What makes a movie a ”classic”? Time was, it took a few decades of appreciation. More recently, the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry has been working to establish an official canon of Cinematic Art. But why should a movie studio bother with the politicking and paperwork when a videotape release can do the trick? If you buy into Paramount’s new ”Directors’ Series” of cassettes, Fatal Attraction is ready to be honored as one of the great ones — a mere five years after its release. The new tape comes with all the glorifying bells and whistles: a gatefold cover, a behind-the-scenes documentary hosted by director Adrian Lyne, a letterbox transfer that (unlike the previously available tape) gives home viewers the same wide-screen picture they saw in theaters, and — most intriguingly — a look at the infamous original ending that was dumped after preview audiences gave it a thumbs-down.

That ending (which was shown in Japan and in this release is tacked on after the movie’s end credits) is the major plus of this rerelease; in other areas the blue-chip treatment just doesn’t seem worth it. The interview segments flatter Lyne less than he seems to think — when he brags about going to see his movie in a local theater ”night after night” and proudly plays a tape recording he made of the shrieking audience reaction, he comes off crass. Even the letterboxing format doesn’t add much to this video experience. Despite the director’s claims that the standard cropping for video makes ”all of the careful framing…(go) out the window,” it’s clear that he followed pervasive Hollywood practice and composed his shots keeping the small screen in mind. Unlike, say, Lawrence of Arabia, the letterboxed Fatal Attraction simply offers action in the center and a lot of vacant space on the sides.

There’s another big problem: Beneath all the extras is the movie itself, and it’s a classic only as a model of audience manipulation. If anything, five years have made it more apparent that Fatal Attraction keeps to the shallow end of a very deep pool. Here’s a film that takes one of the thorniest of sexual issues — men’s urge to screw around — and ends up saying it’s the other woman’s fault. Of course, it’s a hell of a roller coaster ride, a Hitchcock imitation of genuine craft. But Hitchcock’s films implicated the hero — and the viewer — in the anxieties they called up: That’s part of their enduring dread (and precisely why Hitch’s movies are classics).

Fatal Attraction carries the same scary charge for much of its running time. As happily married Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) goes against his judgment and has a fling with creepy/sexy Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), Attraction almost cruelly exposes the way many men yaw between security and risk. The movie’s a Baedeker of male fears: Presented with the perfect adulterous opportunity — his wife’s out of town, the babe’s hot, no one will ever know — Dan stammers and hesitates, visibly calculating what he can get away with. But Alex isn’t willing to fade into no-strings memory; she wants — horrors! — emotional involvement. Suddenly, Dan’s ego-stroking male fantasy has become a primal nightmare: The woman who won’t let go, who demands that the man be accountable for his actions. She’s his conscience in a dress.

Heavy stuff, but remarkably, Fatal Attraction keeps it all within the constructs of a commercial thriller. Credit Lyne’s sizable narrative skills; credit also the cast, who, in the documentary footage that opens this tape, can be seen working out their dialogue in rehearsals. Their skill and hard work are astounding: At one point, we see seven different takes of Glenn Close asking the one-word question — ”Discreet?” — seeking and finding the exact point where sex, danger, and loneliness intersect.

The movie hops the track around the time Alex starts acting like Freddy Krueger, boiling pet bunnies and such. We want her dead by then, and that’s what we get, in a scene that pushes all the horror-movie buttons and leaves us happily drained. The original ending pushed different buttons. The way Lyne first filmed it, Alex never shows up at Dan’s house for that climactic showdown. Instead, it’s the police who arrive, to arrest Dan for her murder. He knows, and we see, that she killed herself with a knife with his fingerprints on it — to the strains of ”Madame Butterfly,” no less. But there’s nothing he can do. He’s caught in a trap he helped build.

Lyne felt uncomfortable with that, and inserted a scene in which Dan’s wife (Anne Archer) finds a crucial piece of evidence that will clear her husband. And still the ending didn’t work. Seeing it on video, you know why. Lyne’s heart just wasn’t into dumping this downer in an audience’s lap — it went against his savvy commercial instincts. A director less obsessed with playing to the crowd might have pulled it off, but as filmed by Lyne, the ending plays flat, halfhearted, embarrassed: It’s anticlimactic. No wonder audiences rejected it, allowing Lyne to make the kind of heart-attack special he’s so good at. Lyne was ”right,” of course — his reshot ending made the movie a monster hit. But it also made Fatal Attraction something that classics that have earned the title aren’t: safe. B-
Fatal Attraction (original ending): C
Fatal Attraction (theatrical ending): B- (Paramount’s ”Directors’ Series” also includes Star Trek IV, letterboxed, with an interview with filmmaker Leonard Nimoy.)

Fatal Attraction
  • Movie
  • 119 minutes