There’s a great moment in Psycho when a naked, stabbed Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) reaches passed the frosted shower curtain towards the camera. Nearing death, she’s reaching for us—after all, who else is there? Just then, the camera backs away from her, turning us, the audience, into a bunch of assholes that paid to watch this nude, wet, floundering starlet croak. We—and our shame—are inscribed in that shower scene; it’s one of the reasons Psycho is so important. Our pleasure and guilt live together, animating our impotent little position in so many rundown theater seats.
In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek says something fun about guilt and pleasure: “Catholics are free to enjoy anything so long as they know it’s wrong.” This applies to how we represent and view sex workers in films as well. When “the oldest profession” is the subject at hand, guilt is the cost of titillation and “good” is always better when it’s “bad.”
And while Psycho doesn’t feature a hooker of any stripe (though some conjecture Crane is a “bad girl”) our pleasure is amplified by our awareness we shouldn’t be quite so thrilled.
The heart of the Hooker Tale (which I’m labeling so crudely to separate it from social issue movies) isn’t “a heart of gold,” as Pretty Woman helps us believe, it’s the illusion of justification. We’re fascinated enough with the profession—how it works, what’s involved, why it exists and who’s hurt by it—to tell its stories for fun. This is true whether the story is “ripped from headlines” like Traffic in Souls or nudging us to change the way we see victimhood (I think of Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss). Yet, arguing for justification demands you reveal all the skeezy details first—how else could you make a case? And that means you’re in the middle of a game. Victimless crimes? Pfft.
Often Hooker Tales create a context for hooking that borders crime investigation. The aforementioned Traffic in Souls is among the earliest features about “white slavery” and doubles as a pre-historic version of NCSI, complete with tech-savvy forensic inventions that solve mysteries and finger criminals. Despite the illegal elements, stories of skin trading generally include a pimp, poverty or a broken system to justify them; the film has to be informative about the workings of the underworld or why are you watching? Social issue movies about exploited runaways aren’t luring the same crowd as skin flicks about sexually rebellious daughters. The comic tragedy here is that it’s all bogus anthropology, and Thank God for that! Surely, documentaries like Whores’ Glory (which shouldn’t be included in my current roundup of dorky sex-capades) is angling at some social casualty worth repairing, even if it fails, and exposes something of the cruelty and the desperation what fuels a very real and mostly disorganized industry. But no one saw that film for “fun”—it’s not like Harmonie Korine’s Spring Breakers, which baited as many arthouse hoppers as it did trench coated old men. Hooker Tales are betting the race on our desire to seek them out for kicks.
Little Girls (1967) has a title that baits the “barely legal” crowd but a story that switches “girls” with swinging Londoners—as such it might have relieved a little aggression for those people aggrieved enough to judge the swingers but not feisty enough to speak up about it. Little Girls is a sexploitation that crosses Lucky Louis’s camera-lens voyeurism with light bondage. In it, a semi-reformed prostitute has pooled her cat-house cash and opened a night club that now teeters on bankruptcy, so she finds a clutch of bored, teen celebutantes and gets them “hooked on sex.” You read that right—not heroine, not crack, not even booze (thinking back on how crappy Nic Cage looked in Leaving Las Vegas, I see why not). Since the girls are hot to trot it’s easy (if not so plausible) for the club owner to whore them out. Easier still is photographing said whoring for extortion purposes later. When you see the high pedigree lowlifes these girls are meant to tease (Senators! Bankers! Heads of State!) it’s anyone’s guess why the girls fall in line. The perverts exhaust them with weirdo role-playing for which the girls are somehow rewarded with sex. The money is immaterial; they’re prostituting to anger their Daddy Warbuckses. It’s a jokey Salo, twisted up because the bad girls love it. In case you didn’t get that, Little Girls wants you to know the wanton whoring and the cats-of-nine-tails are for play and play is funny, if you know how to have fun. So, do you?
If you’ve read Caitlin Moran’s marvelous memoir “How to Be a Woman,” she has a section early on in which she describes how sex looked on TV when she was young, and how one film ultimately informed her sexual persona. Maybe sex-as-rebellion was a commonly explored idea in the Swinging Sixties, but I have to say…the Brits do it differently than the Yanks. It’s as if the self-possession of hot girls will always out-holler the shame of hypocritical naysayers. If authenticity was the currency of the counter culture revolution, the victor of that battle can’t accept your medal because she’s too busy shagging. (If that’s not a sales pitch for a way of life, I’m not sure what is.) The idea dares you like the military slogan “be all you can be” while never admitting what you already know (not everyone can survive basic training).
Naturally, not all stories of Sex (Traffic) in the UK are about the perils/pleasures of liberation. Films made prior to 1960 seemed obligated (or, indeed, mandated) to titillate through the public service of exposing society’s decrepitude. Since melodrama demands that good and evil exist on a fulcrum (the good guy is only as good as the bad guy is bad), the villainy of hooking has to be isolated. Put another way: the world isn’t bad, there are just some rotten apples out there.
John Derek, nearly reprising his lady killer role as Joshua in Ten Commandments, kills it as the pimping fiancé in The Flesh Is Weak (1957). Less porn about sex and more porn about nervous smoking, The Flesh is Weak plays its own game of bait and switch. A social cause picture answering the question “how could a good girl get mixed up in a business like that?” The Flesh is Weak plays out a bad romance between a “nice normal girl” (as described by the sympathetic “bobbies”) and the Cad (Derek) who woos the girl and sells her a hard luck story wherein she’s obligated to bed his “potential business investors.” Elegantly, the hoary affair exists in a subtext confirmed by crying jags and tangled bed sheets. While the title implies a degree of titillation the film never provides, it delivers on moral corruption like no one’s business. The cultivation of an entire system to “turn good girls bad” is facilitated by working girls that demonstrate only powerlessness to the pimps emotionally enslaving them, and seldom is the degradation of commercial sex more evident than when it’s extorted from a girl by the man she wants to marry. Love is a battlefield and “nothing beats that G.I. touch.”
I feel obligated to demonstrate women can suck too, and in evidence of this I offer Gordon Perry’s Twilight Women. Laurence Harvey enters frame momentarily to play a nightclub singer/hot mess and suggest how Rene Ray found herself unwed and pregnant. Ray (playing Vivienne) finds a seemingly humanitarian home for unwed mothers under the rule of Freda Jackson (Mrs. Seagrim in Tom Jones, Stygian Witch in Clash of the Titans). Lois Maxwell (a.k.a. Ms. Moneypenny) gets feisty about the condition of the place, but Good ol’ Freda’s party line is “If only I could do this for nothing…” How selfless? Amazingly, you’ll recall Luis Buñuel’s cynical Good Samaritan story Viridiana when you hear the homeowner’s patience meet with criticism and ingratitude. But desperation reframes kindness and after the soap operatics boil over. The villainess exposes the one thing more lucrative than selling sex (it’s way worse than hooking). Freda even bests Wanda the Wicked Warden (aka Greta: Haus ohne Männer) because mercenary mothers beat power-crazy lesbians any day.
In ways, Hooker Tales are like war films: call girls soldier on under the strategies of their general-like madams. The most romantic facet of the War Drama is the unbreakable, world-worn bond between veterans and Hooker Tales often factor this in as well. I think of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The town opens its half-built gates to carts full of backbiting brothel girls who eventually fall into barely dressed piles around their wood stove.
Movies like Louis Malles’ Pretty Baby make even the prospect of child prostitution less a moral issue than a matriarchal one . To the women in that New Orleans brothel, the auction that sold their twelve-year-old Brooke Shields was honorably initiating her into a long tradition. Take that League of Decency! Sure, there was a touch of sadness the girl never got to choose her path, but that sadness was softened by the nurturing assurances of the other women, many of whom had it worse and still doled out understanding remarks.
More Reaganomic relics represented the prostitute as a prideful hustler (Sally Field in Back Roads) or a cool businesswoman (Catherine Deneuve in Hustle). Often prostitution is defined by a romantic deficit (commerce is uniquely soul-bleaching), but in a movie, you have to use something to misdirect an audience’s moral compass and nothing works like romance.
Secrets of a Married Man was a TV Movie of the Week starring William Shatner. The Shat casually falls in with an escort at a conference and gets hooked on sex-for-sale, thus necessitating pimp-intervention. In this world, relationships are bad for business. (The Girflriend Experience is still pretty far off.) Shatner drives guiltily through bad neighborhoods just to glimpse nameless corner-loiterers he gauzily looks on like they’re music box ballerinas. The tinkering score looms large…and the girls “did it with the lights on” and “saved kisses for their boyfriends.” When Shatner’s remarkably hot wife (Michelle Phillips) asked for lights out because “that hole in the ceiling still isn’t fixed”—it cued both his lack of husbandly take-charge-ness and revealed the fact the world in which she screwed was a perpetual workspace. (Duh, it’s a home.) How could anyone get off in this suffocating domesticity? Those happy hookers—they can just cut and run whenever. And who’s the victim there? Shatner’s not gonna hurt anyone. He has to call a contractor to apply spackle. What a life those girls must have. What a dreamy, pillowy-soft, kitten-playful existence.
Now, if we’re talking about American Gigolos, like Warren Beatty, John Voight (Midnight Cowboy) or, more explicitly, River Phoenix (My Own Private Idaho), there’s no such thing as fun. In Mandragora (1997) Marek runs away from home and to find Prague’s boy-peddling underworld within minutes. He’s got one friend to show him the ropes and free him from the pimp who drugged him and sold him to a Toby Jones lookalike to be “broken.” But rent boys don’t stick together like brothel girls do, and rival gangs complicate and endanger an already ugly situation. The one startling sad part is the utter joy Marek has in his financial independence—but then, I ask, why should that be sad? Like every teen with a first job, the shock of successfully earning rent overshadows the confusing “worth” of his “labor.” There’s no good math to explain that exchange rate.
We can speak of the sado-masochism in Belle De Jour, or the romantically bent psychoanalysis of House of Pleasure—I know, I know. We can talk smart all we like. The one thing hooking demonstrates is that the bottom line is the one that matter most. In that spirit, the brass tacks question is: Why Buy The Cow when you can get it on TV?