‘Indecent’ Debate Fuels Box Office : Movies: While feminists, columnists and the public argue the merits of ‘Indecent Proposal,’ the film’s grosses keep climbing.


What is it about “Indecent Proposal” that has hit a nerve?

It’s been another week of impressive box-office grosses, another rash of anti-"Indecent Proposal” vitriol and spirited defense--in the press, to the press, on radio talk shows and elsewhere.

There isn’t a day that goes by, it seems, when someone else doesn’t weigh in with their views on why the picture is (a) offensive to women, (b) implausible, (c) fodder for satire, (d) escapist fantasy or (e) only a movie, for heaven’s sake. To name a few: Art Buchwald, Betty Friedan, Camille Paglia . . . and Jesse Engdahl.

In the movie, the wife of a happy but broke couple (Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson) accepts an offer of $1 million from a charming billionaire (Robert Redford) for a one-night stand with her. Afterward, Harrelson’s jealousy causes the couple to split up, and Moore’s character then warms to her wealthy suitor.


When “Indecent Proposal” opened, there was an unexpected barrage of attacks. Many leading critics jumped on the movie’s premise. The Los Angeles Times called it “silly,” the New York Times “far-fetched” and Rolling Stone “shameless sexist propaganda.” The barbs so infuriated the movie’s screenwriter, Amy Holden Jones, she wrote a lengthy rebuttal to male critics printed as a Counterpunch article in The Times’ Calendar section on April 19 defending her work--and the debate has only escalated since.

One thing’s for sure, the dichotomy of opinion over the movie has only fueled its box office, which, to date, has exceeded $61 million.

“Don’t say women made this movie . . . shame on them,” said longtime feminist author Friedan referring to “Indecent Proposal” co-producer and Paramount Pictures President Sherry Lansing and screenwriter Jones during during a keynote address earlier this week at the cable-sponsored forum “Women and Power--New Images and Realities” held in Beverly Hills.

“I went to see ‘Indecent Proposal’ for research purposes (laughter) and it made me sick ,” she told the mostly female audience of 200 who attended the panel co-sponsored by Women in Cable and Women, Men and Media groups. “What does it say? Thirteen-year-old girls will see that movie and be told you don’t need to bother to do your homework or to get an MBA, all you need to do is diet enough to be anorexic, get some silicone and look for that lonely billionaire.”

During the same session, Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”) derided “Indecent Proposal” for its retro message to teen-age girls of women as chattel and said she was boycotting theaters showing the movie. “The thing that bothers me is that we are raising women to hate themselves and not value anything other than their sexual selves,” she said.

Nonsense, said feminist author Paglia, who has made a name for herself criticizing other feminists for not being strong enough to counter the sexism against them. “What is it about this picture that moviegoers are in sync with? (Is it) women’s sexuality in ways feminist rhetoric is unable to define?”

What accounts for the film’s popularity? Studies conducted by the New York-based consumer trend trackers BrainReserve identified a current trend the organization calls “pleasure revenge.” In the frugal, health-conscious, careful ‘90s, the movie provides an indulgence.

“People think of (the movie) as as sexy fantasy when it’s a fiscal fantasy,” said creative director Melinda Davis of the financially strapped situation faced by many Americans. The movie’s popularity is viewed on much simpler terms by Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at Cal State L.A. He believes contemporary movie audiences haven’t changed that dramatically since the frothy romantic Doris Day/Rock Hudson era.

“This (kind of) movie has always hit it with audiences. It was never out of favor. Hollywood just hasn’t made a lot of them recently,” he said. “But its theme is so embedded in the fabric of society: powerful male, jealous husband and the wife who sacrifices herself. You make a movie about it, people will react and go to it. It doesn’t mean we’re reverting to sexism or Christian fundamentalism or the ‘Father Knows Best’ mentality,” he said.

What is perhaps more surprising is that many more ordinary citizens have reacted to the picture.

”. . . Mass entertainment can not only be mindless, but dangerous,” said high school writing teacher Engdahl in his letter to The Times co-signed by friend Jim Hosney.

OK, but what was it about this film that got their blood going enough to seek a public forum for their thoughts, a reaction that dozens of others must have shared considering the dozens of letters the paper received on the subject? “The basic precept of treating a women as a commodity is basically offensive,” he said in a follow-up telephone interview. “When a movie this popular is about something socially taboo, people are going to have something to say about it.”

Another reader, USC English professor Tania Modleski, said the picture “insults” Hollywood and women.

“One can cite numerous films in Hollywood history that have featured women forced to make choices between a man and a career, between two men, etc . . . (films with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis),” she said. “. . . Even the most tawdry of female romances are more successful at conveying female pleasure and passion.”

Demographically speaking, USC junior Lisa Heimlich, 20, fits into the core audience for “Indecent Proposal"--young women on dates--and perhaps not surprisingly, she enjoyed the picture despite what many of her more critical moviegoing friends thought.

“I think it’s a good movie for couples to see. It helps them to re-evaluate their own lives and put things into perspective . . . and I’m an incurable romantic.”

Clearly, not everyone is preoccupied with the controversy, however.

MTV’s Lauren Corrao, vice president for series development who attended the conference where Friedan spoke, said she is “way too busy” to concern herself with the film’s purported themes.

“I’m not not seeing it because I’m making some political statement. Probably, it’s more that I understand enough of it by the billboard and I don’t need to see the rest.”