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Despite my headline, the correct term for someone who offers sex in exchange for goods — the decent term, the human term — is “sex worker.” It implies you have a job, for starters. It removes judgment. But that’s not what you’ll hear it called in movies.
Gigolo, hustler, hooker, whore, call girl, rent boy — it’s more like that. And that’s Hollywood: slow to change, and quick to exploit. But then along comes a great film, a film where real human truths are excavated in spite of its old-fashioned ideas about morality. Art will do that sometimes, even when the language is out of date.
So here’s a sampling of how film history has handled the world’s oldest profession. Anyone looking for a thesis topic?
Aesthetically speaking, the ’80s began with Paul Schrader’s moody crime drama, one where Richard Gere plays a high-class call-dude framed for murder. It’s sleek and beautiful to behold, a cold and darkly assertive movie. And if it’s not exactly progressive about its subject matter — he’s, y’know, shallow and sad and all that, like movies usually expect its sex-merchants to be — the presence of Gere as a prostitute in charge of his own life (more or less, and mostly because the character is male) was at least steadfastly entrepreneurial and era-ready in Armani suits.
The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas
You don’t cast Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton in a movie about prostitution unless it’s a jolly, sweet-natured, warm-hearted musical comedy about prostitution deep in the heart of Bible Belt Texas, which is what this is. Good Ol’ Boys and Good Time Gals sing and dance, then the women take on entire college football team for money, and make it look like a job a person could really love. At the end, Dolly and her sex-team sing “Hard Candy Christmas” and you cry. It’s adorable.
Fox and His Friends
Fox is a blue-collar gay guy who — while turning tricks to make ends meet and, most importantly, buy the lottery ticket he believes will set him up for life — gets mixed up with some sophisticated, upwardly-mobile types. These are some of the meanest, coldest homosexuals you’ll ever see committed to film, and writer-director-star Rainer Werner Fassbinder cuts to the bone of human cruelty in this ruthless 1975 classic of feel-bad cinema. It predates (and eviscerates) the “It Gets Better” video by a few decades and gives fresh, ugly meaning to the term “friends.”
The Girlfriend Experience
The most shocking revelation in Steven Soderbergh’s judgment-free character study of a Manhattan escort (played by real-life porn star Sasha Grey) is its depiction of the utterly mundane quality of sex work. Grey stars as a woman with a full slate of professional and financial obligations as the recession collapses everything around her. Call it a prequel to Soderbergh’s Magic Mike or, as I called it in a review around the time of its release: The Happy Hooker Who’s Also a Licensed Professional Counselor and Possibly a Little Bit Lonely Because Her Own Boyfriend Isn’t Always Supportive of Her Career Choice but Is Really Mostly Concerned With Her Stock Portfolio Taking a Beating in This Awful Economy.
The Happy Hooker
A product of 1970s free-spirited sex, Xaviera Hollander’s memoir was about choosing to sell sex as a lucrative career, a decision she made not out of cliche desperation, but as a feminist act. Hollywood came running and turned it into a comedy starring Lynn Redgrave, whose performance is loose, comforting, and wise. As revolutionary as Deep Throat (minus the real sex), it also served as a jocular critique of male sexuality; “You’re all boys,” Redgrave offers at the end of the trailer. And you know she’s right.
Before the internet and the show COPS ran all the gay male escorts off of Santa Monica Boulevard, this graphic, goofy, avant-garde, romantic comedy from Rick Castro and Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce captured the last exhale of the 1990s-era gay-for-pay sexual rebellion. LaBruce plays a German experimental filmmaker who’s obsessed with one particular hustler (model Tony Ward), scouring the streets to find his Mr. Right and encountering a healthy amount of extreme sexual hijinks along the way. It’s an energetic, Warholian trip into classic Hollywood storytelling and contemporary weirdness featuring real gay porn stars, as well as queer performance artists like Ron Athey and Vaginal Davis.
Any movie can superficially pathologize a prostitute character, but in Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid thriller, Jane Fonda’s portrayal of an unhappy hooker (confident on the surface, exhausted and slowly unraveling inside) is haunting and human to this day. The 1971 film won her the Academy Award for her portrayal of a woman assisting a detective (Donald Sutherland) on a missing person case, only to find herself stalked by a psychopath. It’s one of those lucky times the Oscars got it right.
Human trafficking and sex slavery are the ugly, terrifying flipside of every forthright, feminist-leaning portrayal of conscious sex work. And this agonizing Swedish film from Lukas Moodysson (We Are The Best!) — one loosely based on a true story — explores that darkest of worlds. Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is a Russian girl, abandoned by her mother, and thrown to the wolves. Rape, violence, slavery, kidnapping, and worse wait for her, and there’s nothing even approaching a happy ending. If you dare to watch, Moodysson goes there without flinching (and, most importantly, without exploitation) from his weighty subject matter.
Loneliness, longing, and desperation hang in the sweaty air throughout this 1969 John Schlesinger film. Street hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and best pal Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) wander through New York looking for a safe place, not realizing that the city has already discarded them both. One of the most important American films of its era for its frank subject matter and nuanced expression of human sexuality (male-prostitute-as-sympathetic-protagonist was not the kind of role Gregory Peck was going to take on anytime in the 1960s) well as for its direction, editing, and performances, it helped usher in grittier styles of filmmaking and acting in the ’70s. It was also the first (and only) “X-rated” film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.
What a weird movie. Released in 1990, it delivered a Cinderella-like fantasy of squeaky-clean, Disney-approved prostitution, and it made Julia Roberts a grinning, winning movie star. Crowd-pleasing to a fault, not one minute of it rings true (sorry, Romy and Michelle, this is a fact). Weirder still, it co-starred American Gigolo’s Richard Gere as the trick who turns into a prince, making for a very strange bookending to a decade of glamorous, fashionable, empty sex in cinema. Utterly disposable and corny, an example of feminism in reverse: why do people love it so much again?