Lookin’ for a Good Time? Cinema’s Most Notable Working Girls (and Boys)
By Annie Cooper
Who are the women and men of sex work? Are they wanton waifs, serving out a just punishment for poor life choices? Are they victims, in need of rescue and reform? Or are they cheerfully self-employed citizens, empowered by the freedom their work brings?
With rare exception, most people involved in the sex industry lead covert existences, some going as far to juggle double lives to hide their true professions and protect their loved ones. That’s the lot dealt to Jason, the entrepreneur at the center of the sexy, smart web series CandyGirls. How can he tell his sweet, unsuspecting girlfriend that his successful “VIP concierge service” is actually a high-priced Hollywood escort operation?
You are watching Episode 1, “The World’s Oldest Profession”, of comedy CandyGirls
Series Synopsis: Jason Bloom (BEN KURLAND) is a recent MBA grad in a struggling economy. So he did what any smart, ambitious, enterprising young man would do — he started his own escort agency!
With the help of former-escort-turned-Hollywood-Madam Eliza Heller (ELENI SYMEONIDES), Jason arranges “dates” for his wealthy clientele, and keeps his working girls out of trouble… all while keeping his secret life a secret from his increasingly suspicious girlfriend Katie (RYA MEYERS).
CandyGirls is a sharp, sexy, true-to-life dramatic comedy that asks the question: How long can you live two lives, before they both intersect?
Complex questions, these, fit for scholars much more…scholarly than I. One thing is certain, though – movie makers and goers alike respond to tales of paid hussies. The oldest profession is endlessly fascinating to us. Need proof? The first motion pictures produced for audiences appeared around 1895, and the first depiction of prostitution showed up very shortly thereafter, in 1900. Oscar favors the hooker-playing actor, too. (See: Janet Gaynor, Donna Reed, Shirley Jones, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Mira Sorvino, Kim Bassinger, Charlize Theron, etc., etc.)
All this cinematic attention hasn’t made prostitution any less mysterious or subversive a subject matter, and certainly no less illegal. Maybe Jason ought to drop some hints to his girlfriend via a hooker-heavy film festival. She’s bound to be won over by the performances in these movies, and if she isn’t, maybe he ought to consider shopping around. If only Jason had a way to meet girls…oh, wait.
Charlize Theron (Played prostitue Aileen Wuornos, the lesbian serial killer, in Monster. We just couldn’t add that picture to this story!)
Camille (Greta Garbo, Camille, 1936)
Poor tubercular Camille is by far film’s most frequently-portrayed hooker. Before Garbo’s famous turn, which garnered her an Oscar nomination, there were at least eight other versions filmed, starting as early as 1912. When she made her first talkie, Anna Christie, (in which she also played a prostitute),“Garbo Talks!” was the enthusiastic ad line. This led to the inevitable joke upon the release of Camille: “Garbo Coughs.” Some humor is, indeed, timeless.
Cabiria Ceccarelli/Charity Valentine (Giulietta Masina, Nights of Cabiria, 1956, & Shirley Maclaine, Sweet Charity, 1969)
If someone I loved took my purse and then pushed me into a river to die a watery death, I’d be mighty sad, but I’d wring out my skirt and carry on. If it happened twice, I’d just let the river take me, because clearly things between me and life were not meant to be.
Not so with Cabiria, the plucky prostitute of Federico Fellini’s creation. Later re-imagined (and somewhat sanititzed as a “dime-a-dance” girl, rather than a full-fledged ho) as Charity Hope Valentine, Calibiria and Charity go chin-up and dance another day. You wouldn’t think a Fellini film could be made into a successful stage and movie musical, (I said “successful”, producers of Nine), but the fact that it was proves two things: 1. Bob Fosse could do anything, and 2. Any film will prove a hit if you have Sammy Davis, Jr. in a purple paisley pantsuit.
Shirley Maclaine, Sweet Charity, 1969
Joe Buck (Jon Voight, Midnight Cowboy, 1969)
Though Voight’s character moves to the big city in hopes of becoming a hustler, this isn’t really a movie about prostitution. It’s about friendship, loyalty, the kindness humans are able to show one another when the world is at its most grim. It’s also probably the reason your mother didn’t want you to move to New York. She was convinced you’d end up in a dark movie theatre, getting conned into kinky business with Bob Balaban.
Brenda Vaccaro and Jon Voight
Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda, Klute, 1971)
Playing Bree earned Fonda her first Oscar for Best Actress; she would earn another in 1978 for Coming Home. It’s sort of disappointing that she traded in her foxy Barbarella outfits for turtleneck sweaters and pleather jackets, but still – if there were any hooker I’d want helping me solve a tangled murder case, it would be Jane Fonda.
Xaviera Hollander (Lynn Redgrave, The Happy Hooker, 1975)
Based on the best-selling 1971 memoir, The Happy Hooker is the cheery, unapologetic true story of Xaviera Hollander. After leaving the dull routine of her post at the Dutch consolate to become a $1,000/night call girl, Hollander rose to become Manhattan’s premiere madam.
Repeated arrests and a tie-in to a NYPD corruption scandal forced Hollander to close up shop. She became a voice for the then-and-still-revolutionary notion of women taking control of their own sexual empowerment, and the author of the long-running “Call Me Madam” sex advice column for Penthouse. Hollander now produces theatre and runs a bed & breakfast in Amesterdam called the “Happy House”. Did you hear that, honey? My birthday is in October.
The Real Xaviera Hollander
Violet (Brooke Shields, Pretty Baby, 1978)
This film features a 12-year-old Brooke Shields as the daughter of a prostitute in a Storyville brothel. The fact that Shields’ Violet is inevitably drawn into prostitution, and has nude scenes to boot, caused significant controversy at the time. Though not as provocative as it sounds, we can still file this under “Movies That Would Never Get Made Today”, which is rather a shame, as director Louis Malle created a portrait of an often-forgotten time and place in American history, with a sensitivity that is both painful and nostalgic.
Miss Mona (Dolly Parton, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, 1982)
I think the people who want to legalize prostitution would have a much better case if all brothels performed spontaneous musical theatre numbers. I also really think it’s time for Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton team-up again. They’re both alive and they both look plastic-fantastic. Not judging. I have had a photo of Dolly on my bathroom mirror for at least 15 years. Truth.
Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds
Lana (Rebecca De Mornay, Risky Business, 1983)
In terms of iconic film moments, Tom Cruise’s sliding tighty-whitey living room dance is fairly high on the list. So high, in fact, that I’d bet most people have forgotten what this movie is actually about: a high school student who attempts to run a brothel out of his home while his parents are away. The instigator is not the teen himself, but the call girl with whom he has become involved, played with captivating sultriness by Rebecca De Mornay. You may remember the tighty-whiteys, but I remember them getting frisky in the ‘L’ train.
Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman, 1990)
Dear Nearly Every Woman With Whom I Graduated High School:
I get it. You love rags-to-princess stories and you love whore-to-society girl makeovers and you love payback to snooty Rodeo Drive shop snobs. You love them so much that you have had them on a torturous VCR loop from 1991 until today. So I shall throw you a bone, and include Roberts’ (okay, admittedly charming) Vivian in this list. Not because Pretty Woman is a fantastic movie (it is not), or because it presents either a valid, or interesting, or timely depiction of prostitution (it does not). I include it simply because it made a lot of money, (est. $463.4 million, y’all. Damn.), and in the world of Hollywood, money = noteworthy.
Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite, 1992)
As the birth mother of sports writer Lenny’s (Woody Allen) son, Mira Sorvino took the character of Linda Ash far beyond the tired “hooker with a heart of gold”. Sorvino’s Linda was smarter than she looked, more savvy than she acted, and more kind than she had any right to be. I defy any person with a beating heart to watch her scenes and not want to be her very bestest friend.
Woody Allen and Mira Sorvino
Deuce Bigelow (Rob Schnieder, Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, 1999)
We are gathered here today to give thanks to God Almighty for the existence of Wee Robbie Schnieder, for without him, all the movies featuring male prostitutes would be total downers. Deuce Bigelow never actually had sex with any of the women on his client list, (save the one with whom he was in love.) Instead, he gained their friendship and trust, and in the process, helped them feel better about whatever eccentricities led them to seek out paid companionship in the first place. Yes, it’s ridiculous. But at least nobody dies of consumption.
Annie Cooper is a writer, armchair public transportation advocate, and aspiring taco critic. She has written columns and specialized training materials related to children with special needs, parenting issues, and early childhood development. Her writings are geared toward therapists, social workers, and teachers of young children with complex medical and developmental issues. She recently left her job in social services in an effort to become part of the problem, rather than the solution. Annie lives in Los Angeles, but she’s not from there – nobody’s from there.