- YEAR: 1993
- DIRECTOR: Adrian Lyne
- KEY ACTORS: Demi Moore, Robert Redford, Woody Harrelson
- CERTIFICATE: 15
- IMDB SCORE: 6.0
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 35%
SEX SCORE: 2/5
❌ This fails the Bechdel Test – I believe that Diana is the only named female character, which isn’t really good enough…
❌ And I don’t think it is rewatchable. It simply wasn’t good enough and my fantasies of the premise are better than the film!
✔️ Despite their flaws, I do want to fuck the cast…except Woody Harrelson…
✔️ And it did inspire fantasies. Of being bought and being sold and CONSENSUALLY treated as an object!
❌ Finally, it isn’t sex positive. There was too much ambiguous consent and odd sexual dynamics to get a mark for positivity!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Netflix, NowTV, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £5.99), YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: coercion, financial abuse, domestic abuse, jealousy, ambiguous consent]
Indecent Proposal is a film that I knew about long before I saw it. Released in 1993 when I was eight, it permeated popular culture to such an extent that I thought I knew it even though I had never seen it. (And I will push back against the idea that being aware of it makes me too old to be a millennial. It was a big deal at the time!!) I was really interested in eventually watching it because, for me at least, the main question posed by Indecent Proposal is a very easy one – and a fucking sexy one. Would you let a stranger sleep with your wife for $1 million?
Of course! Who wouldn’t?!
But that rapid answer may say more about me than about the movie. Obviously, there is a lot more to it than that…
Indecent Proposal tells the story of Diana (Moore) and David (Harrelson), a young couple who married straight out of high school, had a sickly sweet romance and love but are now having financial difficulties, thanks to the recession in the early 1990s. They need $50,000 or else they lose both their house and the plot of land where they’re building their dream home so, of course, they go to Las Vegas to try and win their fortune. Inevitably, this all goes wrong and they are left with nothing, but Diana is spotted by billionaire John Gage (Redford) who offers David $1 million to spend the night with Diana. David agrees, she goes, he regrets it and their marriage crumbles. While they are apart, Diana spends a lot more time with Gage but eventually leaves as she is still in love with David because, in the end, love conquers all!
And I’m afraid to say I almost wish I hadn’t ever seen Indecent Proposal because it turns out that the idea of it is much hotter and more exciting than the film turned out to be in reality. I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised – the movie was panned by most critics and won three of its seven Golden Raspberry nominations! It is mainly remembered because it made a crazy amount of money and became an ‘instant pop-cultural conversation piece.’ But, sadly, Indecent Proposal has not aged well and is absolutely packed full of red flags – especially from David and Gage, but more generally for financial abuse, coercion and poor consent, and for the impact of the fucking Patriarchy!
I think that this may be one of very few movies where I suspect that the reality would genuinely be hotter than the film. Because, as a polyamorous woman who tends towards submission, the idea of being bought is fucking hot. Having permission to have sex with someone who isn’t my husband has a frisson if its own, but the idea of my husband negotiating on what can be done with my body, frankly and dispassionately discussing my value with someone willing to buy it is scaldingly hot.
But there are key differences between this fantasy and the movie reality, and they change the idea from hot to incredibly problematic. In my fantasy, EA and I would have already discussed our boundaries and I could be confident that his negotiations wouldn’t break them. I would also want to know that he was as into the idea as I was before we started. Otherwise it wouldn’t be as much fun! And I don’t get the feeling that Diana and David had those kinds of assurances with each other.
Perhaps I should have endeavoured to watch Indecent Proposal in the 90s when it was still thought to be romantic because, as happens too often when I review these movies, my 2021 perspective and post-#MeToo/fourth wave feminism has kind of ruined it.
OK, where to start?
I think I have to start with the men and how awful they are. All of them. Oliver Platt’s lawyer, Jeremy, is the most transparently awful so he gets a relative pass but he is terrible. He is mercenary and flippant and fabulous, and the best part of the movie, but he isn’t exactly a good person.
And the others? I couldn’t decide which out of David and Gage was supposed to be the villain and which was the hero. Are we supposed to sympathise with David, torn apart by jealousy because he changed his mind at the last minute? In which case, why was he written with so many flaws? Violence, jealousy, manipulation, lack of empathy… He’s just not a sympathetic character.
As a side note, I found the casual domestic violence – from both Diana and David – quite shocking, and it is certainly a sign of progress that I don’t think it would have been shown in the same way today. Diana chasing David, verbally abusing him and slapping him because he left dirty clothes on the floor is not a sign of passion, even if they do then have sex on the kitchen floor; David throwing an entire bottle of wine at the wall next to Diana is not an appropriate way to express anger. Theirs didn’t seem like a healthy relationship to me and I didn’t want him and Diana to reconcile. He didn’t deserve her or value her as he should, selling her to solve financial problems and then blaming her when he was unable to control his jealousy. I really didn’t like him!
So was I supposed to like Gage better? He seemed like the obvious baddie – a billionaire misogynist with a gambling habit (and bad casino etiquette as he doesn’t tip the croupier or Diana when she helped him win an actual million!) and then treats women like objects when offering to buy them – but the short-lived ‘real’ romance between him and Diana confused this somewhat. Emotive stories of his past, lost loves and grand gestures – I think they were supposed to make him seem like a romantic hero! Nathan Rabin for The Dissolve described it as ‘grade-school conception of romance’ with Gage ‘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.’
But, again, time has not been kind to these actions as, like so many romcom tropes, they now look stalker-esque and creepy. Andrew Lincoln’s cards at the door in Love Actually; Valmont manipulating Annette to persuade her to sleep with him in Cruel Intentions; the whole plot of 10 Things I Hate About You. The list is endless. And I will now be adding Gage to this list – taking her onto a boat for their purchased night so she can’t leave if she changes her mind; lying about where he lives when she is taking him to look at expensive houses to trick her into visiting his home; buying her expensive dresses that she has told him she didn’t want so she is in his debt. Grand romantic gestures or terrifyingly manipulative actions?
Julie Beck wrote a really interesting article for the Atlantic, about both how pervasive and how dangerous these stalker tropes are: ‘Reasonable people know that rom-coms aren’t what love is really like, just as reasonable people know that porn is not what sex is really like. But these movies still create an image of romance that leaks into the atmosphere and may subtly shape people’s perceptions and expectations of love.’ It’s worth noting that, of course, women come out much worse in these pursuit romances. The nice guy who is trying so hard deserves to get the girl; the bitch is crazy. Cool, cool, cool…
But pertinently for Indecent Proposal, ‘this brand of “no-just-means-try-harder” romantic pursuit is portrayed differently depending on whether we, the audience, are supposed to understand that these characters are meant to be together.’ Bad people are stalkers; nice guys should be rewarded. And I don’t believe that Gage is shown to be that bad a guy. In fact, when he finally spins Diana that lie about the Million Dollar Club of other girls so she is released from his debt and feels able to leave (honestly, my eyes are rolling so hard! LET HER MAKE HER OWN INFORMED CHOICES!!), I think we’re supposed to feel sorry for him. To think that he’s finally doing the right thing and should be forgiven. Even to think that he is the victim, the loser, because he lets Diana go when he really loves her. We’re not supposed to think of him as a creep.
Robert Redford has been described as a ‘genius piece of casting’ because his elegance and Hollywood charm elevate his acts from sleaze to something more respectable. And it’s true that the chance of sleeping with someone is beautiful as Redford will definitely play into the decision to accept his money. He’s a ‘splendid salesman,’ he’s a ‘one of the screen’s great flirts’, but I fear that this glamour and elegance prevents us from really seeing his character properly! Many of the reviews noted how Indecent Proposal goes out of its way to make a ‘tawdry plot tediously respectable,’ surrounding ‘its essentially crass subject matter with a camouflage of romantic scenery.’ And Redford’s good looks and boyish charm play a huge part in achieving that sense of romance. If Gage had been someone else, almost anyone else, I wonder if his offer would have felt more unseemly?
In a way, that goes back to my original response to his question. Personally, I would sleep with almost anyone for $1 million – it’s a genuinely life changing amount of money and sex can be just sex – but there are limits. I doubt many people would sleep with Donald Trump for $1 million, for example, and that’s because the thought is repulsive rather than romantic.
But, again, the answer is also affected by quite how much you need the money. Is this the fulfilment of a sexual fantasy or a business transaction? Which brings me to my other big problem with Indecent Proposal.
When I first heard about the movie, and imagined it and fantasised about it, I didn’t know that Gage offered David and Diana that famous $1 million just after they had lost all of their money. I didn’t know that they were at risk of losing their home and desperately needed money. Going to Las Vegas was a really stupid idea of David’s and not knowing when to stop was worse. Not only had they not solved their money problems, they had won $25,000, fucked and danced in piles and piles of cash as if all their troubles were over, and then watched that same money wash away as luck turned against them. I cannot imagine how that must feel, how desperate and desolate they must have been. Under these circumstances, Gage didn’t ask a casual question to a curious couple – this was an offer that they couldn’t afford to turn down.
Can anyone give informed consent like this? It’s similar to how I don’t believe anyone can consent to sleep with the President – the power balance is all wrong! Gage had all the power, and Diana and David had none. Needing the money changed the balance completely and I think it was a mistake to frame Gage’s offer like that. This may be my sex nerd speaking but Indecent Proposal could have been so much more interesting if they were negotiating as equals. If it was only about sex and not about money. But I suppose a mainstream audience wouldn’t understand or accept permissive infidelity like that so they had to make it weird.
To be honest, I didn’t like any of the choices that Adrian Lyne made regarding the consent process – mostly because he chose not to show it at all. We see Diana and David talking about the offer in bed but they don’t reach an agreement. It’s a messy conversation with unclear desires and intentions, and it feels premature that they then go ahead with it:
Diana: David, I think you want me to do it.
David: What are you talking about? Don’t be ridiculous.
Diana: Well, maybe we should just talk about it.
David: I don’t want you to do it.
Diana: But you’d let me do it?
David: No…Why? Do you want to do it?
Diana: No. But I would. I’d do it for you.
Why does Diana think David wants her to do it? For the money? And why do they agree to go ahead when neither of them really want to do it? It feels like such a cop out for each of them to do it for the other. If they’re supposed to have this dreamy romance, why can’t they talk about this properly? Diana thinks David wants her to do it for the money; David thinks Diana wants to do it because she’s attracted to Gage; neither actually wants to go ahead with it, and yet… ‘Who made the decision?’ Gage asks and she answers, ‘We both did.’ How? And why? It feels very unsatisfactory.
It makes David’s regret and jealousy as inevitable as them losing their money in Vegas. The Fatal Attraction podcast team noted that, as well as hiding their actual decision making process from the audience, Lyne also doesn’t show us Gage and Diana having sex. Instead, we are given David’s perspective and, like him, are left to imagine how bad it could be. This is very unkind to Diana as, despite her extensive narration, it almost relegates her to a secondary character. It stops being a story about her and becomes a story about David.
Which is unsurprising considering how misogynistic much of the plot is. Gage repeatedly asks David if he can do things with Diana – can I borrow her, can I dance with your wife, can I buy her for $1 million? Lyne is well known for angering feminists – Susan Faludi used Fatal Attraction as the key source in her 1991 book Backlash about how women are suffering more as a direct response to the gains won in the 1960s and 1970s – and I really didn’t like that Lyne chose to acknowledge and mock this in Indecent Proposal as, at one point, Diana is seen reading Backlash and then casting it aside. Faludi responded by saying that Gage was ‘essentially “raping a woman with money.”’ Urgh…
Lyne does still create good sex scenes though, when he choses to show them. Their sex in the kitchen passes the Clit Test, a website that I recently found that rates movies that show clitoral stimulation to celebrate how people with vulvas often need more than just PIV. And David and Diana’s sex on piles of cash had the voyeristic thrill and excitement that I usually expect from Lyne’s movie. Why, oh why did he decide to make a romance out of the most sexually exciting idea he’s had yet??
From Roger Ebert’s perspective, one of the strengths of Indecent Proposal was that it allowed the audience to become ‘voyeurs while acceptable people do unacceptable things,’ but I think he’s got this the wrong way around. Gage, Diana and David are unacceptable people – they may be superficially respectable and presentable but they are all deeply flawed people. And they are doing unacceptable things, but I wouldn’t include their business transaction in that. It was a great offer and a good deal, and it was only sex. Trying to persuade us that accepting money for sex is amoral is pretty sex worker negative, and trying to pretend that mutually consensual extra-martial sex is somehow someone’s fault is stupid. What was unacceptable was how they treated each other and how they manipulated each other.
Really, this could and should have been so much better!
NEXT TIME… Wonder Woman 1984