And You Call Yourself a Scientist!
PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971) / FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)
Play Misty For Me: "Hi,
Evelyn. Whats happening?"
Director: Clint Eastwood
Director: Adrian Lyne
|Synopsis: Carmel DJ David Garver (Clint Eastwood) picks
up a woman, Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter), at a bar. At her apartment, Evelyn reveals
that their meeting was not an accident: that she is the woman who repeatedly calls
Garvers radio program asking, "Play Misty for me." After
Evelyn promises "no strings", she and Garver spend the night together. The next
day, Garvers friend and colleague Al Monte (James McEachin) comes to his place to
try and talk him into coming out. The two are interrupted when Evelyn shows up with her
arms full of groceries, talking blithely of the lunch she and Garver are to have together.
When Monte leaves, Garver turns on Evelyn, angry with her for intruding uninvited. Evelyn
becomes upset and apologises profusely, explaining that she just wanted to surprise him.
Garver relents, and allows her to stay. Much later, as the two are saying goodbye outside,
a neighbour abruptly asks them to keep the noise down. Garver is shocked when Evelyn turns
on the man, screaming abuse at him. She swiftly regains her composure and drives away. The
next day, Garver learns that his estranged girlfriend, Tobie Williams (Donna Mills), is
back in town. Tobie, an artist, left Garver after she could no longer tolerate his
infidelities. The two get together to talk, and Garver tries to convince Tobie that the
two of them should try again. Later, Evelyn phones Garver at his favourite bar. Garver has
Murray the bartender (Donald Siegel) tell her that he just left. But Evelyn is phoning
from a call-box just outside
. When Garver returns to his car, he finds Evelyn
sitting in it. When he tries to get her to leave, she takes his car-keys, refusing to take
his dismissal of her seriously. Furious, Garver snatches back his keys and drives away
from her. When he returns home from work, however, he finds Evelyn waiting for him. The
two sleep together again. As Evelyn leaves, she tells David to come to her apartment the
following Thursday. When he fails to keep the date, she rings the radio station, insisting
that he join her. Determined to break things off completely, Garver goes to Evelyns
place, telling her that what happened between them meant nothing. Garver and Tobie spend
time together, unaware that Evelyn is following them. When Garver returns home, Evelyn is
there again, and becomes totally hysterical when he continues to reject her. Then,
seemingly calm, she promises to leave and goes into the bathroom to tidy up. Time passes,
and when an increasingly apprehensive Garver finally breaks into the bathroom, he finds to
his horror that Evelyn has cut her wrists open
Comments: Compare and contrast, as my English teachers used to say. Telling as they do almost exactly the same story, but in the context of two completely opposing moral codes, Play Misty For Me and Fatal Attraction make for an intriguing case study. In the former, Clint Eastwood directs himself as a womanising disc jockey whose serial infidelity has driven away his girlfriend. One more in a long line of casual sexual encounters turns bad on him, however, when he finds that his latest pick up simply will not go away. Like Kathy Bates Annie Wilkes nearly twenty years later, Evelyn Draper is David Garvers Number One Fan. His voice, his poetry readings and the music he plays have become the focus of her sad, lonely life. When he sleeps with her, she mistakenly assumes that he feels the same way about her that she does about him, and tries to move into his life. When he rejects her, her first act is to attempt suicide, then to turn her violence upon the man she now believes betrayed her. She insinuates herself into the life and home of Garvers girlfriend, using her as bait to force a final showdown.
For a considerable amount of its running time, Fatal Attraction travels pretty much the same road. Married lawyer Dan Gallagher takes advantage of his wifes absence to have what he thinks is a one night stand with a colleague. However, when Dan tries to leave her, Alex first becomes furious, then cuts her wrists. After Alex visits him at his office to apologise, Dan thinks he has successfully extricated himself from the whole mess, but soon Alex begins plaguing him with phonecalls. When she finally succeeds in cornering him, he is horrified to learn that she is pregnant, and intends having the baby. Enraged by what she sees as Dans evasion of his responsibility, Alex strikes at the family she believes to be usurping her place in Dans life.
As you can see, on a superficial level these films are almost identical (indeed, there are so many replications of incidents that I wouldnt be surprised to learn that legal action had been involved). However, an examination of the differences between the two reveals a fascinating contrast. It is interesting and, I think, significant, that while Fatal Attraction was written by a men, Play Misty For Me was conceived and co-written by a woman. It seems likely that this accounts for at least a part of the difference in the attitudes of the films towards their female "monsters" and their male protagonists.
While their behaviour is almost identical, it would be difficult to think of two people with less in common than Evelyn Draper and Alex Forrest. Evelyn is a solitary, lonely figure. She has nothing, does nothing. Evelyns life is so empty that a disembodied voice has been able to take on an unnatural significance for her. Her mythical "romance" consumes her entire existence because she has nothing to distract her from it. She is what movies and novels so often tell women they ought to be: someone who cannot be complete - who cannot be anything - without a man in her life. Towards the end of the film, Evelyn tells David Garver that she has the chance of a job in Hawaii, but that is, of course, a lie. She has no job. She has nothing but her dreams; and then, as it seems to her, those dreams come true. When reality intrudes it must be bloodily erased. Play Misty For Me draws an explicit contrast between Evelyn and Garvers sometime girlfriend Tobie, who supports herself through her art, and who has survived the breakup of her relationship with Garver by immersing herself in her profession. The message is clear enough: that a woman must have a life of her own, and not leave herself entirely at the mercy of others.
By the mid-eighties, however, attitudes had changed. This was a fairly reactionary period in America, and many major studio productions of the time devoted themselves to promoting "family values", and assuring audiences that all human happiness could be found in suburbia. Fatal Attractions Alex Forrest is the eras archetypal monster: the Evil Career Woman. Savvy film viewers will spot the warning signs in Alex in an instant. Sure, shes intelligent, well-educated and cultured. But shes also in her mid-thirties and unmarried, and we all know what that means. Like Misty, Fatal Attraction has a female character to contrast with its demon. Here we are supposed to admire Beth Gallagher, who is the Perfect Wife And Mother. Beth is, in actuality, rather like Evelyn, in that she seems to have no life outside her home. Not once do we see her out of the company of her husband or her child. Here, however, thats considered a good thing. (Dont get me wrong here: I am not criticising domesticity and motherhood as a role for women. The problem I have is that Fatal Attraction doesnt just tell us that Beth Gallagher is happy and fulfilled in the life she has chosen: it tells us that this is how all women should be happy.) The threat posed by the single, professional Alex is not merely to the lives of the Gallaghers - that seems almost a minor issue. The real horror lurking in Fatal Attraction is that something might break up the Family Unit.
Play Misty For Me is a much better film than Fatal Attraction. Its certainly not perfect - Carmel, perhaps inevitably, gets a little too much screentime, and the "romantic interlude" sequence is nothing short of embarrassing - but as a taut, suspenseful thriller, it has much to recommend it. I must pause here briefly to make an observation about Clint Eastwood. Im by no means one of Clints biggest fans, but having watched Play Misty For Me, White Hunter, Black Heart and Unforgiven in reasonably rapid succession lately, I find myself increasingly impressed by the willingness of Eastwood the director to allow Eastwood the actor to appear in a poor light. In fact, I cant think offhand of any other actor-director (or actor-producer), male or female, whose films could so little be considered "vanity projects". That Eastwood should have chosen to make his debut as a director by playing such an unlikable character as David Garver is much to his credit. Garver is weak, irresponsible and selfish, and the screenplay of Play Misty For Me makes no bones about his complicity in Evelyn Drapers increasingly deranged behaviour. Garver is not much to be blamed, perhaps, for accepting the offer of a one night stand with "no strings". However, his predatory habits and his self-indulgent nature cause him to go on taking sexual favours from Evelyn even when her actions become a nuisance to him. His initial anger with Evelyn is not simply because she turns up uninvited, but because she is the one taking the initiative in the relationship. When she comes to his house to make him lunch, he tells her flatly that the "right" thing for her to do is wait for him to call her. Garvers dishonesty and moral lack become evident in the scene in which he attempts a reconciliation with Tobie, who left him when she could no longer put up with his repeated infidelities. When Tobie reacts with scepticism to Garvers promises of amendment, Garver becomes angry, demanding irritably whether she wants a "notarised statement" from him. Yet that very night Garver sleeps with Evelyn again, and continues to do so even after Tobie agrees to the reconciliation. As Garver alternates between the two women, poor Evelyn receives a string of mixed messages that her disturbed mind cannot deal with. The outcome, inevitably, is violence - first against herself, then against the man who has shattered her pathetic, lonely dreams. In this respect, the final sequence of Misty is strangely satisfying. Although she verbally abuses Tobie, and imprisons her as bait for Garver, Evelyns fury is not directed at Tobie herself - she does not blame the artist for taking "her" place. Instead, it is rightly directed at Garver. This makes the film a stark contrast to some others - the nadir being the Ken Hughes (!!) directed slasher Night School aka Terror Eyes - in which a vengeful woman turns her violence not upon the man who betrayed her, but upon the often unknowing "other" woman/women. As the violence in Play Misty For Me escalates, there are some truly memorable scenes, most notably Evelyns attack upon Garvers cleaning lady, which is Psycho-esque in both its intensity and its editing (except that here, the blood is red - oh my, yes). The final, bloody encounter between Evelyn and Garver is scary and suspenseful, but is unfortunately weakened by the invocation of the Heros Death Battle Exemption, wherein Evelyn has the opportunity to kill Garver, but stops short, allowing him to rally and fight back. By the films conclusion, David Garver has been brought face to face with the consequences of his selfishness and dishonesty. Sadly, however, the tragic Evelyn has paid an even greater price for her misplaced obsession. Despite this, the underlying message of Play Misty For Me is a stark criticism of people like Garver, who habitually use other human beings without a thought given to the possible repercussions.
Fatal Attraction could hold such a message, but does not. On the contrary, it goes out of its way to exonerate its male protagonist from any blame for his actions, and this is its major shortcoming. The frustrating thing about Fatal Attraction is that throughout it you can clearly see remnants of the tougher, much less simplistic film it was originally intended to be. Some of Alexs dialogue - the much-quoted, "Im not going to be ignored!" and, most pertinently, her defiant statement that she will not allow Dan to treat her like "some slut you can just bang a couple of times and throw in the garbage" - and the attitude of the cop to whom Dan goes for help, are indicative of the fact that initially, this was a morally complex work, with Dan far more blatantly the villain of the piece. (I did not hear it myself, but another clue is or was to be found in the soundtrack: listed in the credits is "Alfie", the theme-song from the seminal sixties film about a sexually irresponsible man whose life is turned upside down when one of his casual conquests has an abortion.) But unfortunately, both Michael Douglass ego and the American public decreed that it should be otherwise. The film as it stood tested badly, and since God forbid "art" or "honesty" should ever get in the way of "popularity", Fatal Attraction was re-cut and re-shot to fully demonize Alex Forrest, and thus provide an out for Dan. As the film stands now it is often deeply disturbing, but for all the wrong reasons.
The problems start with the fact that absolutely no motivation is given for Dans infidelity. We see nothing to indicate that Dan is unhappy in his marriage, or even just bored; far from it, in fact. Nor does he appear to be a David Garver-like womaniser. Yet when Alex Forrest propositions Dan, he doesnt even hesitate, not for so much as a second, let alone consider anything as radical as "no". When some weeks later Alex finally corners Dan to tell him shes pregnant (more indication of post-production tampering: we are meant to think that Alex has been harassing Dan all along, but it is nevertheless fairly clear that she does leave him alone until shes sure shes pregnant - it is then that her phonecalls, which he refuses to take, begin), his first reaction is to question her lack of contraception. His second is to ask how she knows the baby is his, and his third to offer to pay for an abortion. When Alex tells him that she wants the baby, Dan is furious, and breaks into her apartment to look for, as he puts it, "something I could use on her" - specifically, proof that shed been sleeping with someone else (she hadnt: as she tells Dan with contempt, "I dont sleep around").
This, then, is the man whose side the audience is supposed to be on; that we are meant, if not to like, at least to feel sorry for. A tall order - so tall, that to make Dan seem less of a cold-blooded SOB, it was necessary for the film-makers to turn Alex Forrest into a full-scale knife-wielding homicidal psychopath. This is both dishonest and unfair. Clearly Alex has emotional problems, but the film is so dismissive of her viewpoint that it becomes upsetting to watch. Not once does Dan see Alexs pregnancy as anything but a danger to himself and his security - and since the film is told almost entirely from Dans perspective, this view is, in effect, validated. No consideration whatsoever is given to Alexs position as a single, pregnant woman. Her insistence that Dan must "face his responsibilities" is, unbelievably, posited as nothing more than a threat - even made to seem further proof of her mental instability. (When Alex tells Dan that, as the future mother of his child, she demands some respect, his response is, "Youre sick.") But worse is to come. The final sequences of the film are staged entirely to set Alex-as-monster up as something that must be ruthlessly expunged; and so eager were the film-makers for this conclusion that Alexs pregnancy becomes irrelevant. The degree of manipulation inherent in all this - and its success - is clear in the fact that some audiences actually cheered Alexs death. Frankly, I find this reaction infinitely scarier than anything that happens on the screen.
That any of this is watchable is largely due to the fact that Fatal Attraction takes a reality bypass about two-thirds of the way through; and also because a string of contrivances annoy the viewer out of any real involvement with the story. The beginning of this is the infamous "bunny boiling" incident, which is nothing more than an unforgivably crude way of killing off any lingering sympathy for Alex that the audience might happen to feel. (Poor rabbit! - they wouldnt have dared stage that scene with a puppy or a kitten!) We then get the kidnapping scene, which I object to on purely practical grounds: would a child as young as Ellen be allowed on that kind of ride? Finally, we get the big showdown: the bathroom scene. In this we get yet another version of the Heros Death Battle Exemption - how could Alex possibly have missed Beth with a knife that long? - before the horrendously violent struggle between Alex and Dan that ends - apparently - with Alexs drowning in the bathtub. But surely by 1987 there was no-one in the audience who believed that Alex was actually dead, was there? Her resurrection, much more ridiculous here in a so-called "realistic" film than it would be in an actual horror film, is no surprise at all. Neither, at this stage of the game, is the fact that it is Beth who finally kills Alex. This gratuitous little twist is there to let Dan completely off the hook. Sure, he slept with the woman, he knocked her up, he abandoned her, he nearly strangled her, he tried to drown her - believed he had drowned her - but, gee, we wouldnt want him punished for any of that, would we? Sadly, Fatal Attractions answer is an emphatic NO. The final shot in the film is a blatant reminder of what all this has been about: a pan towards a photograph of the Gallagher family - father, mother, child united. This, we are told, must be preserved at all costs; and if it turns out that this requires the bloody, violent killing of a pregnant woman, obviously it is a price we are not meant to consider too high to pay.
Play Misty For Me and Fatal Attraction have many similarities, but where they really come together is their critical view of male behaviour. In Misty, this perspective is valid and reasonable because the characters come across as individuals: although he is held up as a cautionary example, we dont necessarily feel that David Garver is meant to be representative of the entire male sex, for instance. However, the broad stereotypes that populate Fatal Attraction seem to infer that its story applies to all men and women, a thought that is depressing in the extreme. Dan Gallagher is happily married, one "lucky" guy, as he puts it himself. Yet his wife only has to leave him alone for a single night for him to jump into bed with another woman. The lack of explanation for Dans behaviour seems to indicate that, well, this is what men do, thats all. When it was released, Fatal Attraction was widely advertised as the film that would "terrify men into being faithful". How nice. Whatever was originally intended, the message of the film as it stands is not "dont cheat because its wrong" but rather "dont cheat because the woman youre with might turn out to be a psycho". Is self-preservation the only thing that keeps men in line? Is fidelity really something that they have to be "terrified" into? Surely, decent, committed, honourable behaviour isnt something that can only be extorted from a man at the point of a butchers knife, is it? Is it?