It would seem to be an odd approach, but playing a prostitute has been one of the surest paths to Oscar glory for many actresses. It’s a technique right up there with an actor gaining, or losing, tremendous amounts of weight for a role. People just notice these things.
Don’t believe me? In 1960 it was Elizabeth Taylor with an Academy Award for her role in BUTTERFIELD 8. In 1971 it was Jane Fonda with an Oscar for her role in KLUTE. Julia Roberts got the nomination for her role in PRETTY WOMAN in 1990. In 1995, Elisabeth Shue was nominated for her role in LEAVING LOS VEGAS. And that’s only from the top of my head.
All of which means what?
Well, for one thing, it should make you question what the Academy Awards view as important factors in a win. I’m also sure there are some very real, very serious, gender and power structure issues worthy of discussion. However, that’s not the purpose of this, particular, post.
I just want to talk about movies. Specifically, I want to talk about the sub-genre of prostitute movies. Especially, the bleak ones.
I can already hear loud, shocked, objections to including PRETTY WOMAN on a list of bleak anything. And, as far as the finished film goes, that would be correct. However, PRETTY WOMAN didn’t start off as the warm and fuzzy romantic comedy that went on to rule the box office. It started off as a rather dark project.
PRETTY WOMAN was based on a screenplay by J.F. Lawton, called 3000. It was called that because the main character, later played by Richard Gere, gave the prostitute, later played by Roberts, $3,000.
Furthermore, the character in the original script would go on to tell the hooker that she was completely misguided if she thought there was any actual romance involved. It was a purely commercial transaction. One which was now over and done with. Period. And then he would toss her out of his car.
Oh, and the hooker was a cocaine addict. So much so, that one of the conditions of her time with the client was that she had to abstain from using drugs when she was with him.
In short, it was not the feel good film that Disney turned it into. Given that it was a box office mega-hit, it’s hard to argue with their decision. But that same decision might have cost Roberts her Oscar win. The Academy doesn’t like comedies and seems to like their prostitutes played with far more seriousness. Say, something like BUTTERFIELD 8.
BUTTERFIELD 8 is grim. It’s also not a particularly good movie. It was directed by Danial Mann and comes off like an over-earnest MAD MEN. In fact, the visual style is oddly close to that of the hit tv show.
The story is about a “party girl” who falls in love with a rich, married, man. Said man alternates between abusing her and adoring her. The main character, played by Elizabeth Taylor, constantly questions who she is and how she has gotten there. Is she just a slut (the character’s words)? Or has she become a prostitute, clean and simple?
The married man, a very bitter, self-loathing, Lawrence Harvey, goes on an extended trip with Taylor and it seems like true romance. Societal and financial realities be damned! Sound familiar? However, unlike PRETTY WOMAN, this movie stays true to form. It ends badly for Taylor. Very badly. Her character dies.
But that’s not the biggest tragedy of BUTTERFIELD 8. The real heart-breaker is that it was based on an incredible novel of the same name, written by John O’Hara.
The book came out in 1935 and was based on the real-life case of a “party girl” who was found dead, just outside of New York City. It turned out, the “party girl” knew many of the city’s most powerful men on very intimate terms. Scandal ensued.
The actual girl was named Starr Faithfull. O’Hara’s version of that character, Gloria Wandrous, shared much of the of the same tragic backstory as the real Faithfull. But some of the elements of that backstory come off as over-the-top in the movie.
The same cannot be said for the book. It’s tragic, heartbreaking, and unbelievably modern. A reminder that the, now almost forgotten, O’Hara, was a great American writer.
Regardless, of the flaws of the film version, it provided more than enough for Taylor to chew on. The misunderstood and self-loathing hooker role won her her first Oscar. A feat she would repeat six years later for her part in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF?
Jane Fonda would win an Oscar in 1971 for KLUTE. The movie was produced and directed by Alan Pakula, as part of his “paranoia” trilogy. This was a set of movies that included the much lauded “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN,” about Watergate, and “THE PARALLAX VIEW,” about a political assassination. I much prefer the other two movies in the trilogy to KLUTE.
In KLUTE, Jane Fonda plays a prostitute who confesses her deepest secrets to her shrink, on camera. She also becomes involved in a missing persons case involving one of her clients, a high-powered, and well-connected, executive.
A private investigator, John Klute, is sent to find out if she knows anything. And, of course, they have an affair. One so emotionally involving for Fonda that she tells her therapist how confused she is by the whole thing.
Many people love this movie, even now. Not only do they admire Fonda’s performance but also that of Donald Sutherland, who played the private detective.
Personally, I never buy Fonda as a call girl or feel for her inner conflicts. But I do really like the way the film looks. Pakula had a visual style that was slick, cold, and dark in a great seventies-sort of way. KLUTE has it in spades.
And then there is LEAVING LAS VEGAS. It was written and directed by Mike Figgis, in 1995. The story is about a prostitute’s relationship with a suicidal alcoholic during his final days. Elisabeth Shue played the prostitute. Nicholas Cage played the alcoholic.
Shue’s character has her own issues. Among them, is dealing with the emotional fall-out from being gang-raped. Yet, she stays with Cage until the very end.
Unlike the BUTTERFIELD 8 and PRETTY WOMAN development processes, Figgis stuck close to the feel and tone of the original source material. The film was based on a very autobiographical book, written by a guy named John O’Brien. Shortly after awarding the book rights to Figgis, O’Brien committed suicide.
Nicholas Cage won an Oscar for his role. However, Elisabeth Shue lost out to Susan Sarandon for hers. Which is a shame, because it was a great performance. I guess, maybe, she didn’t talk about her inner conflict enough.
We’re not done yet. There are more…
Jodie Foster was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the twelve-year old prostitute in TAXI DRIVER. Audrey Hepburn was nominated for her role as a much cleaned-up version of the book’s Holly Golightly in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S.
In the indie world, Sasha Grey and Molly Parker won critical praise (but not Oscars) for their terrific performances in hooker roles. Grey for her role in Steven Soderbergh”s THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. Parker for her role in Wayne Wang’s THE CENTER OF THE WORLD.
Even a few men have tried the prostitute path to Oscar glory. Richard Gere was catapulted to fame with his role in 1980’s AMERICAN GIGOLO. But it didn’t get him nominated for an Oscar.
River Phoenix got a slew of critical praise and won an Independent Spirit Award for his performance in MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO. But he also wasn’t nominated for a Oscar.
I guess the Academy knows what sort of hooker it likes.
Then again, it’s been a while since that’s happened. Maybe the film industry has finally changed its ways. But I doubt it. More likely, it’s just a matter of time.
Soon, some well-known actress will want to show how deep she can be. She will demand a project about a prostitute who talks, a lot, with her therapist. She will babble on and on about how complex and conflicted she is. It will be dark but not too dark. Gritty but in a slick and polished way. And it will yield Oscar gold. Such is the way of things.
Maybe they should just remake KLUTE.