In the 1990s, Demi Moore became highest-paid female movie star in the world playing aggressive, strong-willed women who trade on their sexuality to get ahead. She lucratively played a stripper in 1996’s Striptease, a voracious sexual harasser in previous Forgotbusters entry Disclosure, and most notably for the purposes of this article, Diana Murphy, a real-estate agent turned prostitute-for-a-night in the Adrian Lyne-directed Indecent Proposal. Released in 1993, Indecent Proposal was an instant pop-cultural conversation piece, becoming the sixth highest-grossing film of the year on the strength of a Cinemax-ready title, with a Cinemax-ready premise to match: A cash-strapped couple accepts a lascivious billionaire’s offer to pay them $1 million for a single night of erotic bliss with the wife, then must deal with the consequences.
It was a killer hook. As the jacket of the Jack Engelhard novel that inspired the film asked, “What would you do for a million dollars?” In the novel, that question involves an Arab billionaire named Ibrahim Hassan, who offers Joshua Cantor, a Jewish corporate speechwriter and the son of Holocaust survivors, $1 million to have sex with Cantor’s well-bred, cash-strapped wife. In a bid to make this provocative premise palatable for a mainstream audience, the Amy Holden Jones-scripted film abandons the religious and ethnic angles: If David Murphy (Woody Harrelson) keeps a kosher kitchen, the film doesn’t acknowledge it. In the Hollywood version of Indecent Proposal, the male lead isn’t even a corporate speechwriter anymore; that would be entirely too mercenary for a guy we’re supposed to root for. In the film David’s an architect, and not just any old architect: We’re told over and over again that he’s a brilliant artist, a poet of the form. The billionaire is no longer an Arab, either, but rather the most seductive American figure imaginable, an icon of worldliness and suave sophistication: billionaire John Gage, played by Robert Redford. Gage is impossibly perfect, but also blessed and cursed to inhabit a world where perfection is ubiquitous to the point where it stops being special.
Take the perfect love shared by David and his perfect wife, Diana (Moore). Before Gage slithers his way into their Garden Of Eden, clutching an apple in the form of a check for $1 million he hopes will split them apart, David and Diana divide their time between saying how much they love each other and making sweet, passionate love to the sultry sounds of Sade and Seal. (“Have I ever told you that I love you?” is their line, the gag being that they tell each other often enough to make audiences turn against not only them and their perfect love, but the concept of love all together.) And rest assured, these two perfect lovers do not engage in anything as sleazy and base as fucking. These two make love, with such sweetness and passion that even God himself might be moved to give the couple an ovation after each session. It does not work in the film’s favor that the leads have a love so cloying and excessive that it makes it easy to root for its destruction by any means necessary, whether it takes the form of a charming billionaire or a lunatic with an electric chainsaw.
Of course, things weren’t always totally perfect in the Murphy household. As Diana concedes in the 10-minute-plus marathon of cliché-spewing narration and clumsy exposition that opens the film, “We had our differences. He used to take his clothes off and leave them on the floor. It made me crazy!” This painful disclosure is accompanied by images of Diana storming about the house in a mock-fury as she picks up shoes and clothes before revealing that she wasn’t angry after all, and these two perfect lovers’ non-existent disagreement about him sometimes leaving laundry outside the hamper melts into sweet, sweet love-making.
Diana’s perfect, selfless love for David is rooted partially in her deep reverence for David’s perfect, selfless love for architecture. She goes on to explain, “We never had much money, so for entertainment David would show me architecture that moved him. Sometimes I’d have to ask, ‘Why are we looking at a stupid car wash?’ and he’d just say, ‘No, not stupid. Don’t just use your eyes.’” (At that point in the film, I started wishing David had the same profession he did in the book, so Diana’s monologue would go something like, “We never had much money, so for entertainment David would show me corporate speeches that moved him. Sometimes I’d have to ask, ‘Why are you reciting a stupid speech about third-quarter earning projections at Hewlett-Packard?’ and he’d just say, ‘No, not stupid. Don’t just use your eyes.’”)
Indecent Proposal begins near the end, with David and Diana in a state of separation. Apart, these perfect lovers stare contemplatively into the distance as they ponder the steps that led to this uncertain place. The clichés begin almost immediately: Diana’s first lines are, “Someone once said, if you want something very badly set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever. If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with. I knew one thing: I was David’s to begin with.” We then shift from the uncertain present to the past, with the aforementioned marathon recounting of how the couple met in high school, got engaged as teenagers, and pursued their shared goal of David being able to live out his architectural dreams, even after he got laid off and Diana went through a six-month stretch of not selling any houses due to a steep downturn in the market. This economic slide threatens the couple’s plans to build David’s ultimate dream house on a lovely piece of land in Santa Monica.
With everything on the line, the couple makes a crazy gamble and travels to Las Vegas in hopes of winning enough money to get them through their current cash-flow crisis. There, Diana attracts the attention of Gage when he notices her helping herself to complimentary chocolates at an upscale boutique. Gage shoots Diana a look that unmistakably says, “I would pay $1 million to have sex with you,” but he has to be more subtle with his words, so instead he offers to buy a sexy dress she tried on but could not afford. From the beginning, the dialogue between Diana and Gage focuses on his desire to buy her body and her stern insistence that it’s not on the market— or, as Diana herself indignantly spits out, “The dress is for sale. I’m not.”
Gage is not so convinced. He keeps seeing Diana around Vegas and shooting her lascivious grins even when she’s with David. Indecent Proposal is shameless enough in its foreshadowing that Gage’s first line to David is actually, “Excuse me. Would you mind lending me your wife?” He’s talking specifically about wanting Diana to kiss the dice for good luck, but it doesn’t take a dirty mind to figure out what Gage would really like Diana to kiss. Because while Gage might have everything, he does not, and cannot, have the perfect love Diana and David share. But after treating the couple to dinner, he makes what can only be deemed a provocative proposition. Diana, no doubt noticing the “I will pay $1 million for sex with you” look she’s been getting all night long, insists that people and their emotions can’t be bought, but Gage insists they can, and to test his thesis, proposes paying $1 million for a night of sex with Diana. At first David and Diana are a little offended, but then decide that their perfect love can survive anything, even a night of paid sexual bliss with a dashing billionaire. So they acquiesce, and Gage whisks Diana away on a helicopter en route to his private yacht.
Indecent Proposal goes overboard trying to make a tawdry plot tediously respectable, but only succeeds in making it tedious. The film goes to great lengths to illustrate that, while sleazy and disreputable, what Gage is doing is perfectly above-board. This is Nevada, after all, where prostitution is legal; David and Diana have their lawyer go over the contracts and everything. We don’t even see Diana have sex with this charming older billionaire; it’s merely implied, as the film skips from Diana being fiery and defiant, and then yielding, to her coming home to David. But all is not well. The transaction transforms David from Mr. Perfect to Mr. Jealousy. He becomes cold and accusatory, and his moods push his wife into Gage’s waiting arms, even after she discovers he’s scooped in and purchased the property David was planning to use for their dream house.
In Indecent Proposal, David and Diana’s love boils down to soft-focus love-making and continuous declarations of love. It’s a grade-school conception of romance, as is Gage’s seduction strategy, which involves popping up unexpectedly where Diana is teaching English as a second language, complimenting her with an Eddie Haskell-like effusiveness, buying her lots of stuff, and taking her to rich-people parties. Ultimately, however, even Gage must respect the perfection of Diana and David’s love. He loves Diana so he lets her go by pretending that she’s just one of a slew of “million-dollar girls” he’s loved and left, rather than the love of his life. She returns to David at the end of the film, and their perfect love is perfectly restored.
Indecent Proposal isn’t entirely lifeless, but its intermittent sparks of energy come not from its main cast but from character actors around the periphery, most notably Oliver Platt as the couple’s lawyer, the only character in the film with a sense of humor, Seymour Cassel as Gage’s enigmatic right-hand man, and a pre-stardom Billy Bob Thornton, who shows up out of nowhere at the casino to talk to David about Gage’s reputation as a womanizer. Platt, Cassell, and Thornton lend personality, specificity, and verisimilitude to a film otherwise devoid of those qualities, a movie so painfully generic that its leads might as well be named The Husband, The Wife, and The Handsome Billionaire. They’re abstractions, whereas guys like Cassel, Platt, and Thornton bring decades of lived-in experience to their roles. No matter how dumb the project—and Indecent Proposal is plenty dumb—we believe them. Harrelson is a character actor of similar caliber, but he’s wasted here in leading role that plays against his enormous gifts.
Perversely, Indecent Proposal suffers from a distinct lack of stakes. The second Diana has sex with Gage, the million dollars that just moments ago was going to change her and her husband’s lives ceases to matter. Diana doesn’t want it. David doesn’t want it. It’s tainted by Gage’s involvement, and the couple clearly would rather forget about the night in question than have a million dollars. Money ultimately doesn’t matter in the sleazy fairy-tale world of Indecent Proposal, only love, and when money threatens to soil that love, then it must be openly rejected.
Indecent Proposal feels like a movie where everyone involved was on powerful tranquilizers that caused them to do everything at half speed, while John Barry’s hypnotic, dull score dares audiences to stay awake as the film moves with molasses-like momentum. It mistakes drowsy for languid and dull for restrained. It’s as if they decided to shoot a 60-page script under the understanding that if everyone moved and talked slow enough, and there were enough shots of David and Diana staring moodily off into the distance, then they could stretch half a script to feature-length.
Lyne has a reputation as a sensualist thanks to his lurid work on sex-saturated films like Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, and Lolita. Here, he presents sex as something simulated by models in magazines and perfume commercials, not something sweaty, passionate, and real. Lyne aestheticizes the act of love-making to the point where it no longer feels human. It’s creative death by tastefulness. Indecent Proposal is a sexy film that isn’t sexy, and a classy film with no class. This glossy nothing of a movie about a perfect couple whose perfect love is tested by a perfect stranger of a billionaire is perfectly boring. That helps explain why one of the top-grossing films of 1993, a huge cultural event at the time of its release, has been all but forgotten except for its ingenious hook—which it goes out of its way to render inoffensive to the point of offensiveness.
Next: Failure To Launch