Photo by John P. Johnson
True story: A famous writer I know shops a screenplay that features several female characters. As it turns out, “several” is a few too many for the liking of his male producer, who asks the writer to collapse them into one catchall woman. And, asks the producer, while the writer is at it, could he turn this new female character into a whore? I tell this story to a few filmmakers, none of whom is remotely appalled or surprised. “It’s no different from them saying, ‘Make him a cop,’” says one male screenwriter friend. Somehow, I’m not convinced.
Not long ago, within the space of a few days, I saw two films in which women exchanged sex for cash. In the first, John Herzfeld’s 15 Minutes, a gleefully cynical satire about our culture of celebrity, the prostitute’s bad luck comes in the form of a publicity-hungry psycho. In her big scene, the ill-fated escort enters a fleabag hotel room, unhooks her bra and is almost immediately murdered. The prostitute in the other film, The Center of the World, is luckier — she’s in an art-house movie, where the kinks are sexual and intellectual. The poetry of the film’s title is borrowed from the Gustave Courbet painting of a woman’s vulva, called Origin of the World, which hangs discreetly in a corner of Paris’ Musée d’Orsay. The film, directed by Wayne Wang and co-written by Wang, novelist Paul Auster and Auster’s novelist wife, Siri Hustvedt, isn’t as beautiful as the painting, but it’s similarly modest in scope (the film was shot on digital) and profound by metaphoric implication: The title of each implies that there is something exalted, even spiritual, about pussy.
Dozens of movies are released each year in which women play high-end escorts and low-down whores taking it every which way for money. It’s a theme as popular in the multiplex as it is at the art house, a film subject nearly as old as the medium itself. The episodic The Downward Path, made in 1900, includes a story called “The Girl Who Went Astray”; during the ’teens, the passage of the 1910 White Slave Traffic Act inspired numerous “white slave” films, including Traffic in Souls, banned in Chicago but a hit with female audiences elsewhere. Most prostitute films can be divided between good-whore and bad-whore: In the bad-whore stories, women are generally bit players in some larger drama, a little tacky trim on the genre staple; they are the women who stroll the streets and lean into car windows, sit in police stations wearing smeared lipstick and rabbit-fur coats, and, as in 15 Minutes, often wind up dead. The female complement of the cowboy’s lament: They Die With Their Bras Off.
Good whores, in contrast, almost always get sanctified by being tragic or by getting out of the life altogether, as in Butterfield 8, Pretty Woman and Leaving Las Vegas. The Center of the World (see review, Film section) is a good-whore movie, too. A dot-commer waggishly named Richard Longman hires Florence, a lap dancer with no last name, to accompany him to Vegas for a weekend. (Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker are the earnest, good-looking leads.) He gives her 10 grand, and she gives him the lap dancer’s version of The Rules: no kissing and no penetration, at least on her end. Although Parker never opens her legs to us, Sarsgaard flops around without his drawers and both actors appear in various stages of undress. They may not engage in real sex, Dogma-style, but they do go through the motions. In doubtless homage to that ne plus ultra of art-house erotica, Last Tango in Paris, Florence even stuffs an ice cube up Richard’s ass (though from his grimace, you’d think she’d used the entire tray).
Despite these occasional giggly lapses, Wang’s film is an honest attempt to tell a sexually explicit story that is at once thoughtful and hot to trot, one that fuses up-to-the-minute technology (digital gives the film the intimacy of a diary) with up-to-the-minute cultural discourse in which the female sex worker is just as aware of herself as a construct as is any Berkeley Ph.D. candidate. All of which is complicated by the startling fact that Wang has said he doesn’t consider Florence a prostitute, because she doesn’t allow herself to get fucked. But penetration doesn’t make a woman a whore — taking money for sex does, as any law on the books (or Rubyfruit Jungle, in which Rita Mae Brown’s heroine lobs grapefruits at a naked man and gets paid for it) will tell you. Which is why, for all its ideas and sincerity, in the end The Center of the World isn’t any different from 15 Minutes, a film with no ideas or sincerity, in its take on female sexual desire: One film may punish its whore and the other may problematize her, but both share the fundamental conceit that the only sexual woman is a woman who trades sex for money.
If it seems impossible to imagine Richard asking a female colleague to accompany him on his trip for sex and no pay, it isn’t simply because the world in which he works is male-dominated. It’s because in American film it is impossible. Florence fucks without a wedding ring, she fucks without emotional commitment, she fucks without apology — in other words, she fucks like a man. Or, rather, like a Frenchwoman, as evidenced by recent films such as An Affair of Love (originally titled A Pornographic Affair); Late August, Early September; and even The Dreamlife of Angels, in which the one girl who makes it out alive does so in part because she doesn’t become a slave to love. (Stateside, only the women on Sex and the City enjoy such zipless pleasures.) In the Wang film, Florence fucks like a Frenchwoman but gets punished for it: Her john becomes her rapist. Which stinks — not because it’s untrue that some prostitutes, like some wives and some girlfriends, are sometimes brutalized by the men who fuck them. It stinks because for all its San Francisco cool and its canned heat, Wang’s film makes the familiar case that to be a sexual woman is to be a danger to men, to yourself, to the world.
The Center of the World isn’t much different from numerous films in which a woman’s sexual desire is deviant, pathological and even deadly — Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction, Wild Things, The General’s Daughter, American Beauty, The Virgin Suicides, ad infinitum. The fact remains that if she’s not boiling a rabbit, wielding an ice pick or plotting a death (sometimes her own), a woman in American movies is usually sexual for a price. That’s why directors from Woody Allen to Billy Wilder have looked to hookers for laughs while still others have played them for tears. It’s also why so many women have played whores, sometimes earning themselves an Academy Award in the bargain. Drew Barrymore, Kim Basinger, Angela Bassett, Jane Fonda, Jodie Foster, Melanie Griffith, Barbara Hershey, Milla Jovovich, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lucy Liu, Andie MacDowell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Theresa Russell, Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields, Elisabeth Shue, Mira Sorvino, Sharon Stone and Madeleine Stowe have all played prostitutes, as â have Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Taylor and dozens more.
Bad girls, fast girls, sexy girls, sexual girls and especially sexual women almost always translate into prostitutes, both in Hollywood and independent film. More recently, though, a new kink has emerged in this familiar story line: female characters who aren’t prostitutes, they just look like them. Of the 50 top-grossing features released last year, only four were driven by women — Erin Brockovich, Charlie’s Angels, Bring It On and Coyote Ugly. And while these are radically different films in intention and quality, they have one striking thing in common: All feature female characters who are as memorable for their body-baring clothes as for their ideas, their dreams, their actions.
In her groundbreaking 1973 book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Molly Haskell observed, “Until the Production Code went into full force, between 1933 and 1934, women were conceived of as having sexual desire without being freaks, villains or even necessarily Europeans — an attitude surprising to those of us nurtured on the movies of any other period.” Surprising in 1973, depressing in 2001, when female characters are routinely conceived as being freaks and villains (though rarely European) if they do have sexual desire. Or, to be even more specific: freaks, villains, prostitutes, and fun girls who shop at Trashy Lingerie.
Erin Brockovich, Charlie’s Angels, Bring It On and Coyote Ugly have another shared trait: It’s clear that the success of each was, in part, dependent on the way their lead characters were sold to the audience. None may be prostitutes, but the characters’ relationship to the audience is one of pleasing, teasingly sexual accessibility. Erotically packaged for our pleasure, these women might pose a threat if dressed in pinstripes, but their décolletage, smiles and acquiescent physicality mitigate that threat — along with any hint of aggression, any trace of so-called masculine behavior. The fact that the real Erin Brockovich looks the way she does helped to separate that movie from the hundreds, if not thousands, of other possible stories about other, less bodacious warriors of righteousness. It is, after all, difficult to believe that Erin Brockovich would have earned a scintilla of its money if the environmental crusader had been played by, say, Kathy Bates or Sally Field, stripped of makeup and wearing pants, as Field does in Norma Rae. Then again, who would you rather ogle for two hours, especially in a miniskirt — Bates or Julia Roberts?
“I think the fascination for film producers is gross bottom line,” writer-director Allison Anders wrote to me recently about the subject of whores and Hollywood, revealing, along the way, that she was in the middle of writing a television script featuring a young prostitute. (“I’m trying to avoid all the clichés.”) “It’s pure fantasy, lust for women for sale,” wrote Anders, “like if you pay for it you can have it your way, like a Whopper at Burger King. The films born from this fantasy are filled with ridiculous clichés and seldom show the job as it really is — a tedious, thankless, often dangerous one with absolutely no protection under the law. But likewise one where a woman can sometimes work it where she’s calling her own shots, controlling her own destiny and owning her own sexuality.”
“I would reduce it to the urge,” says screenwriter Scott Frank with a laugh. The writer of Out of Sight and Get Shorty, Frank is currently in production on the new Steven Spielberg film, Minority Report. He also admits to having recently finished a script featuring a female prostitute. “It’s the same fundamental urge,” Frank says of the movies’ love affair with prostitutes and prostitution, “and I think it’s the same reason you see cops [in movies]. It’s the fantasy element. It’s people being empowered in the way that you’re not. And with a prostitute, it’s being able to do the things you supposedly can’t do with your wife — the forbidden. There’s something very interesting about a woman you can have sex with. It’s why certain actresses are far more interesting because you feel like, ‘You know what, if I met her, I bet I could fuck her.’”
“I can’t think of a film in which a woman explored her sexuality and was redeemable or okay,” says Arianna Bocco, a vice president of acquisitions and production at New Line/Fine Line. (For the record, I can’t think of one either, at least not an American one.) “It’s never about a woman taking control of her own sexuality, and, quite frankly, it mirrors society. Any woman who is considered strong in spirit and in sexuality is questionable.” Bocco says that she sees “a lot” of scripts with women characters, in part because she works at Fine Line, which is considered more specialized. “I also find that people are a little more open to, say, changing a male character into a female character or enhancing female roles.” But that isn’t the case with mainstream movies. “They’re not gearing those films toward women. They’re gearing them toward 15-year-old boys, and 15-year-old boys are not interested in stories about women. That,” she insists, “is a much larger issue.”
It is and it isn’t. If, as we are repeatedly told, movies are now mainly made for boys (as I write, the highest-grossing movie for the second weekend in a row is Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids), numerous movies are still geared toward adult men. Last year, the highest-grossing features in release were Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Mission: Impossible 2, Gladiator, The Perfect Storm, Meet the Parents, X-Men, Scary Movie, What Lies Beneath, Dinosaur and Erin Brockovich. What made last year unusual wasn’t the number of films in the Top 10 about men, but the presence of a woman in that select company. Beginning with the decline of the studio system and continuing through the ’60s and ’70s, women began to disappear from the screen — a trend that reached its apotheosis during the ’80s, the decade dominated by the Indiana Jones franchise and Star Wars juggernaut.
With blockbusters like Star Wars and Grease, the ’70s sent out warning signals for women, but nonetheless offered up year after year of interesting, prickly, real-feeling, real-looking women in films as dissimilar as Alien, Coal Miner’s Daughter, What’s Up, Doc?, The Way We Were (which I sat through twice without leaving the theater), Cabaret, The Rose, Annie Hall, Last Tango in Paris, Carrie, Paper Moon, Network, Julia, Chinatown, An Unmarried Woman, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Claudine and Norma Rae. These were salad days for strongly written lead women characters. Some were whores, some were mothers, others were rich, some poor, others killers — but each, good or bad, offered up a hint of utopia by her very existence. None of these women characters were fully independent, but they were dependent on men only in part, not in whole. By the ’80s, though, strong women seemed to mean either big biceps or bigger hardware (Terminator and Aliens), while the rest of the girls stayed busy romancing (When Harry Met Sally) or dying (Terms of Endearment).
And then Pretty Woman hit the streets. Written by J.F. Lawton and directed by Garry Marshall, Pretty Woman was released in 1990 to generally favorable reviews, a little contempt and some post-feminist confession. Writing in The New York Times, novelist Daphne Merkin argued, “Feminism has never paid enough attention to the intractable nature of fantasy life, its pervasive hold on our more adult selves. Along with that oversight, in focusing on the hostile or infantile tone of so many of the patriarchal images of women, it fails to take note of the fact that fantasies — however primitive and unenlightened — aren’t exclusively the domain of men.” Merkin’s big idea here was that the fantasy of the rescuing knight could not be denied, and that “In the post-modernist, post-feminist, closing decade of the 20th century, we still need our myths, our amatory fictions; they help us endure. We are ready again for the mad, implausible embrace.”
There’s no denying that most everyone — women and men alike — wants love, sex, fantasy and maybe even a shining knight or two (or three), but like too many people who write about movies, Merkin refused to acknowledge that movies aren’t the same as fantasies. Movies don’t live only in your head, they live in the world, for better and worse. Sucking rich dick in a sports car might be a loop playing in Merkin’s head, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the film’s surreal vision of happy hooking didn’t have wider meaning and impact — if in no other place than the industry itself.
“The problem with women in movies today,” says Scott Frank, “is that their characters, in terms of the storytelling, are often just ‘the girl.’ They serve no narrative purpose other than to be ‘the girl.’ She’s used to amplify the male’s characteristics, his lack of commitment, whatever it is — he’s messy, he’s sloppy, he’s greedy. Women are just there to sort of help out. They’re someone to talk to, a step up from the dog. The bigger problem is character in general. I go on like a broken record, and I’ve said this before — we don’t write characters in American movies anymore, we write attitudes that movie stars then fill in with their own personalities. Who is the character in Mission: Impossible? Who is that guy on the page? It’s Tom Cruise. I don’t know what he wants or what he doesn’t want, what he’s afraid of, anything. I just know he’s the guy getting it done.”
The bigger issue isn’t the number of prostitutes in American movies, but the number of women, prostitutes or not, as well as — perhaps even more crucially — the kind of women they are. During the 1990s, post–
Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts made women actors profitable again, and unlike Sandra Bullock in Speed or Helen Hunt in Twister, she did it without special effects — save, of course, for that canyon smile. Roberts’ smile, the most fetishized in film, has not only been the route to her success, it has made her safe for female and male audiences alike. Evidence not only of the triumph of American dentistry, it is the smile of the radically non-difficult woman — pliant, agreeable, pleasant, pleasing. These are not lips that devour (like Angelina Jolie’s plush, labial pads) or curl into a threat (like Sharon Stone’s tight sneer), but that ease into acquiescence at the vaguest hint of difficulty, which sparkle and shine so bright you can see yourself reflected in them. It is this very same mouth that is meant to give head to Richard Gere’s millionaire trick in Pretty Woman — though, of course, not before the camera discreetly cuts away, leaving us to imagine something more romantic than that smile gone astray as its lips purse to swallow.
Thirty years ago, Jane Fonda starred in one of the few American movies that is less about whoring — as metaphor, mortal danger or kinky thrill — than about a woman who whores. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, from a script by Andy and Dave Lewis, Klute stars Fonda as a New York City call girl named Bree Daniels who comes under the protection of Donald Sutherland’s titular small-town detective. With her feathered hair and thigh-high leather boots, her modeling portfolio and therapy sessions, Bree doesn’t seem all that different from any number of women trying to make it on their own. (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it’s worth remembering, had started its run just the year before.) Only this girl turns the world on for a price. In between auditions, she clocks into hotel rooms for cash, freely admitting (to her shrink, to us) that she gets a kick from making men pay for it. “For an hour,” she says, “I’m the best actress in the world, the best fuck in the world.” A guy will need to save Bree, after a fashion, but since the film’s genre thrills are so unpersuasive, so limp and halfhearted, it’s as if Pakula â wanted us to know that plot twists were beside the point.
What was not beside the point was Fonda’s Bree — sexy and sleek and shagged, braless and ultramodern, the sexual revolution incarnate. She may not have been what Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem had in mind when they raised the banner for the liberated woman, but she was infinitely more interesting than most cinematic waifs of the era, who, with their Keane-cartoon eyes and baby-doll insouciance, hung off men’s necks like love beads. (It’s also worth remembering that Straw Dogs, with big-eyed Susan George and its special brand of misogyny, was just around the corner.) It’s no small irony that Bree remains one of the most complex female characters to emerge (and live) on American screens since the end of the studio system. Heavily influenced by European art cinema in general, and the prostitute films of Jean-Luc Godard in particular, Klute was released by Warner Bros. at a moment when Hollywood, post–Easy Rider, was banking on risk.
Warner Bros. lost its nerve fairly early in that game, but Klute remains one of the studio’s high points during that period, though less for Pakula’s gritty anti-aesthetic or Sutherland’s skin-crawling bedside manner than for Fonda’s rich creation, a woman in whom the contradictions of the era restlessly, relentlessly collide. Good woman, bad woman, lost soul, right-on hippie chick . . . all of Bree’s identities were true and false at once, which made that finale — with Sutherland, the packed cat and final door slam — seem less like a fairy-tale ending than a possible bad trip. Fast-forward two decades to 1990 and the contradictions are replaced by Pretty Woman. An entire history of American film could be written pegged to just Klute and Pretty Woman. Between those two films, the studios were absorbed by multinational corporations, for which the best bets are always the lowest common denominator, and movies got more expensive to make and release. In other words, they became at once more financially risky and less aesthetically risky.
It’s too bad that the dumbing down of American movies coincided with the ascendancy of the female movie executive. In some respects, it’s never been better for women in film. Amy Pascal is chairman of Columbia Pictures, Stacey Snider is chairman of Universal Pictures, Sherry Lansing continues her reign at Paramount Pictures. Nina Jacobson is president of Buena Vista Motion Picture Group, Elizabeth Gabler is president of Fox 2000, one of the studio’s two production divisions, while Laurie MacDonald runs the DreamWorks movie division with husband Walter Parkes and director Steven Spielberg. Yet while there are many more female studio executives than ever before, and numerous thriving female producers, it is a sorority of power that has soundly failed to promote a wider cultural sisterhood. Case in point: There are fewer women directing feature films now than there were just three years ago. In 1986, women directors did 7.6 percent of the work in film and television. By 1992, the percentage had climbed to 13.3 percent — dropping down to 10.2 percent in 1998, the last year figures are available from the Directors Guild.
The movies didn’t get worse because of American women executives, though there are plenty of women who share in the blame. All that bad movies prove is that when given the opportunity, women can make just as many lousy choices — and movies — as men can. What is harder to prove is that some of them continue to hedge their bets, swallow their fury, bite their tongues. Women executives in the film industry are loath to talk about sexism in their own industry, to recount the insults and compromises women in power always face. Out of common sense, perhaps even out of survival, they continue to play good daughter to a still overwhelmingly male industry for which “chick flick” is a declaration not of praise but of scorn. What must it be like to be one of the most powerful players in the business — like Paramount’s Lansing, a sharp operator who favors power suits and gives the world exploitative trash like The General’s Daughter? Or Sony’s equally sharp Pascal, who’s been targeted in the industry press for “women’s pictures” such as Little Women but most recently gave us Charlie’s Angels? What must it be like to be these women and not be able to make movies about women who look and live the way they do?
It would be nice to think that films would get better if more women were involved in the writing and directing, though as the careers of Nora Ephron, Mimi Leder and Penny Marshall make painfully clear, there’s no guarantee of that. More women might also mean that the movies were less violent — though, at least for some of us in the audience, less violence is a matter of aesthetics more than ethics. Social critics and politicians often struggle to draw lessons from violence in Hollywood, but it’s arguable that the most important lesson is the very one that most of the industry’s critics ignore — that all the violence is, frankly, getting boring. “Our preoccupation with violence is replacing our preoccupation with sex,” says producer and screenwriter Polly Platt, whose scripts include A Map of the World and Louis Malle’s infamous 1978 feature, Pretty Baby, about a pre-pubescent whore. And, bottom line, fewer films about sex mean fewer films about a wider variety of women characters.
“Why can’t the female character in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, or a film like that, be fully developed?” Arianna Bocco asks me at one point during our conversation. “They might as well just call them ‘wife’ or ‘girlfriend’ or ‘daughter’ and not give them a name, because they’re all the same. That’s why they put these very young actresses in these roles — they’re not stars, they’re not necessarily unknown, but they’re never going to break the mold, they’re never going to break out into something interesting or challenging.” It’s a strange lament to hear from a woman who actually works in the film industry. What does it mean for American movies when one of its finest writers insists that the industry is no longer equipped to take on complex issues and contradictory characters? “There are so many things that have to fall into place at the same time now when you make a film,” says Scott Frank. “If you set out to make a film that appeals to women, it will fail.”
His words have sting, but they are also true: Films that appeal to women are as likely to fail as films about women who don’t wear push-up bras, miniskirts and skyscraper heels. Norma Rae wouldn’t stand a chance. Stilettos just don’t work on the factory floor.
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