Why Glenn Close’s 1980s monochrome still thrills.
Glenn Close has a thing about movie memorabilia. The six time Oscar nominated actress not only collects props from films she’s made, but incredibly, is often allowed to keep some of her costumes too. Case in point: the signature black leather wrap coat with oversized shoulder pads she wore as the crazed Alex Forrest in 1987’s Fatal Attraction.
“Every woman in the world went out and bought a knock-off of that coat!” screamed Kelly Ripa during a Live! with Kelly and Michael episode earlier this year when Glenn brought it along. (“And every man stopped dating women who wore that coat,” mumbled her co-host, Michael Strahan.)
Clearly, almost 30 years after its release, Fatal Attraction is still on point. Sure, some things have dated. Starting with Anne Archer as the beautiful Beth Gallagher; she’s a stay-at-home mother and wife to Manhattan law partner Dan (Michael Douglas), and she is simply too good to be true. (She’s gorgeous, fun, a great homemaker and ultimately forgiving when Dan tells her about his one night stand with a woman who has been stalking Dan ever since? Beth’s a saint.) And yes, new technology has made certain plot points obsolete. Caller ID, internet searches, social media and text messages have all changed the way we
stalk communicate with people. Granted.
But otherwise, the rest of the movie stands up incredibly well, practically to the point where those things are very far from your mind. Innovative storytelling by director Adrian Lyne still remains suspenseful, Alex is still suitably cray-cray, and the film’s messages about the way a man feels entitled to treat a woman after a one night stand are still very topical, as are issues surrounding the female career/life balance (so, feminism then), life in the city versus the suburbs, a single woman looking for love in her thirties, and even the fashion.
Especially the fashion.
The enduring style appeal of Alex Forrest is largely due to the incredibly insightful idea from costume designer Ellen Mirojnick to clothe Glenn Close entirely in shades of black and white for the majority of the film. And what’s really crazy is – so gripping is Fatal Attraction, it’s quite possible to watch the entire movie without ever actually realising that.
On a trend level, Mirojnick’s monochrome is a chic, timeless marker for the modern day New Yorker. Not for Alex, an associate editor at a publishing firm, are the flamboyant reds and graphic patterns of the 80s (and here I am thinking of some of the decade’s more colourful fare, like Linda Koswalski’s sexy red dress in 1986’s Crocodile Dundee or indeed, some of the other fashions being worn in Fatal Attraction at the launch party where Dan crosses paths with Alex for the first time).
No, Alex’s understated but sophisticated wintry 80s editor’s style comes from her cuts and fabrics: the oversized shoulder pads, the boxy jackets, the leather, the cinched waist, the lace, the drop waist, the wool, the glittering black cocktail dress slashed to her navel…. all in black and white, with the odd shade of cream.
More than just creating a stylish wardrobe, however, we quickly see that Mirojnick’s choice of monochrome is used to highlight Alex’s split personality. The charming, sophisticated exterior she presents in public often calls for looser (but still shapely) white: think the white skirt suit Alex is wearing when she runs into Dan at a business meeting or the casual white cardigan she wears later on to visit Dan’s unsuspecting wife.
This sunny front contrasts starkly with the darker, conniving side to Alex’s instability. For that, we often witness Alex suiting up in her black armour which calls for dark layers and heavy black coats (cinched at the waist to pack a powerful silhouette) when she commits revenge acts like throwing acid on Dan’s car and kidnapping his daughter.
It is not as simple as (akin to a superhero throwing on a cape) that Alex is bad when she wears black and she is good when she wears white, but it’s a clever visual effect to play up both of her sides. Alex’s black power dressing seems to be something of a confidence booster for her – when she turns up announced at Dan’s office in that infamous black coat with tickets to see Madame Butterfly at the opera, for instance, Alex is also trying to show Dan that she is strong, put together, and not the same weeping mess he last saw in her apartment.
The white colour spectrum comes out in full force when Alex is at home alone: often it means she is at her most unhinged (and most vulnerable). Rejected, she wears a plain oversized white T-shirt while sitting on the floor of her apartment manically flicking a lamp on and off. The white negligee and cream robe she wears when she is “expecting” Dan for a drink is particularly feminine, and a definite invitation for seduction. This constant juxtaposition is disarming. When we see Alex in that very pretty, cream, almost ballerina-ish final dress, are we on Alex’s side here, or Dan’s? Ultimately, so phenomenal is Close’s performance that we d0 empathise in those scenes, even if what we really want to do is SLAP ALEX IN THE FACE UNTIL SHE SNAPS OUT OF IT. (Or is that just me?)
Often, for those alone scenes, I can’t help but also associate her attire and surroundings with that of a mental hospital, so uniform-like does she appear after a while. (She even eats her meals alone on her bed, much like patients do in a hospital bed.) This is because Alex’s apartment is almost entirely white too; it is very stark in comparison to the Gallagher’s overflowing homey apartment (and later, their new house too). Black and white pictures of landscapes, not people, line Alex’s walls; white ceilings, white floorboards and even exposed white plumbing frames her apartment. From the cage lift to the stairwell to the grungy hallways inside her building, there is a slight mechanical feel to everything. Not that Alex is a perfectionist; just look at that hair! It truly takes on a life of its own in this movie, wild and free in an unruly mop of permed curls (even after it’s been drenched in the rain) and completely obscuring her face at times (which she never pulls out of her eyes). Her jewellery, too, isn’t of the fine, dainty variety; it is bold, embellished, and often oversized and freeflowing.
When contrasted against homemaker Beth’s practical wardrobe choices of rich mahoganies, horsey browns and denim blues, Alex’s simple monochrome makes Dan’s wife appear warm, yes, but somewhat dull by comparison too (a magnificent achievement, considering Anne Archer is absolutely gorgeous). Alex, on the other hand, is sophisticated and striking, but cold. Her views, like her clothes, are black or white. Dan is hers, or he is no one’s. Alex plays nice, or she plays dirty. She is a woman of extremes.
One of the rare times we see a shade of grey is when she confronts Dan to tell him she is pregnant; it is an appealing colour choice. Her belted wool coat is warm and soft, cuddly even, perhaps in keeping with the news she is delivering. (Maybe white in this case would have been too pure?) The only other time we see grey is when she is making lunch for Dan in her apartment wearing what appears to be an inside out sweatshirt. There is also a loose khaki blazer she throws over (what else?) a white singlet, black pants and white high-top sneakers for their dog walking session in the park; it is possibly the same one she throws over her black strapless dress when they go out dancing after their romp. And that’s it. That’s all the colour she allows.
Look beyond Alex’s world though, and you’ll see that Mirojnick ocassionally uses the same monochrome visual effect to make statements in Dan’s world too – to show the sanctity and purity of his family life. From the very first frame of this film, we see Dan’s family at home, all of them in white: Dan talking on the phone in a white business shirt, his young daughter running down the hall in a white nightgown, his wife in a white T-shirt brushing her teeth, heck even the babysitter (played by a babyfaced Jane Krakowski!) is wearing white from head to toe. Family is sacred, we are being told from these visual clues; it’s pure, innocent but about to get shaken up. So too does the movie end in white – Beth in a fluffy white robe, Alex in the creamy white (now disshevelled) dress and Dan tellingly in a white shirt and black trousers.
Of course, all this use of white and black could simply be a coincidence. Or nothing more than a filmmaker’s suggestion to keep the film’s design simple so we focus on the actors’ themselves. (That, plus the fact white clothing makes an unfortunately effective backdrop for red blood.) But surely it had to be intentional? Understated monochrome and neutrals might be the favoured colour palette of the new millennials, but 30 years ago it was harder to stick to. When other hits of the decade like Cocktail or Wall Street used loud clothing choices, patterns and colour to great effect (both of which Mirojnick also costumed, by the way), Fatal Attraction presented the same New York City from an entirely different point of view. This was, and still is, an extremely stylish thriller.
Besides, the art of crafting a contemporary wardrobe for a character is a responsibility that Mirojnick takes seriously, to serve as a time capsule for decades to come. As she told Clothes on Film in a 2010 interview about the role of costume designers:
“People believe if the movie is modern you go shopping and if it is a fantasy or period piece it is far more fun. Others think contemporary film design doesn’t require a lot of work… (that) period and fantasy work is far more difficult.
This assumption is wrong. Contemporary film requires as much work, if not more. As a designer of contemporary work, you are creating history. Remember, in 20 years the designer’s work in a contemporary film will be history and reference of that time and place. We are all creating stories with characters that live on.
When you look over the rest of Mirojnick’s contemporary work – Speed, Twister, Basic Instinct, What Women Want, America’s Sweethearts, Unfaithful – you see just how true this is. Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct sexy white dress, Sandra Bullock’s Speed singlet and skirt, Helen Hunt’s Twister shirt and jeans; all contemporary work, true to whatever decade Mirojnick was working in, but timeless too. Her talent is something Michael Douglas obviously identified with, and trusted; after meeting Mirojnick on Fatal Attraction, and teaming up with her again in Wall Street that same year, Mirojnick has been his preferred costumer ever since. It’s why he had complete trust in the dozens of flamboyantly bedazzled jumpsuits and capes he wore as Liberace in 2013’s Beneath the Candelabra. (On a side note: I can’t wait to see what Mirojnick brings to Angelina Jolie’s 70s period drama with Brad Pitt, By The Sea, later this year.)
To finish on Fatal Attraction: To this day I am not sure whether Alex actually was pregnant. Even though Dan rings the doctor to confirm it, this is still a grey area for me. (Perhaps the real reason Alex wears grey when she announces the pregnancy?) Because if the producers had gone ahead with the original ending, as filmmakers (and Glenn Close herself) intended, why would Alex have killed herself? And thus the baby inside her too? Wouldn’t she have wanted to remain attached to Dan for as long as possible? I’m not sure.
While I do appreciate the artistic arc of the scrapped ending, especially the renewed symbolism with Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, I personally love the ending as we know it. The shower scene between Alex and Beth, the kettle boiling, the water dripping down the stairs… that entire scene is embedded in my mind as one of the best thriller sequences in 80s Hollywood. It might not have been as true to Alex Forrest’s character as Close would have liked, it might have posed some cliched dilemmas about who was right and wrong – but it also made for an unforgettable moment of cinema history. One that has rarely been accomplished with such suspense since.
Want to watch all the Fatal Attraction fashion again and see it for yourself? Fatal Attraction is available for download here.
More of Glenn Close’s monochrome fashion in Fatal Attraction:
* Screencapped images and publicity stills are used here for review purposes only.