WASHINGTON, DC, February 8, 2013 - In a book just published, and getting deservedly good reviews, I do and I don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, author Jeanine Basinger asserts that we can’t seem to get it right at home or at the movies. Infidelity lurks from bedroom to silver screen, and, as I define it, the love of sex and money is the root of all great fiction.
In real life, surveys mislead as to who is misbehaving, but online there are hundreds of website choices for “hooking up,” single or married. On surveys and statistics we only know what people are saying, not what people are thinking, especially when it comes to sex.
Writers of fiction do it best, and on this topic I do have a say. I’ve been told that I started a new baby boom from what gets started on page 228 of Indecent Proposal. Too often I’ve been asked to define the novel and my standard response is that if I could define it in a single paragraph I would have written the paragraph instead of the book.
However, temptation comes close to the mark, and as I’ve already written, sex is nothing. Temptation is everything…and anyway, sex is not for girls.
I’m okay with Basinger naming David Lean’s Brief Encounter as perhaps the best take on infidelity at the movies, even as the film was minus any scenes of lovemaking, drawing chuckles from reviewers in France who found it so “very British” for a film to feature sex but without the sex.
Ditto for Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina as contenders. There, too, most of it was flirtation and temptation.
Likewise, in books or in film, presenting married couples in the act of sex, does nothing. Who cares? That’s what people are supposed to do, to be fruitful and multiply. When it gets illicit, that’s when the fun and the drama begin. “All happy families are alike” – Tolstoy’s opening line for Anna Karenina.
So thrilled as I was to be mentioned in the same pages as Leo Tolstoy, and Gustav Flaubert, and astonished that she missed James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Basinger was mistaken to surmise, on page 142, that Indecent Proposal (the movie) “floats on an unlikely story.”
Not quite. After my novel came out, followed by the Paramount movie, I counted a hundred letters spilling the beans on oil rich sheiks who offered a million dollars (more or less) for a night of love — and the many Hollywood actresses willingly sharing their bedroom charms for the cash.
I had no idea that this was going on (and still going on) when I wrote the book. We may think we are creating when in fact we are merely taking down dictation.
All that got me to wondering where we are, ethically, in this Real Housewives/Page Six world where nearly everything goes. Is there anything left that’s taboo? The movie Indecent Proposal premiered April 7, 1993, so we’re approaching a 25th anniversary. The novel was published four years earlier. In each instance, there was shock.
Someone out there said it better than I could.
Writing for NPR (National Public Radio), Jimi Izrael ranked Indecent Proposal number one on a list of “Five Great Films about the Perils of Infidelity.” Izrael complained (as did I) about Amy Holden Jones’ “jerky script” but cited the novel as “a gut-wrenching study on love, money, and trust that sparked dinner party conversations for years afterward here.”
Back then, women’s groups blasted me for sexism, even when they’d only seen the movie and not read the book. To my defense comes a recent Amazon UK review from Thomas Hardy for the Kindle edition of the novel: “Indecent Proposal is probably the ideal example of why a screenwriter should never be allowed near a great writer’s work.” (His words, not mine.)
Still, back then, even as the novel kept selling and getting fine book reviews, and even as the movie broke box office records, I took it on the chin from movie reviewers coast to coast. The New York Times and Roger Ebert were overly generous about the movie, but the rest of them were overly hysterical.
My guess was that people simply did not want to be challenged like this – like what would you do if you were impoverished and were offered a million dollars to perform a sinful act that could change your entire life? Movie reviewers expected a popcorn outing and were vexed and offended when asked to go back home to think and face up to a too-near-to-home moral dilemma.
Robert Redford, though I had nothing like him in mind, rather an oil rich sultan, even liked the script and especially the novel despite or maybe because of its “hard-edged writing” and “flagrantly sexual theme.” He said, “Yeah. It will work.” Sure did. The movie took in $260 million at the box office worldwide and made everybody rich in Hollywood, and sales of my book zoomed here and around the globe.
So nobody got hurt except for the critics.
The novel, and even the movie, got personal, and touched America deep into its Puritanical soul. On live TV, Matt Lauer chuckled and asked me if my novel was based on personal experience…hell no!…and on live radio, Larry King asked, “Why only a million dollars?” True, I had not thought of inflation.
I also did not think that we’d turn as blasé as the Europeans, who take sex casually and often.
When I asked columnist Liz Smith to please get women’s lib off my back, she wrote, “What are you complaining about? Your book is a runaway bestseller.”
Nowadays every sitcom comes with overt sexual titters and nearly every movie opens with two or more people in bed and nudity is ho-hum.
I refuse to rate my book or my movie on the scale of infidelity and I refuse to judge the behavior of my characters.
Sex is about love and nothing else and let someone else, not me, be the judge.
I write and I publish because there may be one person out there with whom I’ve made contact in a world so brutal and lonely.
Jack Engelhard is a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba Deadline, The Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, his memoir Escape From Mount Moriah, and Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist is Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer, bring his words to the Communities page covering all topics, with special focus on the absurdity of human behavior, and reaches around the globe.
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