Seductive period dramas like Dangerous Liaisons are a dime a dozen nowadays, but back in the 80s it was an entirely different landscape. In fact, Dangerous Liaisons – with its scandalous plot of seduction, psychological games and revenge – walked so modern hits like Bridgerton could run.
Despite being a drama about French nobles, audiences worldwide lapped up the plush production and fell in love with its young and attractive cast. With the film having received several remakes, including a relatively recent 2012 Chinese version, let’s go to the movies and find out what made those liaisons so dangerous…
20. The original novel caused such a stir that people were afraid to display their copies
The original, 18th-century novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, was so scandalous at the time that people couldn’t easily display the fact that they even owned a copy! Its depiction of unprincipled characters like the Marquise de Merteuil and Madame de Tourvel and its overt sexuality made the book the subject of fierce debate, as well as a real money-spinner. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an epistolary novel, meaning it is written entirely in the form of letters and notes.
It may surprise you to learn the author, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was an army general who fought for Napoleon Bonaparte. Many readers view Laclos’ novel as a scathing depiction of the corrupt French nobility before the Revolution. Others, however, believe the book is mostly just a tale of morality, and an exploration of evil.
19. Marie Antoinette had a unique copy of the book made for her personal library
Celebrities of the 18th century weren’t immune to this unusual novel’s charms and racy content. Even Queen Marie Antoinette commissioned a personal copy of Les Liaisons Dangereuses for her own library. However, the tale was too inappropriate to adorn a Queen’s bookshelf, as the Queen herself realised.
Many years after her execution, a copy of the novel was discovered among her possessions. It was bound it a blank cover so that no one could see the title or the name of the author! Some readers were so convinced by the book’s depiction of evil, they began to think Laclos himself must be some kind of villain.
3. Keanu Reeves and Malkovich used to get their nails done together in between filming
Keanu Reeves was in his early twenties when he secured a supporting role in Dangerous Liaisons. In a 2008 interview with Total Film, Reeves reflected that he was a “fish out of water” at the time. He also recalled the strange contrast of swashbuckling with John Malkovich and getting their aristocratic nails fixed the next.
“It was thrilling to be doing sword fights with John Malkovich all the time and you know, getting our nails done together,” he said. “I remember sitting in the trailer with him and chuckling, ‘John, we’re getting our nails done!’ ‘Yes, Keanu. We are!’” he noted. While the main cast was shooting scenes without Reeves, he used to sit and play chess with the hotel’s night watchman.
4. Glenn Close spent the first half of production on maternity leave
Glenn Close plays a pivotal role in Dangerous Liaisons, starring as manipulative aristocrat Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, and she plays it extremely well. The actress actually joined the cast midway through filming, as she had just given birth to her daughter. Close’s performance was widely praised by critics, and saw her get her first ever BAFTA nomination, though she did not win.
She was also nominated for an Oscar for the fifth time – her second time for Actress in a Leading Role – thanks to her outstanding performance. Hilary Mantel noted in The Spectator that Close dealt impressively with this challenging historical role. “Glenn Close copes very well with the precise, formal waspish lines,” Mantel noted. “This is a fastidious, distinguished and exciting performance.”
5. Madonna wore one of Glenn Close’s Dangerous Liaisons costumes to the 1990 MTV Music Awards
At the 1990 MTV Music Awards, Madonna wore one of the dresses worn by Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons during her performance of Vogue. This might seem an unusual choice of costume to accompany a song about Harlem ball culture and Hollywood. But Madonna decided her performance should channel the 1988 movie, and reportedly wanted to evoke Marie Antoinette.
She spotted similarities between vogueing and the airs and mannerisms of aristocrats in the movie. Madonna’s dance troupe was suitably dressed to match the singer in 18th-century-inspired costumes. The dancers were apparently nervous before the performance, as it involved throwing and catching fans and they had struggled with this in rehearsals. However, the show went off without a hitch.
6. The film was rushed to beat a rival Les Liaisons Dangereuses adaptation into theatres
Dangerous Liaisons ended up having its release date moved forward in order to pip its rival film, Valmont, to the box office. In the end, Valmont (its release date scheduled for the next year) had only a limited run in theatres. Valmont earned around $1.1 million at the box office – whereas Dangerous Liaisons earned around 30 times that amount in the US alone.
Valmont takes a more light-hearted and comical approach with its characters’ antics compared to its 1988 rival. Valmont’s male lead is Colin Firth, who unknowingly foreshadows his famous lake scene in Pride and Prejudice when his character feigns drowning in this movie. Annette Bening, Siân Phillips and Fairuza Balk take up the roles of Merteuil, Volanges and Gercourt respectively.
7. Michelle Pfeiffer was also offered the role of Madame de Tourvel in Valmont
Michelle Pfeiffer was offered a role in both Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons (both based on the same 18th-century text). Eventually, she chose to star in the latter, which certainly seems to have been the right decision. Pfeiffer secured an offer from the Dangerous Liaisons producers after being personally recommended by Jonathan Demme. At the time Demme was directing Pfeiffer in Married to the Mob, which was released in the same year as Dangerous Liaisons.
She plays Madame de Tourvel, who is brutally seduced by John Malkovich as the Vicomte de Valmont. Hal Hilson praised Pfeiffer’s performance in The Washington Post, writing, “Nothing is harder to play than virtue, and Pfeiffer is smart enough not to try. Instead, she embodies it.”
8. Alan Rickman originated the Vicomte de Valmont on stage
Alan Rickman had already made the part of the Vicomte de Valmont famous in London and on Broadway in Christopher Hampton’s stage production. However, he wasn’t even considered for a role in the film adaptation, having never been a movie actor. This was in spite of the fact that playwright Christopher Hampton’s talents were tapped for the screenplay.
Hampton’s play version garnered an Olivier Award and a Tony nomination in 1987, and his screenwriting did not disappoint. “One of the film’s enormous strengths is scriptwriter Christopher Hampton’s decision to go back to the novel, and save only the best from his play,” Time Out Magazine noted. Meanwhile, Hampton’s on-stage star Rickman made his feature film debut elsewhere that year…
9. Rickman’s stage performance convinced producers to cast him in Die Hard
In spite of being looked over for the Dangerous Liaisons film (as well as Valmont), Alan Rickman’s work in the stage version nevertheless had an impact. A producer for the upcoming action movie Die Hard thought Rickman had the gravitas for villain Hans Gruber. Offered this very different (but similarly villainous) role, Alan Rickman was at first unsure of himself – not surprising considered he’d never made a film before.
Rickman later admitted that he almost turned down the part because the genre and style of Die Hard felt wrong to him. But his decision to say paid off, as it launched an illustrious movie career spanning nearly three decades. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Hans Gruber as one of the greatest film villains in history.
10. John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer had an affair while making the film, ending in divorce for both of them
In the roles of Madame de Tourvel and Vicomte de Valmont, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer had plenty of chemistry onscreen. During production, the pair started a love affair despite Malkovich’s marriage to the actress Glenne Headly. Headly and Malkovich first met while working together in a Goodman Theatre production of Curse of the Starving Class.
While Malkovich was filming with Pfeiffer, Headly was starring in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – the film that would make her a household name. After hearing of the affair, Headly divorced Malkovich in the same year both films were released. 1988 was also the year that Michelle Pfeiffer divorced her husband, fellow actor Peter Horton.
11. There are no French or European actors in the cast
The original novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, was released in France in 1782 and written by Choderlos de Laclos. While the book is set in France and concerns French characters, in contrast, the movie version featured an all-American cast in the major roles in the story. Producers flew the cast out to northern France, choosing to film every single scene on location.
In the background, you can spot sites like the Château de Vincennes in Val-de-Marne and the Théâtre Montansier in Versailles. In total, the film used four different castles to build an authentic and historically accurate picture. It also happened to be the first-ever English-language movie adaptation of the famous French tale.
12. Annette Bening chose to play the Marquise de Merteuil in Valmont instead
The role of the Marquise de Merteuil was almost offered to Annette Bening, who then went on to star in the same role in the rival movie, Valmont, instead. In the battle for the best Marquise de Merteuil, however, it’s generally considered that Glenn Close came out on top. Bening started out in Shakespearean acting, first joining the Colorado Shakespeare Festival company in 1980.
In 1984, she starred as Lady Macbeth in a production at the American Conservatory Theater. She secured a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut, Coastal Disturbances, only two years before Valmont was released. Bening’s role in Valmont helped her win many famous roles from the 90s onwards, and she is now a four-time Academy Award nominee.
13. John Malkovich said young co-star Uma Thurman seemed “haunted”
Uma Thurman was only a teenager when she won critical acclaim for Dangerous Liaisons. In this difficult role, many critics felt she was perfectly cast, bringing out realistic teen angst and insecurities. Thurman was reportedly a self-conscious young person at the time, known to fret over her appearance and wear loose, baggy clothing.
Her co-star Malkovich, however, said that Thurman struck him as unusually focused for a teenager. “There is nothing twitchy teenager-ish about her, I haven’t met anyone like her at that age,” he said to People Magazine in 1989. “Her intelligence and poise stand out,” he added. “But there’s something else. She’s more than a little haunted.”
14. Swoosie Kurtz later starred in Cruel Intentions, another adaptation of Laclos’ novel
In Dangerous Liaisons, Swoosie Kurtz stars as Cecile’s concerned but ineffectual mother, Madame de Volanges. 11 years and 18 movies later, Kurtz joined the cast of Cruel Intentions, the 1999 remake of Laclos’ tale. Cruel Intentions is a teen romantic drama starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Reese Witherspoon.
It transports the original story to the lives of wealthy high school students in New York City. This time, Kurtz starred as Dr. Regina Greenbaum, a therapist and the mother of a teen girl whose nudes are leaked online. Cruel Intentions received mixed critical reviews, but it was a box office hit, spawning two direct-to-video sequels.
15. It was Mildred Natwick’s final film role
At the age of 83, veteran actress Mildred Natwick had her final movie performance in Dangerous Liaisons. In the film, she plays Madame de Rosemonde, Valmont’s aunt, who is one of the sweeter characters in the story. In Laclos’ novel, Madame de Rosemonde is described as having the spirit of a woman in her 20s despite her advanced age.
Natwick was a critically acclaimed actress, with a Primetime Emmy Award and nominations for one Academy Award and two Tony Awards to her name. Her best-known roles were in Barefoot in the Park and The House Without a Christmas Tree. Sadly, this legend of the stage and screen passed away in her Manhattan home in 1994, aged 89.
16. The film won an Oscar for its costumes
James Acheson won an Oscar for his intricate and historically accurate costume design in Dangerous Liaisons. Acheson hired a veritable army of shoemakers, tailors and milliners to create the most realistic outfits possible. Acheson beat out Coming to America, A Handful of Dust, Sunset and Tucker: The Man and His Dream to the win.
This was his second Oscar, with the designer having received his first for The Last Emperor only the previous year. The Last Emperor was a massive undertaking in the design department, preparing Acheson for anything in Dangerous Liaisons. This epic tale of China’s last emperor involved almost 10,000 costumes on a budget of around $2 million.
17. The film’s red-heeled shoes were true to the era
You may be surprised to learn that the red-heeled shoes seen at the start of Dangerous Liaisons are perfectly historically accurate. During his reign, King Louis XIV chose red-heeled shoes as a sign of status and royal favour. In fact, the king banned all non-aristocrats from donning the fashionable footwear – if you weren’t in his court, these shoes weren’t for you.
After the French Revolution, red-heeled shoes swiftly went out of fashion for this very reason. Napoleon Bonaparte once described himself as “Neither a red hat nor a red heel… I am national.” Now associated with designer Christian Louboutin, red-bottomed shoes were the subject of a trademark infringement lawsuit against rival Yves Saint Laurent in 2018.
18. John Malkovich went on to direct a French-language version of Hampton’s play for the stage
After starring in a number of hit films including Places in the Heart, Line of Fire and Dangerous Liaisons, John Malkovich turned to directing. He directed a French-language stage production of Good Canary in 2008, and then directed the same play in Spanish and English, eventually winning a Milton Schulman Award for his work.
A fluent French speaker, Malkovich was the perfect choice to direct a new French adaptation of the classic Liaisons tale in 2012. He used a translated script of Christopher Hampton’s play, which was originally written in English. The production was modern, with characters communicating via texts and social media in place of the original novel’s letters. It ran at the Théâtre de l’Atelier in Paris, and later had a limited run at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in NYC.
19. The movie stars one Oscar winner and five Oscar nominees
The producers of Dangerous Liaisons clearly had an eye for cinematic stars, as they managed to cast six actors who had been, or would go on to be, nominated for Oscars. Peter Capaldi went on to win an Oscar for the short film Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, while Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman would also receive nominations for their future films. John Malkovich, Mildred Natwick and Glenn Close, on the other hand, had already earned Oscar nominations when Dangerous Liaisons was released.
Despite her loss in the Oscars for Dangerous Liaisons, Close has noted she feels honoured by every nomination. “I remember being astounded that I met some people who were really kind of almost hyper-ventilating as to whether they were going to win or not, and I have never understood that,” she’s since noted. “[Consider] the amount of movies that are made every year, and then you’re one of five [nominees],” she said. “How could you possibly think of yourself as a loser?”
20. Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman both went on to play Batman villains
Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman have a lot more in common than just their performances in Dangerous Liaisons. The pair have the same birthday – April 29th – with Pfeiffer born in 1958 and Thurman born in 1970. Both actresses also both took up roles as Batman’s enemies in two different 90s movies.
Pfeiffer played Catwoman in Batman Returns, which came out four years after Dangerous Liaisons. Five years after that, Thurman transformed into Poison Ivy for Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. These movies are the second and fourth instalments of the Warner Bros DC Batman franchise respectively.