What A Feeling!: Adrian Lyne in the '80s
With 'Flashdance,' '9 1/2 Weeks,' and 'Fatal Attraction,' the director's back-to-back-to-back hits aroused mainstream audiences and told a story about the decade.
Here’s the superb lede to Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of Fatal Attraction:
Years hence, it will be possible to pinpoint the exact moment that produced “Fatal Attraction,” Adrian Lyne's new romantic thriller, and the precise circumstances that made it a hit. It arrived at the tail end of the having-it-all age, just before the impact of AIDS on movie morality was really felt. At the same time, it was a powerful cautionary tale. And it played skillfully upon a growing societal emphasis on marriage and family, shrewdly offering something for everyone: the desperation of an unmarried career woman, the recklessness of a supposedly satisfied husband, the worries of a betrayed wife. What's more, it was made with the slick, seductive professionalism that was a hallmark of the day.
It isn’t often that a critic writes a contemporary review that anticipates the cultural significance of a film far into the future, but Fatal Attraction must have felt like an event that warranted it—and now that we’re living in “years hence,” 35 to be exact, Maslin had it right. She could say with confidence that the film would be a hit—this review was published the day it was released—and she understood its significance right away, identifying it as a movie-of-the-moment, not merely a blip on the calendar. She also had a firm handle on why Lyne’s direction is the key to giving this “soap opera” its potency:
Most of [its] power comes directly from visual imagery, for Mr. Lyne is well versed in making anything - a person, a room, a pile of dishes in a kitchen sink - seem tactile, rich and sexy.
That’s the Lyne touch, in a nutshell. Fatal Attraction could be called a “soap opera” or high-toned sleaze, with its pulpy story about a family man whose moral lapse has mortal consequences. For Maslin to mention that “pile of dishes in the kitchen sink” is evidence of how such incidental details matter to Lyne, whose eye is drawn as much to illustrative objects as the staging of action between characters. When Michael Douglas throws Glenn Close onto a kitchen counter in the heat of passion, the dishes are a signifier of the unkempt abandon of a moment when a married man is doing something “dirty,” defying the well-ordered, conventional life he’d carved out for himself. The scene may be sexy—that was and remains Lyne’s calling card—but the dishes suggest the recklessness of a one-night stand.
With his new film Deep Water, Lyne returns to filmmaking after a 20-year absence, and it doesn’t feel like a “years hence” event to anyone other than those who followed the pandemic fling between its stars, Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. It’s not even debuting in theaters, falling instead to Hulu, a content maw that will gobble it up in a few days. But as mainstream films have evolved into all-ages sexlessness, it’s hard not to feel some nostalgia for Lyne’s Hollywood heyday, when an adult audience existed for the soft-lit splendor of bodies in motion. His trio of hits in the 1980s—1983’s Flashdance, 1986’s 9 1/2 Weeks, and 1987’s Fatal Attraction—were all cultural events, each staked on Lyne’s talent for packaging sex for mass consumption. Even the best of these films, Fatal Attraction, is massively flawed, but they stick in the mind longer than many better movies, because Lyne’s teasing style is so damnably vivid.
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For Lyne, the ‘80s is a tale of two Alexes: Alex Owens, the 18-year-old welder and dancer played by Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, and Alex Forrest, the unhinged temptress played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. The two don’t have much in common besides their magnificent poofs of ‘80s hair. The younger Alex is a blue-collar hardhat from Pittsburgh who lives in a converted warehouse and has an innocence about her at odds with what her body stirs in men. The older Alex is a white-collar book editor from New York who has enough life experience to feel wronged by yet another man who disappoints her, and sends her over the edge. Taken together, the arc of their stories, from a pure-hearted good-girl type making her way into the world to an older woman seething with murderous rage over a one-night stand, feel like a beginning and an end. The second act is Kim Basinger’s art gallery clerk in 9 1/2 Weeks, caught up in a torrid affair that flames out as spectacular as it starts. Who does she become when she’s Alex Forrest’s age and more creeps have drifted in and out of her life?
Lyne arrived in Hollywood through the same feeder system of British television commercials that brought the Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony, to America along with Alan Parker—all known, at various times, for favoring style over substance. (Being known as a “commercial director” was as much a pejorative at the time as “music video director” would become a little bit later.) His debut film, 1980’s Foxes, a coming-of-age drama with Jodie Foster and Scott Baio, brought Lyne to the attention of two young producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who would use Flashdance as a visual and aural template for decades of hits to come. Lyne could be considered professor emeritus at the school of filmmaking that brought us Tony Scott and Michael Bay, among other magic-hour revolutionaries of mainstream cinema.
Let’s be absolutely clear on this: Flashdance is a piece of shit. The script, by Tom Hedley and another future trash powerhouse, Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Showgirls), attaches phony blue-collar sentiment to the unlikely story of a teenage steel mill worker from Pittsburgh who tries to make the leap from dive-bar cabaret dancer to an audition with the city ballet. Despite Lyne’s attractive location work, nothing in Flashdance feels as authentic as Hedley and Eszterhas seem to think: Not an 18-year-old unionized woman in a mill populated exclusively by much older men; not the absurd bar and greasy spoon that hosts sexy-but-tasteful dance acts nightly; not the mini-arcs attached to Alex’s fellow dreamers at the bar, like the waitress who wants to be a figure skater or the short-order cook who wants to be a stand-up; not the slick strip-club owner who offers himself as the last resort for young woman who lose their ambition and their self-respect.
The other odious ‘80s aspect of Flashdance is that it makes a hero out of the older boss (Michael Nouri) who coerces Alex into a date, despite her initial refusal to date anyone on the job, and later uses his influence as a rich benefactor to arrange the audition she could never get on her own. In that respect, the film was like a trial run for Pretty Woman seven years later, both Cinderella stories about working girls redeemed by conspicuous wealth. Having the boss boyfriend wait for Alex after her climatic audition with a bouquet of roses and his Porsche parked on the sidewalk is supposed to be romantic, but really it makes the audition meaningless. She’s won the real prize, and it’s him.
Still, that’s not what anyone remembers about Flashdance. They remember Beals in a leotard and leg warmers, pumping her legs like pistons to the Michael Sembello single “Maniac.” They remember the sweat cascading from her curls into the crowd as she shakes her head to the beat. They remember the shot of her arching her back across a chair on stage and yanking a chain that releases a sudden cascade of water. The commercial tie-ins to the nascent MTV network were obvious—the soundtrack, led by Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling,” sold 20 million copies—but Lyne, along with Beals, gives those images heat when they matter. Lyne yawns his way through the drama in Flashdance, but when Beals straddles a chair in her apartment and casually takes off her bra beneath her clothes, the cut and fit of her sweatshirt, the curve of her body in the chair, and her utter lack of self-consciousness is sexy. And meticulously choreographed.
Lyne didn’t need to bother with mere suggestion in his follow-up, 9 1/2 Weeks, though it’s a tribute to his sultry magicianship that his films seem much more explicit than they actually are. Produced by Zalman King, a name synonymous with softcore fluffers like Two Moon Junction and Red Shoe Diaries, the film would fuel a cottage industry of straight-to-video erotic dramas of vastly diminished ambition and visual sophistication. Which is not to say that 9 1/2 Weeks is a rich text—indeed, it’s a crudely rendered chronicle of a tryst between two beautiful, vacuous creatures—but Lyne’s image-making again had the effect of legitimizing, for audiences, material that would be tawdry and disposable in other hands. The line between it and Fifty Shades of Grey may be crooked as Mickey Rourke’s signature head tilts, but both brought kink to the masses.
They also affirmed, like Flashdance, that money is the best lubricant for sex. As a divorced art gallery employee in SoHo, Elizabeth (Kim Basinger) doesn’t have much of it, but John (Rourke), a Wall Street trader of unlimited wealth, uses it as a tool of enticement and humiliation. 9 1/2 Weeks follows their psychosexual relationship from Elizabeth’s perspective, as she’s attracted and repelled by John insistently pushing the boundaries of their sex life. She enjoys, say, the foreplay of putting on a blindfold and allowing John to feed her on the linoleum next to the refrigerator. She doesn’t enjoy him punishing her by throwing hundreds on the floor, cracking his belt, and making her crawl to pick up the cash. Basinger famously balked at doing the role at all after the latter scene was part of her audition, and it still feels icky, despite the film being about a comprehensively unhealthy, obsessive relationship. (Advice for women: If a man tries to seduce you by putting “Strange Fruit” on the record player, look for the nearest exit.)
Though 9 1/2 Weeks gets knotted up in a romance that’s by turns steamy, abusive and transactional, it’s not to be taken too seriously, because Elizabeth and John reveal so little inner life. (The non-sex scenes often have them running and laughing like children, which is what the adulterers do when they’re frolicking around New York in Fatal Attraction, too.) But the film is nonetheless a cut above productions like Wild Orchid, which King did with Rourke a few years later, and several cuts above the straight-to-video imitators that didn’t survive the VHS era. The scenarios in all these films are more or less the same, but there’s no one of Lyne’s skill to make them enticing. Each of the sex scenes in 9 1/2 Weeks have their own flavor: The kitchen scene is the most famous of them, but not far behind is their first encounter, with John melting an ice cube on Elizabeth’s lips and torso, the water pooling in her navel. There’s also the truly ridiculous sequence where they fend off attackers on a rainy night and make love in a water-drenched corridor, bathed in resplendent shafts of light. The fantasy may be a laugher, but it’s a turn-on.
Lyne would set off another straight-to-video subgenre boom with Fatal Attraction—or at least spark the erotic thriller bonfire set off by Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct five years later. Though the film doesn’t have the kink of Verhoeven’s—or 9 1/2 Weeks, for that matter—it does associate sex and violence in a similar way, with forbidden passions ultimately manifesting themselves into good old-fashioned American gore. Maslin sets the stage perfectly in her review: Douglas was the face of the “having-it-all age,” affirmed only a few months later when he would play Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. As Dan, a well-to-do Manhattan lawyer with his loving wife Beth (Anne Archer) and a sweet daughter, he’s playing an outwardly happy man, but needing that little bit more gets him in trouble. And, as Maslin writes, Fatal Attraction is a “cautionary tale” about giving in to temptation, which here comes in the form of Close’s emotionally needy Alex.
What makes Fatal Attraction powerful is also what makes it risible: To turn the story of a weekend fling into a thriller where Dan and his family are fighting for their lives, the filmmakers choose to dehumanize Alex, making her an irrational beast with a kitchen knife rather than a lonely woman who expected more from Dan than he was prepared to offer. Dan gets some blowback from his affair, but in the “greed is good” era, such adulterous crimes are reduced to misdemeanors. He’s the real victim here, terrorized by a woman who didn’t pick up on the tacit agreement that this relationship would last no longer than two days. Killing Alex is about restoring the American family to a much older model, which is what the Reagan ’80s was all about: She’s the Jezebel trying to split them apart, preying on a weak-willed husband who needs to get his priorities straightened out. Pulling the trigger that snuffs out Alex is Beth’s very American way of saying “I forgive you.”
Once again, Lyne’s direction doesn’t validate the story, but it does bring it across with spectacular force. And it’s not just in the sex next to dirty dishes, either, but in setpieces that etch themselves permanently in the cultural firmament, like the infamous scene of the family bunny rabbit in boiling water. The frantic, associative crosscutting between Beth coming home from vacation to the lit stove and her daughter discovering an empty enclosure in the back year has an Eisensteinian punch. But he delivers on some minor touches, too, like the visual evidence that Beth remains a sexual being before Dan has the affair, rather than the cliché of the tired housewife who has mothballed that part of their relationship.
Though Lyne would make a few more films after these three before slipping away—the 1990 horror-thriller Jacob’s Ladder, the 1993 water-cooler hit Indecent Proposal, a misbegotten 1997 adaptation of Lolita, and, perhaps his best work, 2002’s Unfaithful—his habit of redeeming (or at least making irresistible) bad material with style became a damning pattern. Isn’t there some point where Lyne, for all his evident artistry as a filmmaker, is to blame for his films’ failures? The ’80s were a golden age for him, with three straight hits and an Oscar nomination for the last of them, and the absence of Hollywood films as horny as his in 2022 certainly makes the heart grow fonder. But we should wish for better heydays.
Ahhh, good stuff. In my head, I'd completely forgotten Lyne did Flashdance, because I associate it so strongly with Bruckheimer et al--really feels like that group of filmmakers (Bruckheimer, then Michael Bay, leading into i wanna say Zack Snyder) took the visual fetish language of Lyne's style and just removed the sex out of the fetish, if that makes sense?
Jacob's Ladder, the sexiest movie of somebody's nightmares.