By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
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 andintellectual. 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 Worldisn'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 isimpossible. 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 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 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?
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