I always liked high concept movies. Movies like Speed and Face/Off where just hearing what it’s about makes you have to see it. High concept isn’t just for action though. When I saw the trailer for Indecent Proposal, that was compelling enough to say I had to see this. A millionaire offers you $1 million to sleep with your wife? If you take it can you really live with it?
I will discuss spoilers because my point here is not to let people discover Indecent Proposal . It’s to see how I’ve changed in the 25 years since I first saw it.
When I saw Indecent Proposal in 25 years ago, I was disappointed. Once they went through with it and Woody Harrelson freaked out, I was all, “What’s your problem? You agreed to this, can’t complain now.” Plus he spends the whole million on a hippo, meaning even if he gets Demi Moore back, they’re in just as much debt as before. I think Mad Magazine pointed out his lawyer still gets 5% so they’ll owe him 50 grand.
My teenage brain didn’t understand the nuances of relationships. I had never had one yet, let alone become a 40-year-old divorcee. So I was eager to revisit Indecent Proposal for its 25th anniversary (this Saturday, but April 7 was a Wednesday in 1993 so I’m posting it today) and see how I take it now that I’ve been hurt in love myself.
Diana (Demi Moore) and (Woody Harrelson) need $50,000 to save their house. In Vegas they lose big but meet John Gage (Robert Redford) who makes them a provocative offer (Provocative Offer should have been the straight to video knockoff). He will pay them one million dollars for one night with Diana, and yes that includes sex.
It is the sort of hypothetical you may argue about in a bar, and most people arguing will never be faced with it in reality. But what if you were? Indecent Proposal attempts to put this to the test. Sure, it sounds like an easy million. It’s not even like he’s an ogre. It’s Robert Redford. But the jerks in the bar never have to live with it for the rest of their lives (or pocket the million).
They have the right reaction at first. They tell Gage to go to hell. The script does a good job making the proposal real. David assumes Gage is kidding at first and Gage calls out that it’s different when it’s hypothetical.
To me, at 15 and at 40, it’s still a no brainer. I’d be homeless before I’d entertain this. As a teenager I might’ve thought adultery was an automatic relationship ender. Now I know that in certain situations, relationships can heal and repair after such a betrayal. I still wouldn’t volunteer for it.
The way David and Diana decide to go through with it doesn’t sit right with me. They both agree they don’t want this, but Diana says she would do it for him. And David doesn’t really want her to, but sort of agrees to support her. It’s almost like he’s giving himself plausible deniability.
No, the only way this is remotely palatable is if Diana is empowered to want to take this offer for their shared financial future. This is still a very ‘90s view of marriages where a woman is her husband’s property and gets to make big sacrifices for his well being. Perhaps it is the ultimate expression of how women are taught to suck it up and sacrifice to keep men happy, but I don’t think Indecent Proposal is that self-aware.
From my adult perspective I now see that Gage was running a long con and the Proposal was only his Maguffin. Once they’re on his boat, Gage starts throwing shade on David for even letting Diana do this. He even offers to call the night off, making himself the good guy when even Diana knows there no going back. After undermining David, then he buys the property that David and Diana needed the money for in the first place.
Gage is actually running what douchebags call game. I would learn about this when I got older. Men provoke women making them seek approval. You would think any woman would just throw a drink in his face, but sadly there are human vulnerabilities and need for approval that some sociopaths have practically weaponized.
Gage sets about making everyone else in Diana’s life like him – her boss, her students – so they pressure her to spend more time with this aggressor. And you think Diana is too smart to fall for this. She acknowledges what he’s doing, taking away the home she wants, hiring her for real estate. Yet, for a portion of the movie she dates Gage only months after he’s destroyed her marriage. I don’t hold it against Diana. Manipulation is a powerful thing.
David and Diana have a mature enough relationship to talk about their feeling post-evening. They thought they’d just not talk about it but David finds he can’t pretend. At least he’s self-aware enough to recognize his own vulnerability. This is all rushed in screen time though. These kinds of scars would take years of counseling but the movie is only two hours.
Paranoia being the most cinematic of emotions in this situation, David lashes out to move the plot along. Diana articulates the dilemma well. David wants to hear Gage was lousy in bed, but if she says that he’ll never believe her.
In the end, David learns that love isn’t making no mistakes. It’s forgiving those mistakes. Unfortunately the film stops short of saying who’s doing the actual forgiving. It would be much more powerful if he said, “Can you forgive me, Diana?” This scene comes 10 minutes from the end, and I bet a lot of men came away thinking David was forgiving Diana. Some time spent exploring forgiveness would have been more powerful than Gage’s sarging.
The comic relief is very ‘90s and undermines the morality play. The lawyer (Oliver Platt) says he could’ve gotten two million for a woman like Diana. Another joke is that his girlfriend isn’t worth $500. So yes, women are pieces of meat who have monetary value based on hotness. The lawyer’s other clauses cover whether Gage is important or dies in the act. Get it? He’s old!
When Gage knows he’s lost her, he makes up a story about The Million Dollar Club. It’s clear he’s lying and his driver (Seymour Cassell) doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This is Gage’s way of breaking up which just solidifies what an asshole he is that he can’t just say “Go back to your husband.” When I saw this in 1993, I thought it would make a good franchise to see all the other women he offered a million dollars to. Now I think it would make a good Netflix series. An eight episode anthology with a different indecent proposal each hour. Every woman would conceivably have a different reaction to this.
The scene where David has second thoughts and tries to stop it is powerful. You’d imagine if this were real, the point of no return would be the moment it becomes psychologically real. And if this happened 10 years later, it wouldn’t matter that David couldn’t catch them before they left. He could just call Diana’s cell phone. Diana’s equivalent is when she realizes there’s nothing she can say to to undo the thing that will hover over their relationship forever. We the audience know she’s sincere but that David’s paranoia is insurmountable.
I did always love the music. Now that I know who John Barry is, I know why. Would you believe I didn’t even become a James Bond fan until after the Pierce Brosnan run began, so I wasn’t even aware of Barry’s seminal scores.
So it turns out I still don’t like Indecent Proposal but now I have very mature reasons for it. I’ll tell you one thing. They don’t make movies like this for adults anymore. Relationship drama moved to television on This Is Us or The Americans. In movies all we get are Fifty Shades which are the most juvenile idea of a relationship ever. Or Tyler Perry movies that present a view of relationships through the looking glass where up is down and, well, they’re fun but not provocative in the way they intend to be. Like it or not, Indecent Proposal got us talking.