There’s something about Michael Douglas that just drives a woman wild.
Strange as it may seem, Douglas is the undisputed King of the Erotic Thriller, starring in the #1, #2, and #3 top grossers of all time. I was curious, especially in the wake of #MeToo, how these films’ sexual politics would hold up.
The results vary.
In 2019, we’re acutely aware of systematic, patriarchal oppression of women — not to mention sexual misconduct. Certain movies we’ve revisited from the 80s and 90s — from Sixteen Candles to Chasing Amy — have exhibited attitudes toward women that are troubling a couple decades later. Could we assume that the quintessential “crazy bitches” of this unofficial trilogy might look different in 2019’s light?
I was hoping, perhaps, that at least one of these women would emerge as a misunderstood heroine, that it might turn out that problematic male behavior was the real villain. I was expecting a trio of women who would come off looking better in 2019 than they did in 1987, or 1992, or 1994, or at least men that would be harder to root for.
The men Michael Douglas plays vary in their culpability, but the women don’t look much different with decades of hindsight. They’re all nuts.
September 18, 1987
Budget: $14 million
Opening Weekend: $7.6 million
Domestic Gross: $156.6 million
Worldwide Gross: $320.1 million
Fatal Attraction is the only erotic thriller of this era with an air of prestige. It was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and Glenn Close’s Oscar-nominated performance is probably her most iconic role. It also set the tone for a slew of other “crazy bitch” movies in its wake — The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Single White Female, Swimfan, Obsessed, Unforgettable — not to mention Adrian Lyne’s own Unfaithful in 2002.
Fatal Attraction almost ended quite differently — with a suicide instead of a self-defense slaying — and if it had, it’s hard to see it becoming the blockbuster that it did. The third act makes Close’s Alex Forrest a horror movie villain, and cements the film’s status as a cautionary tale for straying husbands. Putting Alex in full-on psycho mode makes it easy to root against her, and for Douglas’ everyman Dan. It’s less psychologically compelling than it could be, but it’s tremendously entertaining, and Close is magnetic. That’s enough to cement Fatal Attraction as the gold standard for the erotic thriller, the high note no copycat has managed to reach since. Glenn Close is likely to win an Oscar this year, and I suspect that award will be more for this mistress than The Wife. It’s a performance that won’t be ignored.
March 20, 1992
Budget: $49 million
Opening Weekend: $15.1 million
Domestic Gross: $117.7 million
Worldwide Gross: $352.9 million
Erotic thrillers are often trashy, but Basic Instinct wears its sleaze on its sleeve — just as you’d expect a Joe Eszterhas-Paul Verhoeven collaboration to. (They’re the dream team that brought us Showgirls, after all.) One part Hitchcock, one part porno, it’s another peek into Eszterhas’ loopy worldview, where characters range from crazy to super crazy. Michael Douglas plays Nick Curran, a coke-snorting alcoholic cop who has questionably shot several people in the line of duty and casually rapes his girlfriend partway through the film. But we’re supposed to be on his side, right? This is Eszterhas’ version of an “everyman,” I guess.
I don’t know if Sharon Stone’s performance is good, per se, because what does that even mean in this kind of movie? Eszterhas doesn’t write human beings — he writes femmes that range from a little fatale to a lot fatale. But Stone’s Catherine Trammell is a hell of a femme fatale (not to mention “the fuck of the century”), playing coy innocence and serial killer smugness simultaneously in every scene. It’s so obvious that she’s the killer that she can’t be the killer… but wait, how could she not be the killer? There are very few other suspects, none of whom seem able to pull this off. There’s Leilani Sarelle as Roxy Hardy, Catherine’s scowly, perpetually pouty playmate, but she isn’t very smart. And there’s Jeanne Tripplehorne as Dr. Beth Grant, a police psychologist, who looks like a porn star wearing glasses. She, like all women in the Joe Eszterhas Cinematic Universe, dabbles in lesbianism, and has some inexplicable link from the past with Catherine. One of them was obsessed with the other, and we never really find out who, since this is Basic Instinct, where everyone has a screw loose. It’s more efficient to figure out who’s not a killer in this movie.
Stone owns every second she’s on screen. The story is silly, but somehow, she retains her dignity. She’s the rare “crazy bitch” who has the upper hand throughout the movie. You could make a half-convincing argument for Basic Instinct as a feminist work. Its knowing, winking campiness is part of its charm. Catherine isn’t just pulling one over on the police; at every turn, she seems to know she’s pulling one over on us. Basic Instinct is the erotic thriller that every made-for-Cinemax movie tried to be. It isn’t good, but it knows it’s bad, and guess what? Basic Instinct doesn’t give a fuck.
December 9, 1994
Budget: $55 million
Opening Weekend: $10.1 million
Domestic Gross: $83.0 million
Worldwide Gross: $214.0 million
Post-Jurassic Park, I was very aware of all things Michael Crichton. I read Congo and Sphere and saw those movies when they were released in subsequent years. But I never saw Disclosure. There was no reason why any 10-year-old boy would see Disclosure in 1994, except for the Crichton connection. He’s why the movie occupies a larger-than-average spot in my pop culture consciousness — and is it turns out, Disclosure is less grounded than Congo. It may as well be science fiction.
This time, Michael Douglas’ everyman is named Tom Sanders. He’s up for a promotion at the ultra high-tech CD-ROM company. Tom and his peers use business jargon that is both highly specific and frustratingly vague. We know they’re outsourcing something to Malaysia, and they’ve also built a virtual reality hard drive, but what exactly does this company do? I’m guessing that Crichton’s book explained it adequately, but Disclosure the movie does not.
This movie is bonkers. My jaw hit the floor several times while watching, and not just because of the troubling sexual politics — though those are pretty bad, too. Early on, our protagonist swats his assistant on the ass, which is meant to make a point about sexual harassment, but then gets laughed off (because this movie does not know anything or care about actual sexual harassment). The harassment in question is actually a mostly consensual seduction between Tom and his ex-lover, Meredith. (This is one case where “no” doesn’t really sound like no, you know? Problematic.) The movie then proceeds to be about an invented sexual assault — not sexual harassment — because, naturally, men being falsely accused by power-mad bitches is the real problem. Poor men!
I was prepared for some 90s-style misogyny. I was not prepared for the increasingly absurd plot machinations and laughable “technology.” Disclosure may have been cutting edge at the time, but it’s preposterous 25 years later, and it marks the beginning of the end for the erotic thriller. Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct gave us iconic female characters, women who were smart and complicated — and, okay, yes, bat-shit crazy. Moore’s Meredith in Disclosure may be a high-ranking corporate executive, but as written, she’s dumb as dirt. Almost zero “crazy bitch” thrillers since have gotten it right. The genre could successfully be resurrected — it’s a great time for a conniving female to exact her cunning revenge on mankind in a movie — but do we have to feel sorry for the man? Michael Douglas’ role in all this may be obsolete.