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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)