In Fatal Attraction (1987), a woman jilted by her one-night stand strikes back: she leaves his six-year-old daughter’s rabbit boiling on the stove, pours sulfuric acid on his car, harasses him with vitriolic and abusive cassettes, stages an aggressive suicide, makes anonymous phone calls to his wife, kidnaps his daughter, and, half-crazed, stalks his wife with a butcher knife. She is finally shot by the wife.

What are we to make of this? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Perhaps. But more importantly, this movie represents—at least metaphorically—the state of relations between men and women in the films of the 80’s. Looking over the movies of the past 50 years, it becomes strikingly clear that although celluloid men and women can still feel an erotic attraction for one another, they have become increasingly confrontational, distrustful, hostile, destructive, dangerous, even deadly.

In the 30’s, 40’s, or even the 50’s, if you went to the movies, chances are you saw men and women who got along reasonably well. If they had problems, they were usually overcome. Glancing through the notebook I keep of every movie I see, I find such examples as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), and Magnificent Obsession (1954).

Not every one of the earlier movies had harmonious relations. Still, marital concord predominated. In the last 10 years, things almost never work out between men and women. Again, looking through my notebook, I see such movies as Sophie’s Choice (1982), Cat People (1982), and Country (1984). Is it any better with foreign movies? Not at all: Don’s Party (Australian, 1976), Pauline at the Beach (French, 1983), Ploughman’s Lunch (English, 1984), Paris, Texas (German, 1984).

It is certainly true that earlier movies had adultery, murder, crime, and dissolution of all kinds. But even within that context we find a difference. Take Double Indemnity (1944) and Body Heat (1981), the same story 40 years later. Fred MacMurray and William Hurt are each drawn by an evil woman into murdering her husband. Despite the identical plot, there is one startling difference: MacMurray is an adult, and Hurt is not. And if we look at the movies I listed earlier, we find the same pattern. There are adult men and women in the older movies. But by the 80’s, they have all but disappeared from the screen. What we find instead are children or half-formed adults. There is a causal link: when men and women have not grown up, they cannot sustain healthy relations, for they inevitably act like insecure children.

Most fundamentally, an adult has an identity. He knows who he is, where he fits in his society, what he is about. He is fully formed, self-possessed, self-contained. He has an inner life he can draw on. Certainly this is true of Glenn Ford in The Big Heat or of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. And Major Strasser, also from Casablanca, may be evil, but he is no child. But we cannot say the same for Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967) or for anyone in any of Woody Allen’s movies. It is no accident that Allen made Play It Again Sam (1972), which is a lament that he cannot be an adult man like Bogart and which contrasts Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid with Allen, Diane Keaton, and Tony Roberts. All of Allen’s films ask the question: Bogart grew up, why can’t I?

An adult lives in a world of moral rules, of right and wrong, good and evil, thou-shalt-nots. He takes them seriously. Actions have weight. In The Big Chill (1983), where no one has grown up, one woman allows her husband to impregnate her lonely best friend. This infidelity is treated as if it had no consequences. All actions become trivial in the nonadult world, but an adult must pay for evil. When Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947) follows Jane Greer to Mexico and betrays his boss, he knows there will be serious consequences. This is a world of good people and bad people. When Mitchum describes Greer as bad, his girlfriend says that nobody is all bad. To which he replies, “Maybe. But she comes the closest.”

Compare this with the remake of Out of the Past, Against All Odds (1984), with the Mitchum and Greer parts played by Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward, who remain children, apparent victims of a system over which they have no control. We don’t hold small children responsible for their actions. Evil carried out by children we call pathology. In any case, we don’t expect children to play by our rules because playing by the rules includes a certain attention to social conventions and decorum. In Casablanca, Rick, Strasser, and Louis all follow adult protocol. They dress for dinner, they address each other formally, and so on. In consequence, their battles and confrontations possess a certain elegance. There is nothing very elegant about the upper-class Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. Responding to an officious waitress, Nicholson shoves all the dishes on the table onto the floor like a spoiled child that can’t control itself. Characters in contemporary films have to act out every feeling. They are dominated by the id, naturalness, spontaneity. (Nicholson’s method acting institutionalizes these very principles.)

Grown men and women know that maturity is worth the price. They do not glorify childhood. It is interesting to look at two children’s movies: The Wizard of Oz (1939) and E.T. (1982). In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy lives in Kansas on a farm surrounded by wise and loving adults. She goes on a heroic journey and meets mythic creatures who teach her about the things a child needs to learn in growing up: courage, the ability to love and give, and reason. She also learns about bogus adults like Oz, who is only pretending to an authority he does not possess: Beware of children masquerading as adults. It teaches her about good and evil: there are good witches and evil witches. In the beginning of the movie, Dorothy complains about her life in Kansas—reality—and dreams of escape (“Somewhere over the rainbow”). By the end of her journey, she returns to Kansas with a greater appreciation of the adult world. She is growing up. In E.T. all of this is turned on its head. The suburban family has been abandoned by the father. Men in general are ominous. The mother is nice but ineffectual; she is not an adult. The ugly creature from outer space confirms the message that older people are the enemies of children, that all virtue, resourcefulness, and sensitivity reside with children. It is a flight from adulthood that is both sentimental and cynical.

The old movies lent credence to the old-fashioned idea that, whatever their similarities, men are men and women are women, that there are such things as masculinity and femininity. Feminine and masculine traits complemented and strengthened each other. The more feminine a woman was, the more she drew out the protective nature of a man; the more masculine he was, the more he drew out her femininity. The key point is that the old order allowed and encouraged a man and a woman to give themselves to each other, body and soul. The old films that ended triumphantly with a wedding were not unrealistic. The most natural way for a woman to fulfill herself and enter the adult world was by marrying and having a child. Men desired women; women desired to be desired. There was nothing demeaning in all this. It did not diminish the woman, turn her into chattel. Marriage allowed her a safe way to become a wise adult woman and to pass on her wisdom and experience to her children. This, said the movies of 40 or 50 years ago, was the road to happiness for women.

Not every woman in the old movies was feminine, but consider the wide variety of feminine types: Carole Lombard, Mae West, Ingrid Bergman, Rita Hayworth, and Grace Kelly. Even Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers movies wanted only to give herself, believe it or not, to Groucho. Contrast this with the characters played by the new actresses, who make themselves unattractive by their contempt for men: Jill Clayburgh, Susan Anspach, Meryl Streep, Patricia Hodge, Jessica Lange, for example. Diane Keaton’s women (like Annie Hall) are not contemptuous, but their femininity is that of an insecure child. What they all have in common is that none of them can give herself away to a man.

Men give themselves to women by their acts of gallantry and sacrifice. In A Night to Remember (1958), the men let women and children go first, while they stayed behind on the sinking Titanic. Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), by pretending to be a fop, sacrifices his public reputation and endures the opprobrium of his wife, all in order to cover up his heroic escapades. For another model of virility, think of Fred Astaire in almost anything; then compare Howard and Astaire with Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited or The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981). Similar types in a way, but the inner strength is gone. Or compare Clark Gable, Bogart, or Mitchum, who exude a virile integrity, to that caricature of virility, Sylvester Stallone, the new barbarian male.

In contemporary films, women do not feel safe and protected; and men do not provide authority and protection. As men have become weaker, women have become harder, colder. This switch is not really a reversal. Hardness is not masculinity; it is femininity thwarted. These women are covering up insecurity with a mask of supercompetence. It is neither a virtue nor true strength. And weakness and bungling is not feminine. Rather it is masculinity thwarted, an emasculation, the ruination of masculine virtue and authority. The gelded male, dealing with the harpy, chooses a strategy of appeasement.

It is no accident that there has been a great increase in the number of movies about homosexuals. To a large extent homosexuality in men and women is an expression of this loss of masculinity and femininity, a way of avoiding giving themselves away to the opposite sex. Women who become “granola dykes” and “lipsticks” express an aggressive contempt for men. Male homosexuality allows men to escape this contempt—no appeasement is necessary.

One of the strongest images of this loss of robust adult masculinity comes from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Jimmy Stewart, a cop, chasing a criminal across the rooftops, slips and winds up dangling in midair, unable to go back or forward. It is the perfect image of the new man, caught between boyhood and adulthood, who falls in love with and becomes obsessed by a woman who is dead.

Cop movies can tell us a great deal about changes in masculinity. Look at Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (1953) and Clint Eastwood in Tightrope (1985). Eastwood could be Ford 30 years later. He is a good man who fights heroically against evil. But whereas Ford is married to a loving wife, Eastwood’s wife left him and is involved with another man. Ford’s wife is murdered by gangsters, but Ford’s memory of her causes him to resist the seductive charms of the gangster’s moll. Eastwood goes to prostitutes after his wife abandons him. In The Big Heat, the threat is from the adult world: the head of the mob is evil, but he is in full command of his faculties. The threat in Tightrope comes from a psychopathic killer. In The Big Heat, the police are corrupt, but they return to being good cops by the force of Ford’s example. The police in Tightrope are not corrupt but ineffectual. Ford is able to protect his child from killers: he contacts his brother-in-law, who—with four war buddies—provides a very effective force against the intrusion of evil. But in Tightrope, the killer is able to enter Eastwood’s house, murder the housekeeper, and terrorize his two daughters, raping one of them. Glenn Ford never doubts the rightness of his actions. Eastwood has self-doubts, seeing parallels—quite correctly—between the killer and himself The protections and supports that Ford could call on are, in Tightrope, missing or greatly reduced in power. The orderly world of adult rules, of authority and protection, has faded.

This adult world does not arise spontaneously. It exists in large measure because a generation of wise adults is able to pass on its wisdom as a gift to the next generation. The sign of this in movies is the presence of older and wiser people, who guide a younger generation toward full maturity. In It Happened One Night (1934), the father of the bride is present. He is wise enough to know that Clark Gable is the virtuous man his daughter should marry. In Holiday (1938), Gary Grant’s stepparents have integrity and help him find his way. Katharine Hepburn’s father, who values money and status too much, is at least present and manages to convey a certain patriarchal dignity. In the very first scene of The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart, meets General Sternwood, a representative of the old order, who is now consigned to a wheelchair, a sign that the old order is fading. Even though he is not seen again, he is a pivotal point of the movie.

In The Graduate (1967), plastics is no more interesting to Dustin Hoffman than banking was to Gary Grant. But he has no one to guide him. His parents and their friends are all fools. How can he grow up when he has no models to emulate? He is like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Dean wasn’t rebelling against authority so much as against the lack of it. His was a cry of protest against the absence of masculine virtue and adult authority. His father, played by Jim Backus, wears an apron—the symbol of the gelded male. While James Dean fights back, Dustin Hoffman flounders. Hoffman, like Clark Gable, runs off with the girl just before her vows to another man. But whereas in It Happened One Night there is unequivocal triumph, Hoffman and his bride, while escaping, have nowhere to go. They sit in the back of the bus, cut adrift, unconnected to any person or tradition that could guide them toward adulthood.

An Unmarried Woman (1978) shows what could be Hoffman and his wife 11 years later. Theirs is a world without fathers or mothers or family members. Their marriage ends when the wife, played by Jill Clayburgh, leaves her husband after he confesses that he is having an affair. We see her at the end being blown about by the wind, alone on the streets of Manhattan. In the 80’s, things are even worse. Decadence has turned to barbarism. Everybody is now a victim. It is Every Man for Himself (1980), to use an apt title of one of Jean-Luc Godard’s movies. In its extreme form, the women are dangerous killers and the men expendable, as in Black Widow. In 50 years, movies have gone from depicting men and women as virtuous adults in moral dramas of good and evil to the acting out of case studies of men and women as pathetic, weak, barbaric, pathological, and deracinated children.

Fatal Attraction runs the gamut of 1980’s pathologies. Since it is a box office hit we must assume that it expresses quite well the spirit of the times and is striking a chord with millions of Americans.

Michael Douglas has an affair with Glenn Close, not because he has fallen in love or because he has a bad marriage, but because there is no internal set of rules and no parent or wise friend or community pressure to stop him. The old order has vanished. He is a decent but weak man. He is not really in command. He can’t even get his umbrella to open correctly; he calls for a waiter in a restaurant and no one comes. Close, like a child angry at being abandoned, proceeds to terrorize Douglas and his family. She has lost her femininity and become an irrational force against which he, the modern weak male, is powerless.

It has been suggested that this movie represents a return to family values, since Douglas is happily married and has a child. Nothing could be further from the truth. True, his wife is lovely—far more beautiful than the Medusa-faced Close—and as accommodating as Donna Reed, but the marriage is only a foil for the murderous exchanges between Douglas and Close. The family is a house of cards. Douglas and his family move from the anonymous hell of New York City to the isolation of the suburbs. There is neither community nor parents—Close’s father died of a heart attack in 1958, and the wife’s parents, though present, play no part. The police are completely ineffectual, and there is no escaping Glenn Close.

Fatal Attraction has much in common with The Birds (1963), Jaws (1975), and Aliens (1986). Irrational, violent forces erupt and threaten orderly, rational, civilized society. These movies seem to say that modernity itself goes against Natural Law, and that when Nature’s laws are broken, she fights back with irrational, unappeasable forces. The degree of the danger, the scope of the problem, can be measured by the extent to which male authority and protection is still there. In The Birds, Rod Taylor protects three generations of women from the attacks of the birds. In Jaws, Robert Shaw, the representative of the old adult male, gets eaten by the shark, leaving the boyish Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider, who has a foot in both camps. In Aliens, the men are all ineffectual; a woman and a robot save the day. In Fatal Attraction, the man cannot protect himself or his family from the crazed killer with the knife.

It is true that, like the media in general, the movies are dominated by an elite, whose views do not represent the sentiments of millions of us. And certainly most movies today only add to society’s problems—reinforcing and legitimizing them—by presenting them on the screen without moral compass.

Nonetheless, I believe it is equally true that movies—as part of popular culture—unconsciously reflect current attitudes. Seen in this light, movies are cultural artifacts, signs to be interpreted, mirrors of the society we live in. In this light, the past 50 years have witnessed an increase in male/female confrontation and the fading of the adult world. These would seem to be symptoms of a deep spiritual malaise. The feminists would like to blame men for all the ills of the world. The evidence from the movies is against this view. Men and women have found it equally difficult to grow up. What the movies seem to be telling us is that people are living against the grain of human nature, and they are paying the price.