“Indecent Proposal” is doing record-breaking business. Critics like Kenneth Turan will tell you it’s because of a commercial concept and a great ad campaign (“A Laughably Implausible ‘Proposal,’ ” Calendar, April 7).
The fact is, audiences love the movie. They watch with rapt attention and laugh in all the right places. Sitting in the dark, they are swept away by a great big Hollywood entertainment. They are moved as we intended them to be, and when they leave the theater they are satisfied.
By definition, paintings are flat, sculpture is three-dimensional and Hollywood movies are mass entertainment. This is something that critics consistently fail to understand. If a film appeals only to a narrow elite, gets great reviews but does not attract an audience, by Hollywood’s definition the film has failed. That’s reality.
The director will have a hard time getting another movie. So will the writer. Independent films have less money at stake and can aim for a more specialized or limited audience. Directors who delight us with their small, independent films often fail miserably when they make a big Hollywood movie.
Adrian Lyne, who directed “Indecent Proposal,” is a grand master of the Hollywood movie. His “Flashdance” was a spectacular, eye-popping fantasy about a woman welder who dreamed of being a dancer. Audiences loved it. Critics did not. They found it “unrealistic.” A realistic look at women welders belongs on PBS, not in a theater or drive-in near you.
“Fatal Attraction” was a classic horror film that played on powerful subconscious fears. It took us on a terrifying journey, then provided cathartic release through the destruction of the monster. Critics attacked Lyne for not redeeming the Glenn Close character. They felt this would have made “Fatal Attraction” a more sophisticated movie. It would have made it a failure. Redeeming the monster in a horror film violates the rules of the genre. And nothing irritates an audience more than violating the rules of a genre. No one ever suggested redeeming “Freddy.” It’s a bad idea. Period.
Critics also attack films for being something they’re not. My last picture, “Beethoven,” received mixed reviews from the L.A. Times, among many others. The film was criticized as if the goal had been to make a deep, intellectual drama. “Beethoven” is a children’s movie. You don’t get off a ride at Magic Mountain and say, “Gee, I wish it were a Pinter play. I’m disappointed.” The issue should be whether a film works within its genre. For what it was, “Beethoven” worked like gangbusters and so does “Proposal.”
The final and most crucial reason why “Indecent Proposal” was savaged by critics is that most critics are men. I remember the reviews of “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Steel Magnolias” and “Ghost.” They were terrible. Movies that appeal to women are often considered inherently uninteresting, second-rate or laughable. Macho movies that act out male fantasies like “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard” aren’t ridiculous to male critics. They are clever, thrilling. Female fantasies are juvenile.
That’s not the way women see it. Two of “Indecent Proposal’s” most insightful and enthusiastic reviews were written by Georgia Brown of the Village Voice and Caryn James of the New York Times. Kenneth Turan found “Indecent Proposal” to be “silly.” Caryn James felt it was “adult and intriguing . . . surprisingly honest and entertaining.” Georgia Brown saw it as “a quintessential movie-movie . . . stunningly skillful and thrillingly romantic.”
“Indecent Proposal” is both a female fantasy and a powerful metaphor. The encounter that the David and Diana characters have with the billionaire is a metaphor for the ways in which married people betray each other. Demi Moore’s character sleeps with Robert Redford not for the money, but because she wants to. As Georgia Brown put it, “It is Redford, not Moore that is the real object of desire.” Moore’s character is attracted to a man who is not her husband. She wants to sleep with him, and though she tells herself it’s for her husband, it’s really not. It’s her decision. The fantasy element is obvious, but the film is also about consequences. Demi’s character makes a morally ambiguous decision that affects her marriage and her happiness. She’s not a role model. She’s a complicated human being, which is ultimately far more interesting.
Some male critics would like to dismiss “Indecent Proposal” as sexist. The only thing that is sexist is the critics themselves. They are clearly made uncomfortable by a film in which a woman holds tremendous power over not one but two men, one of whom is her husband. Powerful women who do what they like with their bodies make men like Turan uncomfortable. Men are very emotional about sex. Women are practical. Which is one of the things Turan missed, but audiences understand, about “Indecent Proposal.”