Tales From The Box Office: How Fatal Attraction Became 1987's Biggest Movie

(Welcome to Tales from the Box Office, our column that examines box office miracles, disasters, and everything in between, as well as what we can learn from them.)

Whenever the term "erotic thriller" is thrown around in regards to cinema, the odds are that one movie is going to come to mind above all else, and that movie is "Fatal Attraction." 

Well over three decades removed from its initial release, director Adrian Lyne's cinematic take on an affair gone wrong remains a touchstone of the genre and, in a year filled with classic movies, managed to stand a cut above the rest as the highest-grossing movie in the world in 1987. It is a remarkable accomplishment for any movie to top the charts in a given year, but in this case, it's an accomplishment that is made all the more impressive when looking at our current franchise-dominated Hollywood landscape.

With Lyne making his return to directing after 20 years with "Deep Water," a new erotic thriller starring Ben Affleck and Ana De Armas, we thought it would be a good time to look back at "Fatal Attraction," which remains a landmark accomplishment in terms of sheer cultural penetration just shy of 35 years removed from its original release. We're going to look at how the film came to be, the controversy that surrounded its ending, and how it managed to become a sensation that bested every other great big movie released in a huge year for cinema.

The movie: Fatal Attraction

"Fatal Attraction" started life as a short film titled "Diversion" that was made for British television in the '80s. The maker of that short, James Dearden, ended up adapting it into a feature. While he wasn't ultimately credited, Nicholas Meyer ("Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan") provided some suggestions and did a draft of the screenplay that ended up being the shooting script used by Lyne — who, at that point, was known for directing "Flashdance" and "9 ½ Weeks." Nothing about him necessarily screamed, "this is our guy to make the most notorious erotic thriller of all time." And yet, here we are.

The story of "Fatal Attraction" centers on Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), who has a good life working at a New York law firm and is happily married to his wife, Beth (Anne Archer). They've got a daughter. All is well. But a casual yet intense fling with a book editor named Alex (Glenn Close) changes everything as she becomes utterly obsessed with Dan, who merely wants to leave the whole thing behind him. Things go from bad, to worse, to deadly. 

As the story goes, producers Sherry Lansing and Stanley R. Jaffe had an incredibly difficult time casting Alex, with Barbara Hershey ("Hoosiers") turning them down. Close, meanwhile, had never done a role like this but was eager to play the part. Despite doubts, once she turned up for the read, it was all over, as Lansing recalled to The New York Times in 2017.

"In less than five minutes, Adrian calls us in and says, 'I think you should see this.' There was Glenn, her hair unrecognizable. She did the 'Are you discreet?' scene, and we were blown away. Now I can't imagine the film with anybody else."

Thus, filming happened in New York and the process of making a gigantic hit began. But a key part of that equation had to do with the ending. Originally, "Fatal Attraction" concluded with Alex slitting her throat in the climax in an attempt to frame Dan for murder. Yet that's not the ending audiences saw, and to get to that ending was a real challenge. Close was wildly opposed to the ending that sees Alex go full-blown killer, only to be seemingly drowned in a tub and re-emerge in terrifying fashion before being shot dead by Dan's wife Beth. In that same New York Times piece, it's said Close fought the studio for weeks because "it was going to make a character I loved into a murdering psychopath." But the studio won out and, as Dearden put it:

"The critics decided we were saying, 'Well done, you put another crazy bitch out of her misery.' That was absurd. But that ending probably put another $100 million into the box office."

Indeed, there are issues to examine in hindsight with turning Alex into a psycho killer when she clearly was dealing with mental issues that could have used a different cinematic touch. Close has been extremely vocal over the years about how she tried to play Alex as a "disturbed woman" rather than a psycho, and how much she hates the ending as it exists. Still, audiences at the time didn't have the same objections, and Dearden is almost certainly right about the box office.

The financial journey

Paramount Pictures released "Fatal Attraction" in theaters on September 18, 1987. Let us remember that this was a wildly different time before the internet, and before people could just watch trailers online. This was an era of TV spots, trailers in front of other movies, posters, newspaper ads, and word of mouth. To that end, put yourself in the shoes of someone in the late 80s and show them this trailer and the picture becomes clear.

It's easy to see how that captures the attention of enough moviegoers. The film only opened with $7.6 million domestically, and yet it finished its run with $156.6 million in North America, not to mention a staggering $320 million worldwide against a comparatively tiny $14 million budget. That's what dreams are made of in Hollywood. But the difference back then is that movies would play in theaters much longer, giving them a chance to find their audience. And that's exactly what "Fatal Attraction" did, with its weekend total actually growing in the weeks that followed, not dropping. It was word of mouth that made this movie a hit, and it is no question a movie that warrants discussion to this day. It was the kind of film that people saw and then told other people "you need to see this movie." That's how you build the biggest movie of the year in 1987.

The numbers themselves don't tell the whole tale in this case. It's very interesting and important to look at what else was out in 1987, and what else was raking it in at the box office. "Three Men and a Baby" was the top-grossing movie domestically that year, with "Beverly Hills Cop II" rounding out the top three. "Good morning, Vietnam," "Moonstruck," "The Untouchables," "Lethal Weapon," "Dirty Dancing," even "Predator." All good movies. All classics. All in the top 20 in 1987 in North America. But it's incredibly easy to see how "Fatal Attraction" stands out in the crowd, especially in a pre-internet age.

It is also so important to point out that Lyne's "Deep Water" is going straight to streaming on Hulu this weekend, a decision made by Disney after it acquired Fox in 2019. Despite having two A-list stars, and a director who is returning to the genre that made him a star behind the camera after 20 years away, there isn't room for something like this in theaters anymore (or at least, not right now). Let alone the sheer miracle it seems like in hindsight to have a movie like "Fatal Attraction" be the biggest movie in the entire world for a given year. Just incredible stuff to reflect on, and a real shining example of how the times have changed.

The lessons contained within

The biggest takeaway here is that "Fatal Attraction" was lightning in a bottle. It's pretty tough to extract anything of use for modern Hollywood, which has become streaming-obsessed, with the theatrical marketplace in a major transitional phase as we attempt to emerge from the pandemic. Simply put, the astonishing box office performance of "Fatal Attraction" couldn't happen today. Perhaps the closest we've seen was "The Greatest Showman," but even that was before the pandemic. Now? It's truly hard to imagine.

But what does remain is Hollywood's knack for imitation and extracting the wrong points from something's success. To that end, a ton of copycat erotic thrillers emerged in the wake of this film's success, including "Basic Instinct" (also starring Michael Douglas), "Body Double," "Whispers in the Dark," and "Disclosure (also starring Michael Douglas!). Yet, none of these movies, or the many other copycats that have surfaced in the more than three decades since "Fatal Attraction," have attempted to capture that same wave in the public consciousness. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and can lead to some quick cash, but it's not the way to achieve this level of success.

Ultimately, studios and streaming services would do well to really examine why something worked beyond the surface level appeal, especially in the modern era when there is simply so much content to weed through. Standing out in the crowd is more helpful than ever. Then again, Paramount+ has a "Fatal Attraction" TV series on the way, so everything truly does come back around in our current media world. Even the studio that brought this movie to life is going to try and recapture that magic on the small screen ... which seems in some ways like a fool's errand.