming desire to have patience in perfection, to achieve a perfect transmutation of the art from letters to cinema, to take every pain that is possible to the director.