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Call girls on film

The cinema of prostitution



It’s no surprise that the world’s oldest profession provides one of cinema’s most favored and flexible storylines. From 1913’s silent Traffic in Souls, believed to be the first film ever to address prostitution, to last year’s Hustle & Flow, Hollywood has honed hooking into the central plot element in films both humorous (Loverboy) and heavy (Taxi Driver), fantastical (Pretty Woman) and factual (Monster). In recognition of this week’s cover story, we look at some of the more memorable films in which prostitutes play pivotal parts.

Klute (1971)
Jane Fonda is outstanding as Bree, a call girl who gets caught in the crosshairs after one of her johns mysteriously disappears. The film is supposed to be about finding the killer—Donald Sutherland plays the title character, a freelancing cop who pursues the case—but Bree’s struggles steal the story. She tries to go straight by auditioning for cosmetics ads and talks about her job with her shrink, explaining exactly how she feels while with a client. The murder stuff is forgettable, but Fonda, who won the Academy Award for her performance, is not.

Pretty Baby (1978)
Brooke Shields plays an adorable 12-year-old raised in a New Orleans brothel circa 1917. She’s innocent and pure and playful, dancing to ragtime and clutching her dolls. She’s also destined for an auction where men will bid for the right to deflower her. The film was criticized as child pornography at its release—Shields was the same age as her character when it was filmed—and deservedly so. For all director Louis Malle’s attention to detail capturing the time and place of the Big Easy’s Storyville district, it’s still a creepy tale about a preteen prostitute.

Risky Business (1983)
On the lighter side, Tom Cruise plays out every male high-schooler’s wet dream when he calls lady-of-the-night Rebecca DeMornay for $300 worth of fun while his parents are out of town. Things don’t work out initially, but at the end of the movie Cruise and DeMornay get it on in a Chicago subway car. Cruise’s character came to embody the greed of his generation when he explained DeMornay’s appeal: “It was great the way her mind worked—no guilt, no doubts, no fear. None of my specialties. Just the shameless pursuit of immediate gratification. What a capitalist.”

Working Girls (1986)
Director Lizzie Borden (no, not the 19th-century New Englander tried for axe-murdering her parents) provides a one-day glimpse of life in a Big Apple brothel. This documentary-style film focuses just as much on business as on sex, touching on such afterthoughts as the importance of clean towels, the complexities of birth control, when it’s appropriate to collect money, and just how damnable an offense it is to put a phone call into the brothel on hold. Borden strives for authenticity and, despite a few clunky plot twists, shows exactly how professional the world’s oldest profession is.

Pretty Woman (1990)
Cinderella dons fishnet stockings and a potty mouth in this comedy about a rich investment banker and a poor prostitute who befriend one another over their common interest in screwing people. Julia Roberts stars as the cheap streetwalker (she charges what DeMornay charged seven years prior) and wins Richard Gere’s heart with lines like, “I could just pop ya real good and get outta here.” Just like 1983’s Trading Places, this film positions a whore as the saving grace for a woebegone businessman. That’s so unrealistic. Oh, wait. Never mind.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)
A much darker take on prostitution (not to mention male prostitution) is Gus Van Sant’s film starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as drug-addled transients who sell themselves for extra cash. The film suffers from a borderline incomprehensible script—especially the random Shakespeare references—but is strangely captivating when Phoenix, searching for his mother, declares his love for Reeves.

Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo (2005)
This sequel to Rob Schneider’s original “prostidude” comedy is actually a who-done-it murder mystery about a serial killer targeting gigolos in Amsterdam. Deuce bands together with his European janes—including one Chernobyl-born chick with male genitalia instead of a nose and, as a result, disgusting sneezing fits—to stop the killer before he can sabotage the prestigious Man Whore Awards. One memorable scene has the Chernobyl jane falling nose-first into another jane’s tracheotomy hole. Classy.

Hustle & Flow (2005)
Audiences learn that it’s hard out there on a pimp, but even harder on his hoes. While Terrence Howard’s lead character tries to break out of hustling whores to make it as a rapper, he slaps around the mother of his children, kicks out his biggest earner and forces his most loyal girl to have sex with a sleazeball so he can buy a new microphone. Nonetheless, Howard scores laughs with flippant urban dialogue and, in the end, makes it big. Hustle & Flow shows how Hollywood’s evolved over the years: not only has the industry found ways to fold prostitution plotlines into every type of genre—drama, comedy, underdog tales—but now it’s trying to cover all of that ground in one single film.

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