Courtland: When this thing happened, were you working very hard?
Lily: Yeah, but not at the bank. - George Brent & Barbara Stanwyck, Baby Face
I recently watched several more movies with harlot heroines; here’s what I thought of them.
Baby Face (1933) was filmed before Hollywood started enforcing the Hays Code in earnest in the summer of 1934, and it shows. Barbara Stanwyck plays the title character, Lily Powers, whose father employs her as a barmaid in his speakeasy and, as she states quite clearly, has been pimping her to his better customers since she was 14. But an elderly patron of the establishment takes an interest in her welfare and introduces her to Nietzsche, telling her not to be ashamed of her sexuality but to use it to get what she wants rather than allowing herself to be exploited by her father. After Fate gives her a little push she finally takes his advice and goes to New York, where she seduces the hiring manager of a large bank to give her a position, then literally sleeps her way up the ladder of success, ruthlessly trading each patron for a more highly-placed one until she becomes the president’s kept woman. Her rise is metaphorically chronicled by the camera panning up the outside of the building each time she gets “promoted”. Lily is never portrayed as evil; it is her callousness that is shown as negative, not her sexuality, and even that is the result of her desperate struggle to succeed. And though she eventually grows beyond the former she is a whore to the end. Furthermore, her best friend is her black maid, whom she defends against anyone who criticizes her (including the sugar daddy who would prefer her replaced). I sat down to watch this movie for its historical interest, but both my husband and I truly enjoyed every minute of it; I suggest you watch the recently-discovered uncut version, which was too intense for even pre-code censors and so was heavily edited for theatrical release. And keep your eyes (and ears) open for a young John Wayne in a small part.
Idiocracy (2006) Frank has been trying to get us to watch this Mike Judge comedy for several years, and probably would’ve succeeded more quickly had he told me the female lead was a prostitute. The setup is this: a top secret Army project puts a man and a woman into suspended animation to test a plan to freeze highly-trained soldiers until they’re needed. The hero, Private Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), is selected as a guinea pig because he’s so average, but no female soldier is dumb enough to volunteer so they get a streetwalker named Rita (Maya Rudolph) to do so in return for the Army getting local prosecutors to drop (apparently serious) charges. They’re only supposed to be asleep for a year, but a comedic situation causes them to be bureaucratically overlooked for 500 years; they awaken to find that due to disproportionate reproduction of the hopelessly stupid they’re now the two most intelligent people on the planet. Hijinks of course ensue. I really wanted to like this and it did have some funny moments, but all in all it fell kind of flat; Rita, though likeable and very slightly smarter than the hero, was in the end just a typical “hooker with a heart of gold” and the movie holds on to the tired, stupid “pimps and hos” stereotype right up to (literally) the last second.
Klute (1971) This was one of those movies that left me wondering if I had watched the same film as the critics. Jane Fonda’s portrayal of the troubled call girl Bree Daniels was good but certainly not Oscar material, and Donald Sutherland, whose performances are often drowsy, was positively somnambulistic as private eye John Klute. And though there’s certainly some suspense as to how the murderer will try to get Bree and how Klute will save her, his identity was obvious before the end of the first act (which rather negates any claim to mystery). Fonda portrays Bree as a real person and does have a number of lines which I could imagine as coming out of the mouth of a real escort, but of course she has to be “broken”, has to have a history with a pimp (though she isn’t with him now), and has to be “rescued” not merely from the murderer but also from her life. Maybe some of this was new ground for squares in 1971, but for a modern hooker it’s both old and patronizing.
Unforgiven (1992) When a cowboy takes a knife to the face of a brothel prostitute in a tiny little Wild West town, Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman) displays an extreme version of the “bros before hos” mentality by letting the man off with no penalty other than a fine paid to the brothel’s owner (to compensate his economic loss on the girl, whom he paid to bring from the East). This understandably angers the other whores, who take up a collection and raise a $1000 bounty (over $22,000 in 2012 dollars) for someone to kill the brute and his accomplice. A young assassin wannabe recruits retired gunfighter Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) and his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) for the job, and the action proceeds from there. I don’t care much for westerns so I probably wasn’t fully able to appreciate the way the movie upends the genre’s conventions, but I do have a few critical observations. I have no complaints about the way the women were presented; though really minor characters they are individuals rather than cookie-cutter saloon girls, and the most forgiving of them is actually the victim herself. The accomplice is also interesting; he seems to feel genuine remorse for failing to stop his friend’s evil action. But there’s just a little too much stereotyped sexism in the attitudes of some of the others, who come across less as real men of 1880 and more as modern men overplaying 19th-century attitudes to show how bad they were. The sheriff, for example, rules his town like a dictator (even to the point of gun control), is willing to beat men half to death for disobeying him and is the brothel owner’s friend, yet uncharacteristically lets the cowboy off the hook with neither jail nor violence because his victim is “just a whore”. I realize this was necessary to set events in motion, but it was still a very false note in what was otherwise a very fine portrayal of a brutal, power-mad thug with a badge. I also felt the film’s anti-violence message was a bit heavy-handed, especially considering the way it was conveniently set aside in the last act.
Waterloo Bridge (1931) In this pre-code drama Mae Clarke is Myra Deauville, an American chorus girl who is stranded in London when her show closes on the eve of World War I, and turns to prostitution to support herself. During an air raid she meets a naïve young soldier named Roy Cronin (Douglass Montgomery) on Waterloo Bridge, where she had gone to solicit soldiers coming from Waterloo Station. Roy is American but enlisted in the Canadian Army to fight; he pursues a friendship with Myra because she is also American, not realizing (until someone tells him much later) that she is a hooker. Myra believes herself “ruined” and so does her best to push Roy away before he falls in love with her, but he’s craftier than he is wise and keeps managing to trick her into continuing the relationship. I found the movie both touching and believable; James Whale (who later that year directed Clarke again in Frankenstein) crafts a bittersweet, doomed romance that is far more realistic than the overly-romanticized 1940 remake. Myra’s self-rejection is contrasted both with that of her “happy hooker” friend and that of Roy’s mother, who sees her as a good person and welcomes her as a house-guest even after Myra shares her secret. What Waterloo Bridge tells us is NOT that a whore is a ruined woman who doesn’t deserve love, but rather that a woman who judges herself too harshly can’t accept it.
One Year Ago Yesterday
“A Little Help From Our Friends” criticizes gay-rights activists and self-proclaimed “liberals” and “feminists” who either ignore or actively oppose sex worker rights, and calls upon sex workers to concentrate on our own issues rather than wasting effort fighting the causes of other groups who do not respond in kind.