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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

"At the theater where I saw the picture, when Robert Redford asked if he could have Demi Moore for one night, the whole audience gasped," says Imagine Entertainment executive Tova Laiter. "It's a lot like 'Fatal Attraction.' There's something very titillating about that premise."

Call these films fantasy morality plays. "You think that sleeping with a man for one night for a million dollars won't matter, but it does," Laiter says. "You think that cheating on your wife one night with another woman won't matter, but it does.

"The audience is totally fascinated by the price you pay for a fantasy to actually happen."

Still, many women in the industry believe these films are considered hot properties because Hollywood is ruled by exactly the sort of executives who find the women-as-barter premise most appealing: men.

"I think it has a lot to do with the fantasies of the older men who run the studios in Hollywood," says New Line Cinema production chief Sara Risher. "These films are the cinematic equivalent of those Harlequin novels where the woman is possessed and under the spell of the man.

"Hollywood makes these movies acceptable by glamorizing the arrangement. You don't see anyone casting Danny DeVito in these movies. It's always Robert Redford or Richard Gere."

Tamra Davis, director of this year's "Guncrazy," with Drew Barrymore and James LeGros, has seen how unnerved studio executives get with scripts in which women use their sexual powers to punish men. Her upcoming film, "Bad Girls," a women's Western populated with liberated frontier hookers, has a scene in which one of her heroines takes revenge against a bad guy by pretending to seduce him.

Instead of performing oral sex, the character bites him, Davis explains. "Now every actress who read for the part thought that was the best thing in the script--they couldn't wait to do it.

"But the men at the studio were terrified. They totally freaked out. I've got six guys sitting around, saying, 'You've got to change that scene!' "

Producer Dawn Steel, who has been involved with such women's films as "Flashdance" and "Sister Act," doesn't find "Indecent Proposal's" central plot twist preposterous at all.

As a single woman, she had a similar experience.

"In the '70s, I was offered a million-dollar (proposition)," she says. "I was stuck at O'Hare Airport in the middle of a blizzard and this schleppy guy kept following me around, offering me a ride into the city. I couldn't find a cab anywhere, so finally I got so desperate I took him up on it."

The man had a white Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur, who drove them into the city and deposited them at a fancy hotel.

"He told them to take care of me and suddenly I got a bigger room and all the amenities," Steel recalls. "We had dinner once. Then he followed me back to New York, took me to dinner again and finally he made his offer--$1 million to sleep with him. He offered me jewels, my own place, anything I wanted."

Steel says she politely declined. "I have to be honest--he was too greasy. I couldn't even kiss him. But when I read that Robert Redford was playing that character in 'Indecent Proposal,' I had to laugh. If it had been Robert Redford who'd made me the offer, I'd have done it for nothing!"

Despite such a testimonial, "Indecent Proposal's" premise has been pilloried by the critics. The New York Times called it "far-fetched." The Los Angeles Times called it "thoroughly implausible." Variety dubbed its ending "Hollywood hokum," saying it "sports an idiotic conclusion that looks like Test Marketing Ending No. 6."

Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers was especially harsh, calling the film "shameless sexist propaganda." He says it sends a simple message: "You never know with these bitches." (Desperate for a positive quote, Paramount Pictures inserted a Travers blurb in its ads--"another date-night hit"--editing out the rest of the sentence, which said: "in the trash-tradition of 'Fatal Attraction.' ")

Paramount studio's president, Sherry Lansing, co-producer of the film, declined to be interviewed for this story. But "Proposal" screenwriter Amy Holden Jones talked freely, defending her script, saying Demi Moore's character represents "the ultimate" female fantasy.

"This isn't like 'Mad Dog and Glory' where you have this waif-like girl who mopes around and has five lines in the whole film," says Jones, who co-wrote "Mystic Pizza" and directed "Love Letters" and "Slumber Party Massacre."

"She's more in control than any character in the movie. She drives the movie--she's in practically every scene. And when it comes to the proposal, she makes the choice, not her husband. It's her decision every step of the way."

Jones compares "Proposal" to a Billy Wilder movie, but with a woman in the lead role. "Is 'Sunset Boulevard' insulting to men because William Holden takes money from Gloria Swanson in return for sleeping with her? He's the center of the movie, which is about him and his compromises. And that's exactly what my film is about."

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