Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Ten Most Memorable Movie Prostitutes

Over the years, there have been countless prostitutes in the movies. Often, it has been a good way for actresses to win, or at least be nominated for, Oscars. But out of all the movie prostitutes I have ever seen, these are the ten they stick out in my mind the most.

10. Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) in Monster (2004)
If nothing else, Theron’s portrayal of real life prostitute and female serial killer proved that not every hooker in the movies has a heart of gold. Theron portrayed a woman who had been beaten down by life, desperate for any sort of love and companionship, and when she finally found it in her lesbian lover (played brilliantly by Christina Ricci in a very underrated performance); she was willing to do anything to hold onto it. The movie does not forgive Wuornos her actions, but rather just looks to explain them. Theron gave a truly excellent performance in a great little movie.

9. Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) in LA Confidential (1997)
Sometimes an actress like Basinger, who normally is not exactly the best in the world, gets a role that is perfect for them. Such was the case with Lynn Bracken in LA Confidential, the hooker who has been cut to look like Veronica Lake, who both lead cops in the movie – Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce – fall for. Basinger is not quite the hooker with the heart of gold here, but she is certainly soft. She is a realist, who knows what is going on, and begins to care for Crowe, despite her better judgment. It is far and away the most memorable performance of Basinger’s career.

8. Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1990)
There is no romanticism is Leigh’s performance as Tralala, a prostitute who makes her living having sex with sailors in her small neighborhood. Tralala is not exactly the most sympathetic character in movie history, and Leigh’s no nonsense performance was an absolute stunner, as she fearlessly captured the character, warts and all. And yet, in the conclusion of her segment, you do feel sympathy for her. After a night of heavy drinker, she passes out, and then is passed around and raped repeatably by just about every guy around. It is a harrowing performance in an harrowing movie.

7. Lulu (Louise Brooks) in Pandora’s Box (1929)
G. W. Pabst’s epic melodrama is one of my favorite silent films of all times, and contains a brilliant performance by Louise Brooks as Lulu. Lulu starts out as a prostitute, and a sexually frank vaudeville performer, who marries a respectable man, murders him, goes on the run, falls back into prostitution, and ends up being murdered by Jack the Ripper. Brooks was one of the most interesting of all silent actresses, had a wonderful face, an iconic haircut, and an undeniable sexuality, that would go missing from the screen for decades after the production code came in a few years later. As they did the year before, with Diary of a Lost Girl, Pabst and Brooks made a gothic, sexual masterpiece in Pandora’s Box.

6. Cabiria Ceccarelli (Giuletta Masina) in Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Cabiria is an almost impossibly naïve prostitute in post War Rome, that you cannot help but fall head over heels for. She searches in vain for love, and finds nothing but heartbreak. When she finally meets a man who promises her a respectable future, she falls in love with instantly, although what follows is essentially one humiliation after another. And yet no matter what Cabiria goes through, she never allows herself to be completely broken, completely ripped apart. She keeps her head held high no matter what. This was a transitional movie for director Federico Fellini, who was moving away from realism into more fantastic areas, and this movie has a mixture of both elements. He gives his wife Masina the best role of her career here, and that’s saying something considering all the great work she has done.

5. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
Much like the movie itself, Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller is an unconventional movie prostitute. She shows up in the small mining town of Presbyterian Church, and immediately sets her sites on newcomer McCabe, who has set up a small, low class brothel. She convinces him that she can the run the place better than he can – as a prostitute, she understands the girls and clients better – and she’s right, as the business starts to thrive. She also understands when men from the mining company come and offer to buy the place, that they should take the money and run, or else they’ll get killed. Christie’s Mrs. Miller is a businesswoman more than anything else, and although she does in fact love McCabe, when the climatic shootout arrives (which is different from just about every other Western ever made), she has slipped back into an opium induced haze, and has no idea what is going on. It’s one of the best performances of Christie’s career, in one of the very best films ever made.

4. Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) in Belle De Jour (1967)
Luis Bunuel’s Belle De Jour is about bored housewife Severine who has masochistic sexual fantasies that help her get through her idyllic, but dull life with her husband. She loves him, but they are not sexually compatible. She finds release by working as a prostitute in a high end brothel every weekday afternoon for a few hours. There she is drawn into a dangerous game with two men. One, is a friend who has been in love with her for years. The other is a gangster, with whom she is able to live out her sexual fantasies, but who becomes too obsessed with her. She tries to leave, but the gangster tracks her down, and shoots her husband – leaving him in a coma. In the end, Severine once again escapes into a fantasy world – this time not a sexual one, but one where she and her husband are once again happy and healthy. No matter what she has, she seems to want the opposite. This is one of Bunuel’s masterpieces, and perhaps the best performance of Deneuve’s wonderful career. A truly great film in every way.

3. Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) in Klute (1971)
While the movie itself is not as good as most of the others on this list, Jane Fonda’s performance as call girl Bree Daniels is an absolute stunner. She plays an aspiring actress, who turns tricks for money, and also because she doesn’t want to become dependent on any man. She meets Klute (Donald Sutherland), a PI looking for his friend, and gets drawn into his case – he is searching for a friend, who addressed an obscene letter to Bree than disappeared. The thriller plot of the movie is intense and involving, if a little predictable. But what really makes the movie work is its total immersion into Bree’s world, and Fonda’s complete commitment to playing this woman without judgment or condemnation. This is one of the best screen performances of the 1970s.

2. Sera (Elisabeth Shue) in Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
I realize now that Nicolas Cage’s performance as Ben in Leaving Las Vegas has made a few of my top ten lists in the past, but for me, the really stunning performance in Leaving Las Vegas has always been Shue’s. Ben is an alcoholic stumbling towards his death, and as such, he never really changes, Shue’s Sera is the more complex character. She starts out the movie in a sadomasochistic relationship with her pimp, who gets killed, then she falls for Ben. At first, the two have an easy way with each other – she accepts his drinking, he accepts her profession. But as they grow to love each other, things become more complicated and difficult. Shue is one of those actresses who for some reason only ever got one perfect role – and the performance she gives in the movie is one for the ages.

1. Iris Steensma (Jodie Foster) in Taxi Driver (1976)
What makes Jodie Foster’s performance in Taxi Driver the most memorable of any prostitute in screen history for me is the fact that she was just a kid when she delivered it, and yet she is so completely convincing it is scary. We see her almost exclusively through Travis’ eyes, the poor girl he wants to help get off the street, but there are other scenes in the movie that make us question her motives, as well as his. When he picks her up, she tries futilely to seduce him, and later in a diner, she explains why she does what she does. There is also a rather tender scene between her and her pimp that makes us question everything. Out of all the movie prostitutes in history, Foster’s Iris is the one that sticks out most in my mind.

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