What causes someone to become obsessed with another person or to think that person is secretly in love with him — or her — and so respond with unwanted attention? Whether the cause be biological (a delusion resulting from a brain aneurysm) or psychological (a lack of proper gratification during early psychosexual development, according to Freud), this much is clear:
The nut-job, would-be lover is catnip to Hollywood.
This does not require Freud. Anyone who has ever seen TV series like “Starsky & Hutch” or “Hart to Hart” will recognize the familiar plot in which the star is stalked by some pathetic loser — or a prominent guest star is stalked by some pathetic loser and has to be rescued by the star of the show.
Film has also had a field day with this subject, using it to create some of its most memorable, provocative works. Say “obsessive love” and chances are one particular movie comes to mind — “Fatal Attraction” (1987). Set partially in Bedford — the movie’s grisly climactic scenes were shot at Skipper Rope Farm, a five-acre 18th-century estate — and starring Bedford residents Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, the movie tells the story of a woman’s obsession with a man who has a casual fling with her, and then just as casually tries to break it off. That she doesn’t take the hint and instead invites him to a performance of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” should tell you everything you need to know about Close’s Alex Forrest. She really does identify, mistakenly, with that poor geisha, who’s seduced, impregnated and abandoned by a faithless American naval lieutenant.
But the bunny-boiling Alex is no Butterfly. “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan,” Alex tells her increasingly desperate former lover, attorney Dan Gallagher (Douglas), who should’ve kept his lips and pants zipped instead of endangering his wife and daughter.
It remains for that wife (Anne Archer) ultimately to rid the family of Alex’s murderous fixation — a denouement in which some film critics and critical feminists like Susan Faludi (“Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women”) saw the triumph of family values over the “predatory” single career woman. Alex was viewed as an erotomaniac suffering from De Clérambault Syndrome, named for the French psychiatrist who first identified erotomania. But erotomania involves the delusion that someone is secretly in love with the sufferer. Alex may be crazy. But that doesn’t make Dan — who gets to go back to his nice Bedford family — an innocent.
For a real example of erotomania, readers and film buffs will want to turn to the underrated “Enduring Love” (1997), based on the Ian McEwan novel of the same name. The story takes its cue from the way we can misread the brief, intense encounters that happen during crises. Joe (Daniel Craig) and Jed (Rhys Ifans) are among the would-be rescuers in a hot-air balloon accident in which one of the other Good Samaritans is killed. The incident has a profound effect on Joe, a scientist who begins to mull the role fate plays in our existence, and on Jed, who becomes obsessed with Joe. While not specifically homoerotic, “Enduring Love” – note how “enduring” can be both an adjective and verb here – illustrates that obsession has no sexual or other boundary. The film received mixed reviews but is well worth seeing, particularly for the ending, which is at once shocking and yet inevitable.
Obsessive love gets a Pygmalion twist in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), which has eclipsed “Citizen Kane” as the British Film Institute’s best movie ever. James Stewart stars as Scottie Ferguson, a San Francisco detective suffering from a fear of heights who retires from the police force after a fatal accident. A wealthy former school chum asks him to trail his seemingly suicidal wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), herself haunted by a tragic ancestor. They fall in love, but it’s not enough to prevent Madeleine from apparently leaping to her death. Not long after, Scottie meets Judy, a coarse shop-girl who nonetheless reminds him of the refined beauty he cannot forget.
Hitchcock reveals the truth about two-thirds of the way through the movie so that the viewer, who has heretofore identified with Scottie, instead begins watching him watch others, especially Judy. Gradually, we begin to understand that the story isn’t so much about a man obsessed with a woman as it is about a man obsessed with his idea of that woman. (Note Madeleine Elster’s initials — M.E.) He has fallen in love with himself. It’s a psychological tour de force — lovingly restored by Bedford’s Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz — that combined with a superb cast; Bernard Herrmann’s haunting, circular Wagnerian score; Robert Burks’ dazzlingly dizzying cinematography of San Francisco; and Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor’s memorable adaptation of the Boileau-Narcejac novel “D’entre les morts” (“From Among the Dead”) builds to a truly terrifying climax.
Hitch and Hollywood had nothing, though, on those ultimate spinners, the ancient Greeks. In Euripides’ “Hippolytus,” Aphrodite, goddess of love, seeks revenge on the spurning Hippolytus — a devotee of her sister Artemis, chaste goddess of the hunt — by causing his stepmother, Phaedra, to fall hopelessly in love with him. Fearing that a disgusted Hippolytus will go to his father Theseus with the truth, Phaedra kills herself, falsely accusing Hippolytus of rape in a suicide note. Theseus exiles his son, placing a curse on him that leads to his death in a chariot — but not before Artemis reveals the truth, and a father receives a son’s forgiveness.
The French dramatist Jean Racine would shift the focus to the complex Phaedra and give Hippolytus a girlfriend, Aricie, in “Phèdre” (1677), inspiring Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera “Hippolyte et Aricie” (1733); a free verse translation by the poet Ted Hughes (1998); and a signature role for Sarah Bernhardt as well as a later one for Diana Rigg and Helen Mirren.
The many incarnations of “Phaedra” include a 1962 Martha Graham ballet that was so sexual — think beefcake revealed in peekaboo Isamu Noguchi sets and goddesses spreading their legs to Robert Starer’s crashing score — that it shocked the pair of Congressmen who caught it in West Germany as part of a State Department tour and led to the inevitable should-government-fund-such-art argument.
Graham would continue to make works with women at the emotional core and men as lust objects.
She was, after all, not one to be ignored.