Hollywood’s depiction of whores is every bit as accurate as its depiction of cops, lawyers, doctors, reporters, scientists and many other professions, which is to say not at all. The Hollywood prostitute is a curious creature; she looks like a call girl but dresses and acts like a streetwalker (except, of course, for her heart of gold). This applies only to main characters; seedy-looking streetwalkers may be added to a street scene to give it a more run-down, low-class, skid row sort of atmosphere. Once in a great while there will be a high-class call girl (or a courtesan if the show is set far enough in the past), but this is a very rare exception. In the universe of movies and television, streetwalkers outnumber the rest of us by many hundreds to one, despite the fact that in real life they make up only about 15% of whores.
That having been said, I must still admit that I like movies and have a soft spot for positively-portrayed cinematic whores even when their details are less than credible; after all, just because I know that few people in real life fall in love as quickly as they do in movies doesn’t prevent my enjoyment of romantic stories. So this page is just a list of movie prostitutes, with brief commentary. It won’t usually review the movie itself, just mention the working girl character and talk a little about how I feel she’s depicted. I’ll add movies as I see or think about them, and include links to their pages at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).
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.
Dangerous Beauty (1998) is a dramatization of the life of Veronica Franco (1546-1591), a celebrated courtesan and poetess of 16th century Venice. It was adapted from a book called The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal (the title may strike you as vaguely familiar) and IMHO does as good a job as any movie could at presenting an honest depiction of the give and take which permeates The Life even to this day. Male viewers may consider it a bit chick-flickish, but my husband didn’t complain.
Doctor Detroit (1983) is an absurd 80s comedy whose heart and head could not be farther apart. In heart, the movie borrows heavily from Man of La Mancha; Dan Aykroyd portrays a timid university professor with a powerful sense of chivalry who embarks on a Quixotic mission to protect three beautiful hookers from gangster domination by posing as their flamboyant “pimp”, the titular character. At heart, therefore, the film portrays whores as women just as worthy of love, respect and chivalrous protection as any other woman. Factually, though, it is populated by the usual silly Hollywood “hooker” and “pimp” stereotypes moving through a ridiculous series of settings and situations which resemble the real lives of whores about as closely as The Blues Brothers resembles actual church fundraising. But if you’re a Dan Aykroyd and/or ’80s comedy fan and can check your brain at the door, you’ll probably find it an amusing way to kill 90 minutes.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Stanley Kubrick’s last film, casts Tom Cruise as a foolish, adolescent man so smug in his preconceptions that when they are challenged by several strange incidents in one night, he goes off the deep end. Like so many men Cruise’s character, Dr. Bill, is thoroughly certain of the Madonna/whore duality; he believes that all women are either “good girls” or “bad girls”, with no gray area whatsoever. But after a Christmas party at the home of a wealthy patient, Dr. Bill finds out that two women he thought to be Madonnas (his wife and the daughter of a friend and patient) have pronounced whorish streaks; confused and uncertain, he then goes into the New York night to pick up a streetwalker and discovers that she is a sweet, honest, real human being. This succession of blows to his world view sends him spinning out of control, and he experiences a long and nightmarish adventure in which his life and family are both threatened due to his foolishness and inability to accept uncomfortable facts as they are. Like so many of Kubrick’s movies, this one demands a lot from the viewer and refuses to spoon-feed him with simple answers. Hint: The title is important to understanding the strange events of the second half of the film.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) features what must be the most widely-remembered portrayal of a streetwalker in the past several decades, namely the Vietnamese whore who opens the second half by sauntering on to the screen while “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” plays on the soundtrack. Her “me so horny” and “me love you long time” advertising spiel quickly became standard catchphrases for anyone portraying a stereotypical Asian prostitute, and they were made even more famous when rappers 2 Live Crew sampled the lines for their 1989 hit “Me So Horny”. I feel compelled to point out, however, that though the hooker’s approach is rendered comical by her poor command of English, it is actually the same strategy employed by many porn stars, sex writers and whores: The appeal to male fantasy by the pretense that one’s primary motivation is lust rather than profit.
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.
Indecent Proposal (1993) was, IMHO, an awful, depressing movie; a couple in dire financial straits (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore) see a way out of trouble when a billionaire (Robert Redford) offers them $1,000,000 to spend one night with the wife. After some deliberation they agree, and the rest of the movie is nothing but Sturm und Drang as Harrelson’s character is eaten up by jealousy and the ease with which his wife took to whoredom. Obviously, I’m prejudiced; my husband would never have inflicted emotional torture on me for rescuing our entire economy by one night of work (or even several years of work), but then he’s not a shallow, two-faced dickhead like the husband in the movie. Another fatal flaw in what could’ve been a provocative exploration of the falsity of the Madonna/whore duality was the way that the edge of the dilemma was dulled by a typical Hollywood reductio ad absurdum; the fee isn’t simply generous, it’s a MILLION DOLLARS; the couple couldn’t just use the money, they’re sunk without it; and the billionaire is played by freaking ROBERT REDFORD, for Aphrodite’s sake! I daresay few people could’ve declined the offer, no matter what they claim in public, and that totally invalidates the moral dilemma.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is Norman Jewison’s screen version of the seminal Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera released three years earlier. I review it here because, as in so many popular treatments of the life of Jesus, it portrays Mary Magdalene as a prostitute; in fact, my first encounter with that tradition was in listening to the album at the age of 12. In the number “Strange Thing Mystifying” Judas takes exception to Jesus’ relationship with her, provoking a musical argument which is followed by “Everything’s Alright”, in which she massages Jesus’ feet with ointment in order to calm him down; later in the film she sings “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, in which she expresses confusion and frustration over her inability to think of Jesus as dispassionately as she does her clients. This view of Mary appears to have been influenced by the Gnostic Gospels, except that here it is Judas rather than Peter who argues with Jesus over his treatment of Mary. The music is just as good as it ever was; personally, I thought Webber was better when he was partnered with Rice but that’s just IMHO. As for the film itself, well, the fact that it was made in 1973 is amply demonstrated by its hippie-style costumes, minimalist sets and heavy-handed symbolism. Even so, it’s still worth re-watching if you’re over 40 or enjoying for the first time if you like early ‘70s rock.
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.
The Lost Weekend (1945) is one of the earliest positive and truthful depictions of a hooker I can think of. Gloria (played by Doris Dowling) is intelligent, well-organized, conservatively dressed and not remotely pathetic; in fact, she is portrayed so subtly that few critics seem even to realize she’s a whore despite her clear statement that she broke a “business date” to spend time with the protagonist (Ray Milland), whom she is sweet on. This groundbreaking movie is definitely worth seeing, and earned Milland an Oscar for his convincing role as a badly-troubled alcoholic (at a time when that was a taboo subject).
Man of La Mancha (1972) is of course the film of the musical adaptation of Cervantes’ immortal Don Quixote, and though the whore Aldonza is of the very lowest tier of our profession the blessed lunatic Quixote sees her inner beauty through the dirt and degradation and hard-bitten cynicism and through his mad, innocent (but ultimately pure and true) adoration she comes to recognize her own innate nobility. I first saw this film when I was 14, and it made such a powerful impression on me that the soundtrack became one of my favorite albums for many years (and still is). And if a powerful theme and great music aren’t enough to win you over, let me add that Aldonza is played by the immortal Sophia Loren.
Never On Sunday (1960) Ilya is the most popular whore in Piraeus, the port of Athens; she entertains the sailors by swimming near the ships, and every Sunday she has an open house with music and food for her friends and clients. She loves her life until she meets Homer Thrace, a moralistic American busybody who views her as a symbol for the decline of Greece and sets about trying to “save” her, with his efforts bankrolled by a local landlord who would love to see Ilya out of the business so she stops trying to organize the other whores in a rent strike against him. My description cannot possibly do this movie justice; you just have to see it for yourself. It’s one of those films that just makes you feel good, and unlike most American films on the subject it does not end with the “rescue” of the “fallen woman”, but rather a declaration that Ilya and her life are just fine as they are. Highly recommended!
New Orleans (1947) This movie is worth seeing for the performances by jazz greats including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, “Kid” Ory and Woody Herman, but it could’ve been so very much better than it was that I just can’t give it a good review. First of all, though the first half of the movie takes place in Storyville, the face and fate of the District is whitewashed (both figuratively and literally). The film tries to make it seem as though the District was mostly casinos and music clubs with prostitution as but one seedy component (that the other businesspeople look down on); in reality the music and bars revolved around the brothels. Here, the District is closed down by local pressure from “society” snobs; in reality, most New Orleanians were happy with the system and the pressure was externally applied by the prudish Secretary of the Navy. And though the story should’ve been about the inhabitants of Storyville it’s instead a sort of “Lady and the Tramp” thing where a Yankee opera singer falls in love with the “scoundrel” club owner. And though I love the song “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans”, once or twice would’ve been enough.
Pretty Baby (1978) This movie, which presents a far more realistic view of life in Storyville than New Orleans does, is a perfect example of how much more repressive and anti-sexual our culture has become; there is simply no way it could be made in the United States today. 12-year-old Brooke Shields is Violet, the daughter of a prostitute who was born and raised in a brothel; though her virginity is auctioned off at the end of the first act it’s made clear that she was working before that, though “only for French” as her mother (Susan Sarandon) tells a client. And does this life “destroy” her or make her into a pathetic, empty husk of a girl? Nope; her life is normal to her, and her loss of virginity a rite of passage which is celebrated by the whores and the other kids alike. The beauty of the movie is that it is neither judgmental nor glamorized; director Louis Malle presents the events dispassionately and leaves the viewer to make his own judgments about the relative morality of the people and events depicted therein. All in all, a much better film than I expected, and if Brooke Shields had continued to develop her acting skills from the extraordinary promise and screen presence she displays here, she would’ve become a superstar rather than a relatively minor actress.
Pretty Woman (1990): It’s nigh-impossible to find an internet discussion on this film without at least a few would-be critics complaining that it is “unrealistic”. This would merely be a case of “No shit, Sherlock” if they actually knew what they were talking about, but they don’t; none of them ever mention that Julia Roberts’ character Vivian is a Hollywood whore who looks like a call girl but acts like a streetwalker. Nobody talks about how the film makes her only barely a prostitute by saying she’s very new at the job, was pushed into it by extremity and cried through her first call; nor how it cheats by having Richard Gere’s character “accidentally” pick her up rather than simply hiring her. Few of them even seem to notice that the plot was lifted straight from Shaw’s Pygmalion (on which My Fair Lady was also based); you didn’t think that real-life Eliza Dolittles actually made a living just by selling flowers, did you? No, these jackasses bray that the film is unrealistic because it doesn’t show Vivian as a pathetic, diseased drug addict who is dominated by a pimp. In other words, they denounce the film for following Hollywood’s unrealistic stereotypes rather than the ones preferred by governments, neofeminists and bluenoses, and thereby reveal themselves as nothing but opinionated ignoramuses. It’s a romantic comedy about a hooker made by Disney and you expect cinéma vérité? Please, get a life.
The Pyx (1973) stars Karen Black as Elizabeth Lucy, a Montreal call girl who is found dead in the very first scene; the film alternates between the police investigation into her death and flashback scenes depicting her last week of life. Black’s portrayal of the troubled but good-hearted girl is both sympathetic and realistic; Elizabeth is shown to be neither better nor worse than other women, and her problems (such as heroin addiction) are balanced with examples of her good character (such as her efforts to protect another working girl and her gay roommate from the villains). I suspect the writer had some inside information because details such as Elizabeth’s being an independent contractor and the police harassment of her madam rang completely true and aren’t often seen in movies of this type. My husband and I both found the movie to be suspenseful and interesting, though he felt the pacing of the last act was much too slow; I suspect that its low IMDb rating is due in part to that, but mostly because the film is incorrectly labeled as horror and those looking for supernatural content and finding instead a combination detective thriller and drama might be disappointed. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that though I came to know and like Elizabeth and to dread her impending doom, I was pleased to see she faced the end nobly and, in her own way, heroically.
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949): Your surprise at seeing a classic war movie on this list cannot exceed mine at seeing John Wayne’s character, the hard-bitten Sergeant Stryker, go home from a bar with a friendly hooker. The Hayes Office would obviously have never passed this scene had he actually used her services, but he demonstrates his innate goodness by paying her for the call anyway after discovering she has a baby to support. The encounter shows him that his life, though miserable, is not as hard as that of some others, so I would consider this a positive portrayal even though the woman seems to have been forced into her situation by circumstance rather than freely choosing it.
Sin City (2005): I am reliably informed by guys who read comics that Frank Miller is obsessed with whores and even made several well-known comic characters (including the iconic Catwoman) into current or former prostitutes. Despite this, Mr. Miller apparently knows no more about us than the average person, so his depiction of all the whores of “Old Town” as streetwalkers is both predictable and provocative of eye-rolling in those who know better. However, I have to give points to a movie in which hookers are organized enough to hire a ninja assassin to protect them and spunky enough to do what is necessary to rid themselves of male enemies who wish to enslave them (even though they of course need the hero’s help in planning the latter, because he’s the hero and that’s the nature of the beast). I also forgive their outlandish costumes because, after all, this is a comic-book universe.
Soylent Green (1973) is of course most famous for its last line and the environmental disaster overtaking the world it depicts, but those who haven’t seen it recently (and who aren’t as attuned to prostitution issues as I am) may not remember that practically every speaking female character in the movie was a whore. For those unfamiliar with the film, Soylent Green stars Charlton Heston as a police detective in a near-future (2022) New York City in which pollution has destroyed most of the Earth’s ability to produce crops and rural areas are therefore turned over entirely to vast and heavily-guarded farms – resulting in the entire population being crowded into already-overcrowded cities. Since there isn’t remotely enough housing most people are either homeless or living in critically-overcrowded tenements, and attractive young women escape this hell by becoming “furniture”, prostitutes who are allowed to live in luxury apartments in exchange for providing sexual favors to the tenant. The most interesting aspect of this situation, IMHO, lies outside the confines of the movie itself; whenever it comes up on discussion boards it’s almost inevitable that some neofeminist will express how “disgusting” or “degrading” the lives of the “furniture” are, as though starving in the street is better. Nearly everyone in this dystopia (except for the small elite who can afford apartments) is treated as subhuman (and in fact the whole plot hinges on it); it’s not like women are singled out for it. In fact, educated people similarly prostitute themselves as “books”, earning a living by doing research in the chaotic mess into which libraries and records have been plunged. Of course neofeminists never consider such things, which makes me wonder how the planned remake will handle the “furniture”; I suspect that male “furniture” will also appear and they’ll all be depicted as utterly miserable due to their “humiliation”.
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) The 4th Hammer Dracula film begins with an extended scene in which three respectable gentlemen visit an exclusive brothel and meet the disinherited son of a nobleman who dabbles in black magic, but appears to mostly use it for supporting himself by playing pimp. The three have a sort of secret club dedicated to experiencing every exciting, forbidden thing they can think of, and the pimp promises to show them a black mass but in reality tricks them into reviving Dracula from the powder into which he crumbled after his destruction at the end of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. As in most of the Hammer Dracula outings, Christopher Lee has so few lines he probably memorized them in ten minutes and the plot is as full of holes as a Swiss cheese; furthermore, the ending of this one is almost completely inexplicable. But as usual, the sets and costumes are gorgeous, the women more so, and the sexual undertones are…well, if you like Hammer films, you already know.
Total Recall (1990) is a science-fiction adventure set in a future human colony on Mars, where prostitution is legal (at least in the red-light district called “Venusville”). Not only is the heroine Melina (Schwarzenegger’s love interest) a working whore, nearly all of the positive female characters are! Their brothel is a front for the resistance movement dedicated to overthrowing the evil dictator of Mars, and a number of the girls (including some mutated ones) are active and even heroic members of the resistance (as were some French prostitutes during the Nazi occupation). In addition to enjoying the clever plot and sci-fi Arnold action, I must admit I really enjoyed seeing the whore cast as the “good girl” and the wife as the “bad girl” for a change!
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.
Whore (1991) was billed as “The dark side of Pretty Woman”, and that is an apt description; where Pretty Woman portrays a sort of Disneyfied Hollywood hooker stereotype, Whore portrays a Ken Russell-ized social purity activist hooker stereotype. Both characters are supposed to be streetwalkers, both are innocents who fall into bad ol’ prostitution because of hard knocks, and both have to be rescued from their terrible lives by men. Both films make the typical assumption that most whores are controlled by pimps; Pretty Woman’s Vivian vows never to have one (implying that most others do) and Whore’s Liz is controlled by a rather nasty one (though to the movie’s credit, he’s white and dresses like a businessman). But while Pretty Woman is a Disney fairy tale with a happy ending in which the heroine is rescued by a handsome prince, Whore is a Grimm fairy tale in which the heroine’s life is one horrible misadventure after another. I’m sure there really are girls whose lives are as horrible as Liz’s, but for most of us that portrayal is as much a fantasy as Vivian’s life is, despite the opinions of film critics who wouldn’t know a call girl if one sashayed up and kissed them on the nose.
The Wicker Man (1973) has been called “the Citizen Kane of horror movies”, and it certainly transcends its genre. It would be more precise to say “genres”, because it actually falls into several simultaneously. To describe very much about it would ruin the experience, so I’ll limit myself to saying that the film portrays a zealously Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) investigating a possible crime on a remote Scottish island which is home to a fully-developed pagan society (ruled by Christopher Lee). What makes this movie interesting for our purposes is that it contains what is to my knowledge the only positive cinematic portrayal of a sacred prostitute (Britt Ekland), if not the only cinematic portrayal.