FILM / To love, honour and dismay: She stands by her man. She keeps the family together. She is patronised by both screen husband and screenwriter. She does what she's told. John Lyttle on the roles of the Hollywood wife

Now is not a pleasant time to be a woman in mainstream movies. Consider the suspiciously similar plights of actresses Sarah Jessica Parker, Uma Thurman and Demi Moore. In Honeymoon in Vegas, Parker is the card game prize James Caan 'borrows' from loser Nicolas Cage. Mad Dog and Glory sees Thurman out on loan from Bill Murray to Robert De Niro. As feminists have noted, two's company, three's a trend. Indecent Proposal, out next week, completes the menage a trois and has proved the most controversial of the trio. And for one almost insultingly simple reason. Unlike Parker and Thurman, Demi Moore plays the Good Wife.

Indecent Proposal comes from Adrian Lyne, the director who gave the world Fatal Attraction. It's another slick story of a marriage under assault from outside forces. In Fatal Attraction that force was 'female': duplicitious, hysterical, emotionally needy. Hot sex was the predictable tool used to jemmy Michael Douglas's wedlock. Indecent Proposal substitutes an opaque Robert Redford for the transparent Glenn Close. His masculine wiles come down to cold, hard cash. The mysterious billionaire sniffs out his prey: a couple stripped of their dream home, the last of their savings blown on the crap tables. Redford offers Woody Harrelson a million for a night with wife Demi Moore.

As The Village Voice has pointed out, the picture is at pains to present Moore's decision to hand herself over as 'an ethical choice': the money for your wife] Yet the script's tension derives from the presumption that no matter how convincing the reasons to hit the silk sheets, Moore is headed for disaster. A Good Wife is - whisper it if you dare - always her husband's property. Paradoxically, Moore's 'choice' actually springs from a long lineage in the movies. Screwing another man for money is merely the latest thing in preordained marital self-sacrifice, Hollywood style.

Catch Norma Shearer in The Women, learning that her part in life is to forgive her errant mate's adultery and wait, wait, wait for him to return. Or clock The Great Ziegfeld. Louise Rainer still loves the bed-hopping impresario so unconditionally that she rings him on his wedding day to Billie Burke and wishes him happiness, tears streaming down. She's a Good Wife even after the divorce. Small wonder she landed an Academy Award.

Ditto her performance in MGM's Chinese epic The Good Earth. As O- Lan, the ultimate Doormat Diva, she stoically endures famine, a plague of locusts, the death of a new-born baby and the introduction of an indolent second wife into the household. Suffering fufills her. It's not merely a reason for being; schematically speaking it's her sole dramatic function. Unable to imagine that a Good Wife might have needs or interests beyond dedicating herself to husband, hearth and family, masochistic self-denial is elevated to an art form.

Nobody did it better than Mighty Mouse Joan Fontaine. As Rebecca's second 'sweet' wife she instinctively understands that a woman's place is in the wrong. Come Suspicion and she's willing to allow caddish Cary Grant to administer poison rather than face the shattering of wedded bliss.

There are exceptions to the stereotype. Thanks to The Thin Man, Myrna Loy was able to bid farewell to impersonating the daughter of Fu Manchu, earning the dual titles of 'The Perfect Wife' and 'Queen of Hollywood'. Loy was encouraged to talk back, get smashed, be an equal. However, it's worth noting that her screen lifestyle was upscale, aggressively urban Art Deco. The rich are allowed to be different.

It's also worth recalling that an actress way back then could ascend to stardom portraying the Good Wife. Hollywood might prefer the inherent melodrama (and good box-office) that Bad Girls offered, but, cuddling up to the censors and the predominant family audience, the studios knew that the erotic array of vamps, villainesses, femme fatales, flappers, busty blondes and sex symbols required counterbalance, no matter how dull the actual purveyors of pathological purity. Indeed, Janet Gaynor won her Sunrise Oscar for forgiving husband George O'Brien his trespasses in attempting to drown her; something even the pre-programmed-to-obey Stepford Wives might have blown a fuse over.

By the conformist Fifties, the heyday of the Good Wife, the ballsy heroines of the war years had yielded to a new set of demographics: for the first time women held a numerical majority in the American population. As Marjorie Rosen's Popcorn Venus warned, 'If a girl didn't catch her man early, she might never own that vine-covered cottage.'

Step forward June Allyson, pert, not too pretty, not too plain, as refined and ubiquitous as white bread: less a person, more an advertising ideal. Serially monogamous to William Holden (Executive Suite), Cornel Wilde (Woman's World) and James Stewart (The Glenn Miller Story), she helped define Fifties social mores. She was the flipside of her contemporary Marilyn Monroe: the girl you could take home to mother.

Yet by decade's end, Allyson's stellar orbit was decaying. After the marriage boom came the divorce boom and The Shrike, a disastrous stab at playing a vindictive nag driving her worse half to a nervous breakdown. Audiences were horrified.

Besides, the swinging Sixties were at hand, the era of liberated womankind. Hollywood held a distorting mirror to changing roles: the latest female idols were obliged to play whores. Shirley MacLaine led the way. Everyone from Fonda to Streisand eventually followed.

The Seventies began with the Good Wife gone crazy (Diary of a Mad Housewife), divorced (An Unmarried Woman), relegated to sitcom status or, ironically, reduced to Best Supporting category: witness Network and Beatrice Straight's Oscar-nabbing ticking-off of unfaithful William Holden. It was no longer feasible to forge a persona from the role of help mate, though Glenn Close did try. In The Big Chill, The Natural and Maxie - a comedy concerning a Good Wife possessed by a Wicked Lady - Close achieved waxy perfection even as career options narrowed. Taking a chance, Adrian Lyne cast her as Fatal Attraction's psychotic Medusa. Vice displaced nice. Cue instant fame.

Close passed her tattered mantle on to Anne Archer, whose trip home to mother gave husband Michael Douglas the green card in Fatal Attraction. Archer is now so identified with the thankless task of being Mrs Right that she's a standing cultural joke. Audiences howl when she bullies Patriot Games hubby Harrison Ford to kill the terrorist who's threatening her home. This, after all, is the suburban matriarch who cleaned up the bathroom with interloper Glenn Close. Archer has evolved into a grotesque parody of her sunny predecessors. Still, devoid of any possible interior life, she gamely struggles against being a prop whose function is simply to be duped and menaced.

Not like Madeleine Stowe (Illegal Entry), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Consenting Adults) or the once exciting Bonnie Bedelia, waiting around Die Hard and Die Hard II for Bruce Willis to romp to the rescue.

In Presumed Innocent, Bedelia murdered spouse Harrison Ford's slutty mistress and framed him for the killing by using his very own sperm. Beware when Good Wives go bad.

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace