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MOVIES : A flurry of recent women-as-barter movies looks like a disturbing trend to feminists, but these films are finding an audience--'Indecent Proposal' earned $24 million in five days. Are these movies merely a manifestation of the fantasies of the men who run the studios--or do they represent something much more serious? : For Some, the Signs Are Unsettling

April 18, 1993|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | 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.

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