In 1987, Michael Douglas thought with his genitalia and endangered his wife, his daughter and the family rabbit. “Fatal Attraction” wasn’t a movie about sex addiction per se, but it had a clear message about cause and effect: sexual impulsiveness destroys you and those around you. 26 years later the message is a little different: give in to sexual compulsion and it’ll be hard for you to be a lovable romcom subject.
This, at least, is the potential takeaway from two new films about sex addiction (“Thanks For Sharing”) and online porn addiction (“Don Jon”). It’s (probably) important to note that Joseph Gordon-Levitt — star/director/writer of “Don Jon” — swears he hasn’t made a film about porn or porn addiction per se. Instead, the story of a dude who hooks up a lot but can’t have a normal relationship because of his adoration of online pornography is a “metaphor” for “how people objectify each other,” thereby making it tough to have normal relationships. Note, though, that Gordon-Levitt doesn’t place his loved ones in jeopardy or really affect anyone but himself. Likewise, “Thanks For Sharing” focuses on two dudes (Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins) whose behavior — aside from one climactic (unavoidable pun dispensed with early on) scene — endangers them, but only skeezes out others. Both end with hugs and understanding all round, with the addicts rehabilitated as the lovable leading men they really are.
Now reconsider 1987’s dual stories about male sexual temptation and its dangers, bigger and scarier than anything encountered now. The template for “Fatal Attraction” is 1971’s “Play Misty For Me,” in which callow radio DJ Clint Eastwood has a one-night stand with Jessica Harper, who initially comes off as a proto Manic Pixie Dream Girl, her annoying mannerisms a hint she’s actually a psychotic lunatic. It’s a wildly offensive movie but it keeps your attention, which is also true of its more amped-up reworking “Fatal Attraction,” in which it’s not just a single man whose life is at stake. Future Paramount CEO Sherry Lansing was a producer because she was drawn to the original form of the script, in which Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest is a career woman she empathized with, if still suffering from some kind of psychological problem.
By the time the film was done being rewritten and altered in response to test audience reactions, Alex was totally pathologized. At the time of the film’s release, Mark Kermode wrote that test screening audiences were screaming “kill the bitch” at the end, and even if that’s not true (it sounds too good to be real), though it’s surely what was going through viewers’ heads. The final film tapped into an ugly strain of the mass movie-going audience’s collective brain, becoming the number two film of the American box office year. (Number one? “Three Men And A Baby.”)
The strain between initial conception and final execution shows in a movie that begins as a not-so-subtle portrait of lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) comfortably occupying life above the glass ceiling. There’s no real reason for him to sleep with Alex: he doesn’t get to have sex with wife Beth (Amy Archer) one night because after he comes back from walking the dog their kid’s crawled into bed, but that really doesn’t explain what happens next. The wife and kid are out of town, and in the rain he ends up asking Alex to wait out the storm with drinks. When the flirting gets overt and the possibility of adultery comes up, Dan defers responsibility: “I definitely think it’s gonna be up to you.” Before his wife returns home, he messes up the sheets to make it look like he slept home: it’d be more of a giveaway if he cleaned up after himself.
The first half is about a man who doesn’t have to really care about the women in his life and whose levels of responsibility are nill: it’s smart, but any point falls apart the more irrational Alex acts. the point is that Dan’s endangered others with his libido. But his transgression is associatively tied to a bunch of other signifiers: Alex is a downtown Manhattan career woman while Beth is a mother aspiring to the suburbs, while the sites of illicit intercourse (kitchens and elevators) turn threatening after they’ve been defiled. This has less to do with libidinal urges than failure to follow a whole set of rules about proper middle-class/-age living.
The other 1987 movie in which a man endangers the family unit through sexual impulsiveness is “Someone To Watch Over Me,” but here the real subject is class rather than desire: mookish Queens resident Mike Keegan ( Tom Berenger) is sick of tripping over his son's skateboards in a shabby small house subject to being flooded by all kinds of light that can’t be blocked out. When assigned to guard socialite murder witness Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers, pallidly blond and plausibly rich), he falls not for her but for her apartment: a dark, wealthy space where the cops are confined to the kitchen, bathroom and reception area; literally the only way for Keegan to see and marvel at the opulent bedroom is to sleep with the person who owns it. Ridley Scott's camera is as seduced as Mike by ostentatiously displayed wealth, but in the end he and Claire realize there’s too many class differences between them and the detective goes back to his ridiculously patient proletarian family. Given the lack of credible spark between the pair (there’s no charisma on-screen, only in the dialogue), copulation acts as a vehicle for exploring high-low social gaps; as in “Fatal Attraction,” sex as sex isn’t a factor.
Conceptually, “sex addiction” wasn’t as prominent in 1987; movies addressing it head on or obliquely are mostly recent, those which take it seriously rare. It’s a joke in 1998’s “Armageddon” — Steve Buscemi’s has a stripper problem — and pretty much the sole structuring gag of John Waters’ last feature to date, 2004’s “A Dirty Shame,” another exercise in shocking the prudes with increasingly mild outrage; it’s certainly not a film about the shame and stigma of sex addiction. There was a tangential strain of vampire movies addressing AIDS, which is sort of in the same vein (another pun, I fear). Not that carnal urges were ever a less-than-obvious urge for what bloodsuckers wanted, but movies with titles like “The Addiction” and “Habit” made the stakes clearer.
The best of this bunch was one of the last: Claire Denis’ 2001 “Trouble Every Day”, (being revived by Brooklyn’s BAM theater next month) notable as one of the few films in which destructive lust is non-gendered: both a man and woman place themselves and others in terrible danger by not being able to control their urges.The film neither literalizes AIDS — lust means munching someone’s face off and lots of blood rather than scabs — nor moralizes about why the terrible things that happen happen. It’s also a movie in which sex is depicted as steamy and enjoyable in the moment before the carnage hits.
The same can’t be said of 2011’s “Shame,” which is (self-)“serious” and then some. As with “Someone To Watch Over Me” or “Fatal Attraction,” sexual temptation is once again associated with the no-longer-dirty island of Manhattan. Here we have Michael Fassbender, who’s super-ripped and works a good downtown job in the finance sector; what precisely we don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. The point’s that he makes lots of money, and likes to have sex, and when he finally hooks up with a co-worker he can’t get it up because Love Is Beyond Him. “Shame” the title isn’t a diagnosis of why Fassbender can’t get help, it’s a statement of how he should feel: it’s a movie about a cold impassive man of muscles who runs with the same joyless calisthenic energy he puts into dourly depicted intercourse, [SPOILER! ‘SHAME’ MIGHT BE SPOILED!!!!!] and who’s incestuously attracted to his sister (Carey Milligan) who tries to kill herself but appears to actually enjoy sex, which means there’s something wrong with her. She tells him that they’re not bad people, but bad things happened to them. The heavy-handed implication of this statement is that they were molested: it’s technically ambiguous (the “bad things” are never named as such), but it’s impossible to interpret any other way, and it’s an incredibly reductive way of addressing the topic. Surely if sex addiction is a legitimate subject of inquiry, it’s the way it manifests itself and how it affects others that matters, not “the reason” the pathology’s emerged in the first place.
The best film on the topic is clearly 2005’s “I Was A Sex Addict,” in which perpetually divisive filmmaker Caveh Zahedi talks about how his addiction to prostitutes busted up a marriage (he kept telling his first wife in detail about his assignations with prostitutes). Zahedi narrates what he did, re-enacts it, invites past partners to chime in and doesn’t flinch when they stomp out, and generally treats “sex addiction” like something that formerly made him a monster which he can act as a comic tour guide to now, rather than a subject for congratulation on how brave he is for sharing. It’s probably a good thing that the message of “Thanks For Sharing” and “Don Jon” is “sex addicts! They’re just like us,” sparing us all from a tear-jerking fit of moral chastening, but Zahedi has something more interesting to say: sex addiction isn’t like any other form of addiction, it has narcissistic side manifestations and it’s not a compulsion that should be compared (as “Thanks For Sharing” does) to alcoholism or food hangups.