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From Fallen Woman To "Pretty Woman," Hollywood's Love Affair With Hookers

By Peter Keough

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  "Whatever you desire," is the slogan for Fleur de Lis, the agency in L.A. Confidential that provides its clients with call girls "cut" to resemble such movie stars as Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner. It's an appropriate motto for Hollywood itself, which has made its fortune by cutting images to fulfill its audience's desires, offering the illusion of love, life, and death to be vicariously enjoyed for the price of a ticket. Prostitution in Hollywood is a sanitized, sanctioned whoredom where stars transform themselves into the forbidden or inaccessible dreams, wet and otherwise, of their voyeuristic clientele.

Small wonder then that the world's oldest profession has always fascinated the youngest art. From Gloria Swanson in the silent Sadie Thompson (1928) to Kim Basinger as the Veronica Lake wanna-be in L.A. Confidential, the most glamorous of Hollywood's beauties have prostituted themselves -- perhaps in an effort to elevate the institution that uncomfortably resembles their own. They've allowed Hollywood -- and us -- to have it both ways: we can reject the forbidden fruit even as we ogle it on screen. It's a lot safer and cheaper to savor, say, Julia Roberts's charms in Pretty Woman (1990) and rejoice in her fairytale redemption than try to achieve the same result on Berkeley Street on a sordid Saturday night.

The body of films about prostitution reflects our culture's uneasy and obsessive love/hate affair with the ultimate commodity. It's a catalogue of the fantasies -- not all of them male adolescent -- that adorn prostitution like cheap perfume and tawdry glad rags. One of the earliest and most persistent is that of the fallen woman saved from her fate by the love of a good man. In the racier years of the classic studio period, before the 1934 Production Code eliminated any reference to the unwholesome facts of life, Hollywood was free to call a whore a whore and not label her with euphemisms like "party girl" or "actress." The studios were still obliged, however, to reform her or else punish her for her sins -- and ours.

In Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932), Marlene Dietrich's "Shanghai Lili" becomes a high-class courtesan cruising the China coast after being dumped by her stuffy lover, British Army officer Clive Brook, for testing his jealousy. They meet years later on the title train, which is then seized by revolutionary warlord Warner Oland. Dietrich gets a chance to make up for her rough trade and tough-minded independence by offering herself to Oland in return for her ex-lover's eyes, which the warlord, in a Freudian moment, has threatened to put out. The timely intervention of another hooker (played seductively by Anna May Wong) discloses and prevents Dietrich's sacrifice, and all ends respectably.

Not so in John Cromwell's adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1934). Bette Davis, in the role that made her a star, plays the waspish, consumptive waitress who seduces aspiring artist/physician Leslie Howard. As her treachery and bitchiness intensify, her health and professional standing decline; she winds up as a broken streetwalker dying in a poorhouse. It's a chilling lesson not to cheat on pallid, club-footed dreamers; the irony is that Davis is far more attractive, if not more sympathetic, than Howard.

Like Dietrich in Shanghai Express, Hollywood's women of little virtue show a strength, independence, and allure that's more appealing than appalling. Especially when compared with the milksop representatives of respectable society. That's why hookers so often serve to send up the hypocrisy of established morality. In Rain (1932), Lewis Milestone's remake of Sadie Thompson, Joan Crawford plays a South Seas trollop whose wantonness exposes the repressed desire behind puritanical preacher Walter Huston's intolerance of the flesh. In Clarence Brown's adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie (1930), Greta Garbo talks for the first time on screen and earns an Oscar nomination for her efforts as the fallen young woman of the title who returns to her ne'er-do-well seafaring father after being abandoned 15 years before. What she did all that time to support herself is revealed after a young sailor proposes to her -- but she's vindicated and the patriarchal society that lowered her is condemned.

Prostitutes became personae non grata once the Hays Office took over in the mid '30s, so Hollywood called them showgirls, or the non-specified femmes fatales of film noir, or, in the notorious case of From Here to Eternity (1953), USO workers. With the easing of moral restraints in the '60s, however, hookers once again could speak their name on screen, ushering in an onslaught of films whose changing take on the subject of prostitution is a coy history of our society's attitudes toward sex, gender, power, and money.

Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn started things off timidly enough with Butterfield Eight (1960) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), respectively. In Daniel Mann's diluted adaptation of John O'Hara's Eight, Taylor plays a "model" with a taste for rich men and late hours; she will abide being called a tramp, but she won't accept the $250 her socialite lover Laurence Harvey leaves her. Neither will he leave his sexless, devoted wife for her, and Taylor is duly punished for offering Harvey and audiences a sexy alternative to drab middle-class existence (she would be rewarded later, with an Oscar). As Truman Capote's Holly Golightly in Blake Edwards's Tiffany, Hepburn evades, briefly, the strictures of respectable housewifery by flittering on the fringes of Manhattan society, earning her keep from men by, it would seem, being witty and fascinating. In neither film are the nuts and bolts of the actual business referred to: the heroine's lifestyle merely seems somewhat mysterious, maybe a little depraved.

But certainly enticing -- for women as well as men. There's the great clothes, the idle luxury, the independence (just like a James Bond film); there's also the lure of sexual experimentation, self-abasement, maybe even romance. Hollywood in the '60s contented itself with suggesting the forbidden appeal of prostitution, but European filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard with 1962's Vivre sa vie (and, in a sense, every film he's made) and Luis Buñuel with his deliciously perverse 1967 classic Belle de jour explored prostitution both as a manifestation of repressed desire and as an allegory of the movie industry in particular and capitalist society in general.

American filmmakers tend to be more idealistic, if not more naive. Especially when they're trying to be hip, as they were in the late '60s and early '70s. One prostitution myth that evolved in this period was the knight-in-shining-armor scenario, in which the hero rescues the heroine from the wicked pimps who enslave her. In so doing he also frees himself from all his unacknowledged inhibitions, which makes for a happy or at least clarifyingly tragic ending. In Herbert Ross's The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), nerdy would-be writer George Segal is tossed together with unbearably shrill call girl and actress Barbra Streisand. Think Pygmalion: he improves her vocabulary, she screws him and teaches him how to be himself.

The pattern is much the same if dicier in Alan Pakula's Klute (1971), as small-town policeman Donald Sutherland squires big-city call girl Jane Fonda (another hooker role that turned Oscar gold) for information about the disappearance of a prominent acquaintance. His tight-lipped repressiveness doesn't long withstand Fonda's frisky savoir faire, and his straight-arrow virtue proves more therapeutic to her than her psychiatrist does. The formula goes sour, however, in the uncompromising assault of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1975), in which Robert De Niro's lumpen Sir Galahad fuses squalor and chivalry to save an unwitting, pubescent Jodie Foster in one of cinema's most astounding scenes of sparagmos.

Too bad the knight syndrome didn't come to an end with Travis Bickle's killing spree -- we might not have had to endure the demeaning, vastly popular treacle of Garry Marshall's Pretty Woman (1990). Richard Gere is a corporate buccaneer who dismembers companies and sells the fragments. Julia Roberts is more in the corporeal line, and their chance merger is mutually beneficial as Roberts learns which is the proper fork to eat with and Gere learns to have a good time and stop being pissed off at his father.

Needless to say, the brutal realities of both businesses are airbrushed -- what's the deal with Roberts's drug-addict friend, for example? And yet the film is quite matter-of-fact about prostitution's capitalist nature. As such it's another in a long line of films that explore the profits and losses of whoring.

Leave it to Billy Wilder to come up with one of the first, the saucy if overlong Irma La Douce (1963), in which gendarme Jack Lemmon loses his job and his heart to Shirley MacLaine's Parisian trollop of the title. On the rebound, he becomes her pimp, but since he cannot bear to have her sleep with anyone else, he disguises himself as a wealthy English lord who just wants to play solitaire. The lord becomes her sole customer, and in order to pay her -- in fact himself -- Lemmon must work nights in a meat market. After taking on the roles of capital, labor, and the aristocracy, he's left too exhausted to enjoy the object of his desire.

A similar critique of capitalism might be read from Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). At the turn of century on the West Coast, entrepreneur and gambler McCabe, played with raffish insouciance by Warren Beatty, joins forces with brothel keeper and opium addict Mrs. Miller, played by a luminously besotted Julie Christie. Together they transform a sleepy backwater into a frontier boomtown, only to attract the interest of corporate honchos back east. The film concludes with one of cinema's greatest sequences, one that is simultaneously lyrical, tragic, and epic -- a rapturous and somber image heralding the end of the frontier spirit and the beginning of American corporate capitalism.

In the age of Reagan, though, the corporate types are the heroes, not the bad guys, so pioneer McCabe gets replaced by preppie self-promoter Tom Cruise in Risky Business (1983). Left home alone in his ritzy Chicago suburb, Cruise avails himself of the services of hooker Rebecca De Mornay and in short order turns the family home into a brothel. That annoys the lower-class scum who are the girl's pimps, and after some misfortunes involving a Steuben egg and a Porsche in Lake Michigan, she gets reformed and he learns a lesson before heading off to Princeton, presumably to learn to become a corporate raider like Richard Gere.

Ron Howard's half-witted Night Shift (1982) plays the same theme off the old pairing of love and death. Henry Winkler is a morgue attendant who's tempted by moronic colleague Michael Keaton to take advantage of the slow late-night shift by setting up a brothel among the stiffs. All works well -- the boys make money and the girls get health benefits -- but Howard, like Lemmon in Irma La Douce, falls in love with the merchandise, star stablemate Shelley Long. Then there's the requisite threat from the lower-class-scum pimps that want in on the action. Not to worry, though: the true love of heart-of-gold Long enables Winkler to shake off his middle-class repressed self and his respectable eating-disordered fiancée and have everything his way (his sending back a sandwich he didn't order is a dramatic highlight).

Recent Hollywood efforts have taken this respectable- folks- turning- brothel- keepers to new smarmy heights. Prostitution becomes not just as another business but a reflection of and cure-all for the dysfunctional family. In Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Woody Allen ickily mirrored his own tabloid-blazoned scandals as the father of an adopted child who tracks down its natural mother in a misguided attempt to heal his troubled marriage and tweak his Oedipal curiosity. That the mother is a whore -- a scatological Mira Sorvino winning an Oscar by imitating Minnie Mouse -- says as much about Allen's trouble with women as Hollywood's inveterate misogyny.

The unholy mother/whore combination can be seen in flagrante in Richard Benjamin's Milk Money (1994). A trio of scampish suburban kids put together a hundred bucks in change and ride their bikes to the big city. There they employ bimbo Melanie Griffith to show them her tits and give them a ride home. One of the more annoying tykes is determined to hook Griffith up with dad Ed Harris, a widower devoted to saving "the wetlands." The traditional avenging pimp turns up, of course -- not lower-class, this time, but Eurotrash Brit Malcolm McDowell. Yet this marriage of suburbanite complacency and transgressive urban sass is as inevitable as Griffith's cleavage.

Although vastly inferior, Milk Money is reminiscent of Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. And not just because both feature Melanie Griffith in a sundress. In Demme's masterpiece, she's Lulu, the spitting image of Louise Brooks's archetypal prostitute from the Pabst silent film of the same name. (This latter-day Lulu's profession is left ambiguous.) She pounces on down-on-his-luck corporate executive Jeff Daniels, who's lost his wife, furniture, and very likely his job when Lulu lures him through the Holland Tunnel and on the road to an America Charles Kuralt never encountered. With Ray Liotta in his first and finest performance as a psychopath who shows Daniels a glimpse of the dark side, Something Wild is exactly that, a rollicking voyage through comedy and melodrama that discloses the savage face beneath genial stereotypes.

Demme's film also reminds us that, at their best (which is not often), Hollywood's movies about prostitution serve as a bridge -- in the case of Something Wild, a tunnel -- between the respectable and the forbidden, the repressed and the desired. In Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Nicolas Cage's sodden screenwriter abandons the glitz of LA for the desert of the title town. There, at the bottom of cases of bottles, he finds call girl Elisabeth Shue. They fall in love, but neither reforms the other: he'll drink himself to death; she'll sell herself until she's no longer desirable. They offer us no consolation, and neither does the film. It takes the sweet beauty and the angelic attentions of Shue, in her Oscar-nominated performance, to make an audience embrace those brutal truths. Which is Hollywood's way of showing that a hooker's heart of gold is in fact our own heart of darkness.


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