Reel Hustle: A Pretty Woman-Free Survey of Sex Worker Films


Sure, you’ve seen Natalie Portman’s mild masquerade as a stripper in Closer, watched Melanie Griffith ditz around as a prostitute in Milk Money, and enjoyed the delightful cheesiness of Sandra Oh and Daryl Hannah in the absolutely fabulous Dancing at the Blue Iguana, but is that really satisfying your penchant for sex workers on celluloid? Here’s a handy guide for you to better navigate the wealth of sex work-centric films Hollywood has to offer.

Most Realistic: Working Girls

Working Girls set the gold standard for realism in prostitute pictures due to its pitch perfect, un-sensationalized depiction of several women working in an incall location for a day. It’s nonjudgmental, understated, and entirely wonderful. Main character Molly bikes to work in the mornings fresh from sharing a bed with her female lover.  Youthful and obnoxious Dawn does homework between appointments and baits the madam by sticking gum on the walls, while pleasant Gina restocks clean towels and greets johns with a smile. These women are entirely normal, literal girls next door both in looks (which are resolutely ordinary) and behavior. None are damaged or vulnerable; most are capable, articulate, and levelheaded.

The film refrains from demonizing clients as well as escorts, although it features one particularly aggressive customer among the otherwise mild-mannered ones. Working Girls manages to touch upon racism and ageism within the industry, but is most thorough in its commitment to portraying prostitution as a service job much like any other, complete with the ups and downs that accompany all forms of employment.

Cruelest Treatment of a Call Girl: Mighty Aphrodite

We all know that movie plots generally treat escorts like shite.  Leaving Las Vegas‘s Sera is gang raped before the man she loves dies—while she’s screwing him. Butterfield 8’s Gloria burns out with a car crash just after vowing to start a new life. And Blow Out’s Sally is murdered on July 4th, because what’s more American than a dead prostitute? But Mighty Aphrodite dwarfs these pedestrian and predictable examples of sex worker hate with its venomous scorn posing as good-natured comedy.

Linda (Mira Sorvino) is the remarkably kind yet stupid prostitute/porn star who birthed the adopted son of Lenny (Woody Allen). After Lenny seeks out Linda and discovers her distinctly low class lifestyle, he resolves to make her into an honorable woman, which involves sleeping with her and setting her up with an abusive boxer. Lenny’s nasty reaction to Linda’s childlike, cheerful attitude renders her the movie’s eternal (and only) punch line: this hooker is so dense that she doesn’t even have the decency to be ashamed of her career. Watching vivacious Linda transform into a cookie cutter housewife is heart breaking. By the end of the movie, she’s dressed like an L.L.Bean model and shopping at F.A.O. Schwartz, totally devoid of her earlier verve. Sorvino herself referred to her character as “just a dumb little hooker” but if there’s ever been a case for prizing dumb and compassionate over smart and heartless, Mighty Aphrodite is certainly it.

Sweetest Surprise: Sweet Charity

Chances are you’ve heard “Big Spender” tarted up and sexy-soft (a la the Pussycat Dolls), and so you might be surprised by the aggressive, martini-dry rendition in this 1969 film. The sex workers in Sweet Charity are forward, fierce, and ready to make some money. They’re also at the core of the story, acting as family for Charity (Shirley McLaine, who also played a sex worker in Irma La Douce) as she’s subjected to the rollercoaster ride of life in New York City.

Every one of Charity’s experiences is punctuated and validated by her friends. They celebrate her run-in with a celebrity, encourage her to get over a sleazebag boyfriend, and cheer her engagement to a more honorable man. This is sex work bonding at its best. The girls sing about leaving the life but never consider leaving one another. The ending is unexpectedly sad, although—spoiler alert!—Charity and her friends actually make it out alive.

Best Choice For Dissuading Potential Prostitutes: Claire Dolan

Claire (Katrin Cartlidge) works in Manhattan as an indentured call girl. Her suit-wearing, cat-killing pimp knew Claire and her family when they still lived in Ireland and is now the keeper of Claire’s apparently bottomless debt, which he compounds with unsolicited additions to her mother’s nursing home amenities. Once her mother dies, Claire decides it’s time to leave the life, but she does so with a sense of pre-determined defeat. She’s left bereft and menaced at every turn, abandoned by women and harassed by men, strangers even more so than clients.

The sex in Claire Dolan is ugly, entirely physical and devoid of desire. In one particularly horrible scene, a client leads Claire to believe he’s being empathetic before saying. “There are a lot of people out there who do things that tear them up, that they hate.” He pushes himself against her: “Just try not to think about it.” Her clients are not necessarily cruel, just brutally apathetic, a product of the amoral business world in which they operate. (Never before have New York’s skyscrapers looked so malevolent.) Eventually Claire falls in love with a taxi driver who becomes consumed with her situation, to their mutual detriment. The film is dark and sobering without being moralistic or over the top.

Best Screenplay: Nathalie

When Catherine (Fanny Ardant) discovers her husband Bernard’s (Gerard Depardieu) past infidelities, she decides to orchestrate one through the hire of brothel worker Marlene (Emmanuelle Beart). Catherine instructs Marlene on where Bernard can be found and what details she should fabricate in order to keep him interested, including her name: Nathalie. Marlene meets with Catherine after every encounter, sometimes even in the disheveled hotel room itself, to collect her money and share every sordid detail.

Although her husband is the direct recipient of the sex, Catherine is the john. She eventually even sets Marlene up in an apartment, which Marlene claims makes Bernard jealous (“He thought he had a rival”) and routinely threatens to end the business arrangement, although she never does. (When Catherine expresses disgust over the details of one particular meeting, Marlene replies, “It can’t always get you wet.”) The film is a meticulous meditation on the bizarre ways we bait the people we love. Marlene lets Catherine smell the face cream she used to give Bernard a hand job; Catherine buys the cream, wears it to bed, and then pushes Bernard away when he tries to touch her. The perfect soundtrack includes Joy Division, Leonard Cohen, and early Goldfrapp.

Best Love Story: Priceless (Hors de prix)

It’s hard for sex worker relationships to work in real life but even harder for them to work on screen. While Hollywood writers so routinely rely on rescue storylines as the basis for romance, the French manage a more subtle approach in this comedy starring Amelie’s Audrey Tatou as Irene. Irene is a professional sugar baby, one who moves from old man to older man, collecting piles of designer goods but not much else. The media’s understanding of “high class” escorts is taken to its logical end here. Since Irene’s paid only in expensive dinners, vacations, and cocktail dresses—items that don’t last or can be easily taken away—she’s left destitute when her current client decides to lock her out of their hotel room.

This entire reliance on rich men is the biggest obstacle to Irene being with Jean, a hotel employee she sleeps with one night after mistaking him for a wealthy guest. Jean is infatuated with Irene but after depleting his entire savings in just one afternoon of wooing, realizes that the only way he can be close to her is to join in the game. Irene takes Jean on as an apprentice, teaching him how to cater to wealthy elderly ladies, and the two become lovers as well as colleagues. American movies are so reliably bad at doing sweet and funny simultaneously that the jokes here are made even more delightful for their rarity. Finally, a prostitute movie you can take home to Mama.

Hottest Sex: The Center of the World

When computer whiz kid Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) convinces stripper Florence (Molly Parker) to join him in Las Vegas for a weekend, neither seems sure of what to expect. Richard’s new affluence baffles him, and Florence isn’t used to spending time with paying men outside of the dark and noisy confines of a club. Since one of Florence’s conditions for the trip is “no penetration,” she grinds and writhes on Richard as her stripper persona from 10pm to 2am and spends the rest of the day with him as a companion. As the two develop a real friendship, their chemistry goes from the charged dynamic of client/provider to a more personal desire. Richard is a genuinely nice guy, so nice that he’s even undeterred by her (fake) period all over his lap and hands. His kindness infuriates Florence, who’s desperately trying to keep her emotions out of the arrangement.

Molly Parker, the pale, thin redhead who played a prostitute in Suspicious River and a necrophiliac in Kissed, is possibly the most erotic actress working today, and although Richard tells her “you don’t look like a stripper,” it seems probable that she’d be the most popular girl in the joint. She knows how to work her eyes and mouth when her face is centimeters away from a man’s. The film is also memorable for an onscreen, detailed description of female ejaculation (during anal sex no less!), the first and only I’ve come across in any (non-porn) movie.

Lifetime Achievement Award in Sex Work Obsession: David Lynch

Given Lynch’s interest in archetypes, it’s no surprise that whores and virgins are among his most common characters. Laura Palmer, of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, is a high school prostitute, as is her murdered friend Theresa, whom Laura’s father occasionally hired. In Lost Highway, Alice is at one moment a loving wife and the next a porn actress who has sex less for sex’s sake and more as a means of manipulation. Lynch is particularly intrigued by the parallels between actors and sex workers; Mulholland Drive‘s nameless prostitute closely resembles aspiring actress Diane, and Nikki of Inland Empire vacillates between living life as prostitute and a film actress.

Of all his works, Inland Empire is the most consumed with sex work; it’s even framed by a Polish call girl who watches the movie on a TV and haunted by a group of young American prostitutes who occasionally sing. The complexities of sex work are well served by Lynch’s opaque, tangled story-telling style, which routinely highlights the gray area created by the myriad ways people use sex as a tool, even if not directly for cash. When someone asks the Polish escort “you know what whores do?”, she responds with “they fuck”, no doubt intentionally leaving out the stipulation “for money.”

Monica Shores is an editor for and regular contributor to $pread magazine. Her writing has appeared also appeared on Boinkology, Popmatters, Alternet, and Feminist Review. More from this author →