MOVIES : A flurry of...

Patrick Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar

In Adrian Lyne's new film, "Indecent Proposal," billionaire playboy Robert Redford comes to visit Demi Moore at her realty company. As he walks into her office, we catch a glimpse of Moore's secretary, a blond bimbo busily filing her nails and reading "Backlash," Susan Faludi's 1991 expose of the war against women's rights.

The shot is meant as a playful jab at Faludi. But after seeing Lyne's new film, in which Redford offers a happily married young couple $1 million for a one-night stand with the sultry wife, the outspoken author--and many of her female Hollywood peers--are in no laughing mood.

"To me, 'Indecent Proposal' is not so much a fantasy as a nightmare," Faludi says. "What the Robert Redford character is essentially doing is raping a woman with money.

"For men watching these films, it's a way of turning back the clock to the good old days when a woman only had one way to support herself--by selling her body."

What unsettles many women in the film industry is that several recent studio films have used variations on this love-for-sale plot gimmick, portraying women as voluptuous poker chips or contested territory in male sexual rivalries:

* Julia Roberts was the prize of "Pretty Woman," an adorable hooker who goes for $3,000 a weekend.

* In "Honeymoon in Vegas," Sarah Jessica Parker's fiance gives her to James Caan as pay-back for $65,000 in gambling losses.

* After Robert De Niro saves gangster Bill Murray's life in "Mad Dog and Glory," he is repaid with frisky Uma Thurman--"a singing telegram for a week."

* Now we have "Indecent Proposal," which stars Moore and Woody Harrelson as the young couple whose marriage is threatened when Redford develops a seven-figure infatuation with Moore.

It's the latest high-concept twist: Woman as Door Prize. In Hollywood, it may be the Year of the Woman, but this year every woman has her price.

"It's a very disturbing trend," says Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley. "In 'Roots,' if a man is sold, it's called slavery. But in Hollywood, if a woman is sold, it's called romance."

Call it romance or slavery, but it's a potent fantasy, especially at the box office. "Indecent Proposal" grossed more than $24 million in its first five days, the biggest box office opening this year.

With Robert Redford on hand, oozing debonair charm, the film seems to strike an especially responsive chord with women.

"If you want to know why this movie appeals to women, the key to the equation is Robert Redford," says Polly Platt, executive producer of "Broadcast News."

"For women, sex is very much about being desired. And this film gives you the ultimate vicarious thrill--you get to have sex with Robert Redford.

"One of my daughters was saying, 'Hey, if it was Dan Aykroyd or Peter Boyle offering you $1 million, now that would be a dilemma.' It's a lot simpler with Redford--he makes it an appealing fantasy."

Platt says women respond to Redford in much the same way that young girls reacted to Patrick Swayze in "Dirty Dancing."

"They're all wondering, 'Why can't I find any guys like that?' " she says.

"When women go to 'Proposal,' they know exactly what to expect. It will be romantic, sexually stimulating, and Robert Redford will be pursuing a woman who we believe could be ourselves."

It was just a decade ago when independent women roamed the big screen, taking on a wide range of roles, stretching from "Norma Rae" and "Silkwood" to "Julia" and "Atlantic City" and "Terms of Endearment."

This new woman-as-barter genre takes a major step backward, offering audiences a throwback to two popular Hollywood formulas from the '40s and '50s: the swept-off-her-feet Harlequin Romance and the woman-in-prison film.

"In terms of commercial concepts, women-in-prison movies are easily the most successful film genre," says "Edward Scissorhands" producer Denise Di Novi. "Go to the American Film Market and you'll see 50 of them being sold every year.

"I think men find women especially sexy when they are in a submissive, controlled situation. Ever since women's reproductive rights have been put in jeopardy, there's been a reawakening of feminist energy. And that reawakening has provoked a certain level of fear and trepidation from men."

Once aroused, fear gives men the desire to reassert control.

"These women-for-sale movies don't give women any sense that they can do anything about their life," says Allison Anders, director of "Gas Food Lodging."

"One guy has you. Then another guy buys you. They do their little dance over you. But you don't decide. They decide. It's always the guy who makes the proposal to the other guy.

"In 'Honeymoon in Vegas,' after Nicolas Cage tells his fiancee that he's given her away to pay for his gambling debts, she gets into a tizzy as if she were a 6-year-old. I couldn't believe it," Anders said. "I was going, 'Jesus Christ, he just sold you! This is serious. . . .' "

"Indecent Proposal's" provocative million-dollar plot twist seems to unleash similar bursts of high emotion among audiences.

"At the theater where I saw the picture, when Robert Redford asked if he could have Demi Moore for one night, the whole audience gasped," says Imagine Entertainment executive Tova Laiter. "It's a lot like 'Fatal Attraction.' There's something very titillating about that premise."

Call these films fantasy morality plays. "You think that sleeping with a man for one night for a million dollars won't matter, but it does," Laiter says. "You think that cheating on your wife one night with another woman won't matter, but it does.

"The audience is totally fascinated by the price you pay for a fantasy to actually happen."

Still, many women in the industry believe these films are considered hot properties because Hollywood is ruled by exactly the sort of executives who find the women-as-barter premise most appealing: men.

"I think it has a lot to do with the fantasies of the older men who run the studios in Hollywood," says New Line Cinema production chief Sara Risher. "These films are the cinematic equivalent of those Harlequin novels where the woman is possessed and under the spell of the man.

"Hollywood makes these movies acceptable by glamorizing the arrangement. You don't see anyone casting Danny DeVito in these movies. It's always Robert Redford or Richard Gere."

Tamra Davis, director of this year's "Guncrazy," with Drew Barrymore and James LeGros, has seen how unnerved studio executives get with scripts in which women use their sexual powers to punish men. Her upcoming film, "Bad Girls," a women's Western populated with liberated frontier hookers, has a scene in which one of her heroines takes revenge against a bad guy by pretending to seduce him.

Instead of performing oral sex, the character bites him, Davis explains. "Now every actress who read for the part thought that was the best thing in the script--they couldn't wait to do it.

"But the men at the studio were terrified. They totally freaked out. I've got six guys sitting around, saying, 'You've got to change that scene!' "

Producer Dawn Steel, who has been involved with such women's films as "Flashdance" and "Sister Act," doesn't find "Indecent Proposal's" central plot twist preposterous at all.

As a single woman, she had a similar experience.

"In the '70s, I was offered a million-dollar (proposition)," she says. "I was stuck at O'Hare Airport in the middle of a blizzard and this schleppy guy kept following me around, offering me a ride into the city. I couldn't find a cab anywhere, so finally I got so desperate I took him up on it."

The man had a white Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur, who drove them into the city and deposited them at a fancy hotel.

"He told them to take care of me and suddenly I got a bigger room and all the amenities," Steel recalls. "We had dinner once. Then he followed me back to New York, took me to dinner again and finally he made his offer--$1 million to sleep with him. He offered me jewels, my own place, anything I wanted."

Steel says she politely declined. "I have to be honest--he was too greasy. I couldn't even kiss him. But when I read that Robert Redford was playing that character in 'Indecent Proposal,' I had to laugh. If it had been Robert Redford who'd made me the offer, I'd have done it for nothing!"

Despite such a testimonial, "Indecent Proposal's" premise has been pilloried by the critics. The New York Times called it "far-fetched." The Los Angeles Times called it "thoroughly implausible." Variety dubbed its ending "Hollywood hokum," saying it "sports an idiotic conclusion that looks like Test Marketing Ending No. 6."

Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers was especially harsh, calling the film "shameless sexist propaganda." He says it sends a simple message: "You never know with these bitches." (Desperate for a positive quote, Paramount Pictures inserted a Travers blurb in its ads--"another date-night hit"--editing out the rest of the sentence, which said: "in the trash-tradition of 'Fatal Attraction.' ")

Paramount studio's president, Sherry Lansing, co-producer of the film, declined to be interviewed for this story. But "Proposal" screenwriter Amy Holden Jones talked freely, defending her script, saying Demi Moore's character represents "the ultimate" female fantasy.

"This isn't like 'Mad Dog and Glory' where you have this waif-like girl who mopes around and has five lines in the whole film," says Jones, who co-wrote "Mystic Pizza" and directed "Love Letters" and "Slumber Party Massacre."

"She's more in control than any character in the movie. She drives the movie--she's in practically every scene. And when it comes to the proposal, she makes the choice, not her husband. It's her decision every step of the way."

Jones compares "Proposal" to a Billy Wilder movie, but with a woman in the lead role. "Is 'Sunset Boulevard' insulting to men because William Holden takes money from Gloria Swanson in return for sleeping with her? He's the center of the movie, which is about him and his compromises. And that's exactly what my film is about."

For anyone familiar with the tidy conventions of mainstream Hollywood films, the conclusion of "Indecent Proposal" is hardly surprising. The ending, derided by critics, has Redford deciding to give Moore up--and in a particularly insulting way, suggesting that she is simply the latest in a long string of million-dollar one-night stands.

In Jones' original script, Moore leaves on her own accord. "In my version, she blew him off," Jones recounts. "I had her say: 'You can't give me what I really want. I want my husband.' "

Jones acknowledges that the change was made to satisfy male star vanity.

"Warren Beatty was approached about doing the film, but he wouldn't do it because he didn't get the girl, which says plenty about male stars in Hollywood. And while I think Redford did a great job, he didn't want to be blown off either, so the ending was rewritten."

To author Susan Faludi, this simply points out who really wields power in movie land. "To me, these movies aren't films about women. They're really about contemporary men and their biggest fears--that they won't be able to attract a woman, and even if they do, they won't be able to hold onto her."

In Hollywood, a film is sold on the strength of its casting.

"Without 'Indecent Proposal's' immense star power, its premise would be bald," says "Sleepless in Seattle" producer Lynda Obst. "If you put three other actors in it, people would be embarrassed by what the story stands for."

So it's intriguing to note that most woman-as-barter films feature actors with a specific look: The actress is gangly and wafer-thin; the actor playing her suitor is courtly, graying at the temples, with a hint of melancholy in his eyes.

It's an age-old match: Cinderella and Sir Galahad. In "Mad Dog and Glory," taken by Robert De Niro's good manners, Uma Thurman coos: "You talk like somebody out of the Round Table days."

Faludi sees a message in these casting choices. "The strong element of chivalry in these films draws a parallel to the late Victorian period, whose culture was awash in gallant, chivalric Ivanhoe-type male figures. Like today, that was a period of great anxiety about men's declining economic power and social status."

Although Moore takes initiative in accepting Redford's proposal, most women in these films are portrayed as submissive waifs, with a geisha-like eagerness to please.

"The women are confined to this narrow, cloistered world," argues film critic Kempley. "In 'Indecent Proposal,' when Demi Moore wants a puppy, Robert Redford buys it for her. In 'Pretty Woman,' Julia Roberts begins the film very independent. But once she gets together with Richard Gere, whatever there was of her world vanishes.

"She's always in a confined place--usually the bathtub!"

In many ways, the films are throwbacks to the earliest images of women--as chattel. Faludi cites anthropologists who have identified the exchange of women as one of the first forms of trade.

"The conquest of other men's women is what gave men power over other men," she says. "Women in these films are sort of like Bosnia--they're contested territory between two men."

Still, other women say it's unfair to single out these movies when so many Hollywood films send mixed messages about female roles in society.

"Compare Demi Moore in this film to the character she portrays in 'A Few Good Men,' " says Amy Holden Jones. "In that movie, she makes every mistake in the book so Tom Cruise can look like a genius. If you want to complain about a demeaning role, why don't you start with that?"

ICM agent Elaine Goldsmith thinks critics should take a broader view.

"Why not put the microscope to male action movies and slasher pictures?" she says. "They're full of demeaning images toward women. It seems sexist that a story like this would put the focus on the messages women are sending and ignore the messages men continue to send in their films."

Goldsmith, whose client Julia Roberts will earn roughly $8 million with a hefty back-end percentage in her next film, "The Pelican Brief," prefers to focus on Hollywood's economic disparity.

"What's really revealing is that you have very talented, high-profile actresses in a key role in all these films," she says. "And I can guarantee you that in each case, none of those women got paid anywhere as much as their male counterparts."

So what is the message these films send to young moviegoers around the world?

"The people who went back to see 'Pretty Woman' four or five times were 13- and 14-year-old girls," says Joan Scott, president of the Writers & Artists talent agency. "And the message they got was--what's so terrible about prostitution? It even looked glamorous.

"Now we have 'Indecent Proposal,' which seems to be saying: 'What's so terrible about selling yourself for $1 million?' "

Today we have a youth culture in which no heavy-metal video is complete without a scantily clad bimbo, the popular rap slang for sexually active women is 'hos and a Lakewood High School stud posse has been on virtually every tabloid TV show in the country, boasting of sexual conquests.

How much are they influenced by the films they see?

"We manufacture a culture in the movie business, and whatever we put out creates a dark side and a bright side too," says Dawn Steel. "But this devaluation of women we're seeing isn't solely caused by the movies and music we make. It's also prompted by the way mothers bring up their kids and by the way teachers recognize boys first in their classes. Everything has an influence."

Allison Anders, who has just directed "La Vida Loca," a film about female Chicano gang members, says these films are popular because they create such an attractive fantasy.

"Let's face it, no matter how independent you are, you still have this nagging need to be desired," she says. "And these films play right into that because they all show this arm-wrestling match between two dudes over you.

"Maybe women sometimes wish that a man would come along and buy them. But you know what these movies never show--the price you have to pay for being bought."

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