Essential Viewing: A Brief History of Working Girls Onscreen

In her review of Keren Yedaya’s Or, My Treasure, Marilyn Ferdinand writes: “

It seems that audiences never get tired of seeing prostitutes on film. From 1913’s faux documentary about white slavery, Traffic in Souls, to 2009’s Chloe, with a wife who perversely hires a prostitute to test her husband’s fidelity, the movies have served up a variety of fallen women to suit every taste…

In the early decades of the movie industry, prostitution was one of the few reliable means to inject sex to sell tickets without bringing down the wrath of reformers. But the sheer volume of cinematic chippies over the decades bespeaks a need in audiences that goes beyond titillation… This arrangement allows audiences to ogle and fantasize about them safely and anonymously for only the price of a ticket. For allowing this trespass, many actresses are paid off with often-substantial roles that have become a fast track to an Oscar.

What follows is a visual tour of significant portrayals of female prostitutes in American cinema over the years, featuring some of the most famous and talented actresses to grace the screen. Each instance helps to illustrate the evolution that the role to reflect the prevailing social mores of each era. Video clips are provided where available.

Traffic in Souls (1913): Selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, this genteel melodrama was the first American feature to deal explicitly with prostitution and sex trafficking of immigrant women (a problem that still persists in the U.S. today). Produced for $25,000, it was one of the most expensive films of its time.

The 1928 Academy Awards: Several actresses have won Oscars for playing prostitutes, a tradition that began with the inaugural ceremony. Gloria Swanson’s immortal turn in Sadie Thompson lost out to Janet Gaynor, who worked the corner in not one but two films: Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. Gaynor and Thompson’s performances reflect conflicting attitudes towards “fallen women”: Gaynor’s girls are virginal, helpless souls who have lost their way, while Swanson’s Sadie is unapologetically a self-made woman of adventure. By the end of each film, they are all made into “honest women” by meeting their Mr. Right.

Watch Sadie Thompson on Fandor.

Of Human Bondage (1934): Bette Davis launched into stardom playing a loose woman who sexually and emotionally torments Leslie Howard’s feeble Englishman. Davis lobbied desperately to get the part, even though the likes of Katherine Hepburn and Irene Dunne had turned it down. “An evil heroine such as Mildred was really unheard of in that day,” Davis recalled.

After three consecutive years as an Oscar-nominated also-ran, Elizabeth Taylor finally copped a statue for 1960 playing high class call girl Gloria Wandrous in BUtterfield 8. Despite moaning to the press, “I hate the girl I play… This is the most pornographic script I have ever read,” Taylor beat out fellow prostitute portrayer Melina Mercouri (Never on Sunday), in the only year that both the Lead and Supporting Actress Oscars went to roles of loose virtue (Shirley Jones won the Supporting Oscar for Elmer Gantry).

The World of Suzie Wong (1960): Nancy Kwan plays a duplicitous, morally immature streetwalker whom American William Holden tries to save in this exotic fantasy-cum-allegory for postwar US foreign policy in Asia. Kwan’s effervescent kitten sanitized the reality of a Hong Kong sex trade ridden with disease and suicide, while propelling condescending notions of servile Asian women into the pop culture mainstream.

Klute (1971): An icon of ’60s female sexual liberation, Jane Fonda would win her first Oscar by playing a call girl implicated in a man’s disappearance. Fonda’s Bree Daniels initially seems like a feminist reclamation of the hooker identity: modern, independent, comfortable with sex on her own terms. She proves to be a classically neurotic and needy femme fatale in a film seeping noirish paranoia. But what sets Fonda’s role from her predecessors are moments when she, a struggling actress who gives better performances as a hooker, calls out the link between prostitution and acting, both channeling their respective audience’s fantasies of sexual desire and danger. “For an hour, I’m the best actress in the world, and the best fuck in the world… The only responsibility you have to me is to enjoy yourself.”

Taxi Driver (1976): Jodie Foster’s deluded 12 year-old hooker Iris further subverts the ’70s notion of the sexually liberated female and takes it to the point of parody. “Ever heard of women’s lib?” she tells an incredulous Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro). 14-year old Foster’s portrayal of underage prostitution earned an Oscar nomination, and paved the way for Louis Malle to up the ante with 12-year old Brooke Shields going nude in Pretty Baby two years later.

Full Metal Jacket (1987): The character voted “Best Movie Prostitute” in this online poll doesn’t even have a proper name, just “Da Nang Hooker.” She’s played by Papillon Soo, in a scene that’s become overfamiliar due to its excessively quoted dialogue, which itself introduces an ironic approach to prostitution as a cinematic experience. This stance is reinforced by Soo’s hard-sell: her fidgety gyrations and overripe verbal offerings, the diseased cough she stifles, these all add up to something veering to the left of her intended sexiness, making her more of an object to analyze than to desire. The two soldiers, on-screen stand-ins for the audience, regard her with detachment, bargaining for her services more out of social obligation than need, all the while snapping her photo and passing clinical comment.

Pretty Woman (1990): We all know the highest-grossing film of all time with a prostitute as the lead character (though the highest grossing films to feature a prostitute are The Passion of the Christ and Forrest Gump). This box-office record-setter for romantic comedies was originally a gritty street drama about a hooker trying to kick drugs and fulfill her dream of going to Disneyland. Disney’s more “mature” Touchstone label picked it up, but not before giving it a Disney makeover, turning Julia Roberts’ streetwalker into a live-action princess with pluck, charm and nary a needle track. With a private jet excursion, a Rodeo Drive shopping spree and great sex in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Roberts’ Cinderella helps Richard Gere’s corporate Prince Charming find his joie de vivre, making for the perfect fairy tale for late capitalist America.

Monster (2003): Charlize Theron’s willingness to look deeply unglamorous and reawaken memories of her mother’s self-defensive murder of her father garnered her an Oscar for portraying real-life maneater Aileen Wournos. Irrespective of the film’s merits, it’s easy to see why Hollywood would be attracted to this film, portraying as it does the sensationalistic combination of a prostitute/serial killer.

Watch more films about prostitution at Fandor:

Night of Lust

Or, My Treasure

Tell Me

Queen Kelly

Psychopathia Sexualis

Little Shots of Happiness

If They Tell You I Fell

Death in the Garden

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