Director: Adrian Lyne
Writer: Amy Holden Jones (from Jack Engelhard’s novel)
Starring: Robert Redford, Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson
The film’s premise is Hollywood simple: a billionaire bachelor offers a handsome but penniless couple a million dollars for one night of sex with the woman. Indecent Proposal has a bookend structure where the opening frames offer brief, enigmatic snippets of the closing scenes, leaving the viewer unsure about the film’s outcome and—in theory at least—eager for more. This segues into a banal montage-with-voice-overs (yep, plural) where Lyne sledgehammers home the point that, after meeting on a misty pier, David and Diana Murphy (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore) are the perfect married couple, with “have I ever told you I love you?” as their annoying refrain.
David and Diana embark on their dream life together, central to which is building a house designed by David, an impoverished junior architect. They have their tiffs but these are resolved by sex on the kitchen floor.
There’s a playful shot where Harrelson nuzzles against Moore’s bottom, although the overall effect is somewhat spoiled by a forest of chair legs in the foreground. You’d think that a director of Lyne’s experience would have noticed them, or the 1st Assistant Director might have pointed them out.
The Murphys acquire a piece of land overlooking the ocean and stake their financial future on building their dream house. It looks like a shack with a giant toilet roll stuck on the side but the Murphys love it—until recession hits. David and Diana are soon unemployed and unable to pay the mortgage. Down to their last dime, David thinks of the perfect solution: Las Vegas.
The ensuing sequence could well be titled ‘American Cinderella’. While David gambles, Diana wanders around the Hilton’s exclusive boutiques, nicking the fancy chocolates—much to the amusement of billionaire gambler John Gage (Robert Redford). Diana tries on a chic black cocktail dress… and who should walk in and offer to buy it for her? Diana rebuffs Gage with a line that will later come under scrutiny: “The dress is for sale. I’m not.” While Diana licks chocolate off her fingers, David licks the bank and wins $25,000. Back in their hotel room he showers Diana with his winnings. In the film’s luridly iconic moment Lyne’s camera trawls slowly over Diana, clad only in white panties, surrounded by crumpled greenbacks. The equation of selling sex to purchasing a warm carcass could not be more explicit.
David casts aside all common sense and returns to the tables. The winnings are soon gone, and with them any chance of holding onto their dream home. As they trudge towards the exit David and Diana are drawn to a buzz at one of the tables: it’s Gage, a million dollars down. He sees Diana and, remembering what a minx she looked when she pocketed the chocolates (now melted in the bottom of her handbag), asks her to be his lucky charm. David eggs her into it. Gage bets a cool million; Diana rolls the dice and—surprise, surprise!—wins. The inevitable follows: David and Diana find themselves in an expensive suite, the black cocktail dress arrives and the Murphys are invited to a little soiree.
There’s some humdrum socialising before Gage gets serious over the pool table. The talk turns to money and David rashly opines that there are limits to what it can buy; Diana clarifies this by saying that people can’t be bought. “I buy people every day” is Gage’s crisp retort. Diana defers but adds a qualifier: “Not where emotions are involved.” This is the same humdrum, socially approved fluff trotted out by Alice Harford at the Christmas party in Eyes Wide Shut. Gage tests the Murphys’ resilience by offering a million dollars for “one night with your wife.” Note that the line is directed at David: Gage unconsciously knows that it is he, not Diana, who possesses her sexual access rights. A proposal to buy emotions has morphed into an offer to buy sex without the latter ever being mentioned. The implication is that the two are inseparable: if you’re trading one, you’re trading the other. David doesn’t respond but Diana tells Gage to go to hell. Instead he pots the black into the bottom pocket.
Gage’s proposal gives the Murphys insomnia. David doesn’t want a bar of it but Diana craves the financial security. The “one night with your wife” isn’t the problem; the difficulty lies in emotionally legitimising the transaction, which Elena failed to do in À Ma Soeur! How can the Murphys circumvent the covenant against extramarital sex to which they are unconsciously beholden? Diana attempts this by saying “it wouldn’t mean anything: it’s just my body; it’s not my mind, it’s not my heart,” before driving her twisted logic to a seemingly unanswerable conclusion: “We both slept with other people before we were married, right? We just have to look at it like that.” What Diana doesn’t realise is that those prior relationships didn’t involve breaches of the sexual access rights she had unconsciously exchanged with those earlier partners.
The deal is struck and sealed with a contract. David goes off for a consolation meal with his lawyer but, unable to stand the shame, changes his mind and tries to rescind the deal—only to be left clutching at thin air as a helicopter whisks Diana across a gilded sea to Gage’s yacht. Diana dresses up and joins Gage on the quarterdeck. She wears a smart black Chinese outfit but the moment of enchantment—the Cinderella moment—falls flat. Looking at their eyes, even the actors know it; Diana questions how she’s ended up in this position. The real answer is that they signed up for a script that sucks. Gage crows that, “I bought you because you said you couldn’t be bought.” Diana reasserts her mistaken belief that she can separate the emotional from the physical: “I can’t be bought. We’re just going to fuck, as I understand it.”
We’ll have to go with that version of events as the story resumes with Diana returning to David’s embrace. Diana is in tears: already, on the inside, she knows she has violated a crucial boundary; all her rationalising counts for nothing in the face of her unconscious sexual programming. David smears the lipstick off her lips, a dog belatedly pissing on its own boundary line, a distant echo of Max Raphael forcing himself on his adulterous wife in Asylum. David’s sexual access rights have been violated and he, too, senses something irreplaceable has been shattered.
The Murphys quash their emotional doubts and rush to pay off their debts. It’s a pedestrian scene but, fascinatingly, Diana suddenly sports a crucifix around her neck. Did Demi Moore just turn up on the day of filming with a crucifix and forget to take it off? Did the costume assistant put on the wrong piece of jewellery by mistake? It’s hard to believe it’s there by error or oversight. The crucifix clearly signals that Diana has transgressed—not just against David but also against God. The insertion of the crucifix at this vital point turns Indecent Proposal into a morality tale on the first of the seven deadly sins. Having transgressed, it is therefore necessary for David and Diana to be punished, just as the Trant sisters were in The Man in in the Moon.
The insertion of the crucifix at this vital point turns Indecent Proposal into a morality tale on the first of the seven deadly sins
The Murphys’ first setback comes with the discovery that the bank has sold their dream house; their ill-gotten million is of no use. Diana learns that the buyer was none other than John Gage, always looking for a steal. Diana confronts him to no effect. David is livid when he learns that Diana saw Gage and suspects she has genuine affection for him—here again is the inability to separate love from sex. But that’s not what spouts from his mouth: “Did you fuck him?” Diana’s denial serves only to stir up David’s sense of betrayal at the violation of his sexual access rights. David walks out, the dream gone and the perfect couple with it.
The recession over, Diana gets a job in real estate and one day in walks Gage. This brings Diana and Gage together for a series of property visits, at the end of which she falls for him. Love is the only way Diana’s transgressive sex act can be redeemed (that word again); she can be forgiven if we accept that her body knew what she truly wanted before her heart did.
Diana and Gage attend a wildlife charity auction where Billy Connolly is the auctioneer, a jarring mix of Hollywood and reality TV that ejects the viewer from the film’s already tenuous fantasy milieu. Gage bids $50,000 for a hippopotamus, only to be trumped by a mystery bidder who ups the ante to a million. Who could that be? The auction allows the tainted million to be laundered through a charity, which Decency requires. Like Alice in Eyes Wide Shut, David has reached a place of forgiveness. Unsullied by his non-participation in Gage and Diana’s transgressive sex act, he is now cast as the film’s moral centre. The costume department signals this by dressing him in angelic white. From this vantage point he signs their divorce papers, leaving Diana with the sense that two wrongs haven’t added up to a right. Gage reaches the same conclusion and forces Diana’s hand with a cock-and-bull story about having bedded other women through similar million-dollar proposals. Diana realises she has been set free.
Dawn finds her down on the pier where she and David carved their initials so many years before—and there he is, sitting in the early mist, his back to her, almost as if he’d read the script. Diana leans against the bench and whispers, “Have I ever told you I love you?” It is, in Hollywood terms, an ‘up’ ending: we are supposed to believe that David and Diana resume their earlier bliss as if their pact with the Devil (sorry, Gage) had never happened. The reality of relationships broken through infidelity is usually quite different. Though some aspects of the relationship can be repaired, the loss of trust that stems from the betrayal of sexual access rights often cannot. Indecent Proposal may be fiction, and poor fiction at that, but it explicitly shows what many people know deep down to be true: the emotional sense of wrongdoing is inescapable.
Indecent Proposal reaffirms the taboo nature of infidelity through its Christian narrative of punishment and redemption. As with Unfaithful, Lyne draws in his audience with the titillating promise of exploring risqué territory only to uphold the moral status quo with the filmic equivalent of reinforced concrete. Once again he fails to address the existence—let alone the violation—of sexual access rights at the root of his story.
All three films in this chapter reveal the unconscious sense of sexual ownership that many people feel towards their significant other, and the emotional turmoil that results when either partner strains against that yoke. Logic suggests that avoiding the emotional entanglement of marriage allows sexual satisfaction to be found with one or more partners without stepping into the minefield of mutually exchanged sexual access rights. The films in the next chapter test this hypothesis.
 Though, as G. Rattray Taylor notes in Sex in History, adultery was not originally a moral issue but a property offence for infringing on another man’s rights. The moral dimension came later.