Trying to figure out how many prostitutes have turned up in the movies is a mug's game, but let's play it a little, shall we? James Robert Parish's 1991 Prostitution in Hollywood Films (McFarland) lists 389 films in which prostitution is a subject or subplot. Parrish includes everything from Porky's to all six versions of the penthouse-to-pavement melodrama Madame X. The IMDB tops this number by claiming about 800 movies with prostitution as a subject. Ever since the first important film on the flesh trade -- the 1913 Traffic in Souls, just inducted into the Library of Congress -- the subject of the Fate Worse Than Death has fueled comedy, drama, and film noir. Oh, and science fiction -- remember the "Furniture Girls" in Soylent Green? Playing a hooker is also good Oscar fodder. So far it's gained six Best Actress awards and 15 nominations, as well as seven Best Supporting Actress wins and five nominations.
This count requires some give and take: Madeleine Kahn's Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles (an Oscar nominee) was officially a dance hall girl (wink, nod). Sally Bowles in Cabaret didn't make the count, though it's fairly clear how she paid the rent. Ditto the no-visible-means-of-support Holly Golightly. Hey, we're all prostitutes! So the top seven below need kibitzing and counter suggestions, and perhaps some flame-broiling. The idea here is for time-tested films, meaning that more recent working girls aren't aboard, despite impressive acting by Sophie Okonedo in Dirty Pretty Things, Taraji P. Henson in Hustle and Flow or Morena Baccarin in Serenity. (And Brittany Murphy was no slouch as The Dead Girl.) Let's overlook Reagan-age free-market propaganda disguised as sex comedies, and pass on that famous trio of savvy businesswomen Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places and Rebecca de Mornay in Risky Business. (How about Kathy Baker in Street Smart, Marilia Pera in Pixote and Louise Smith in Lizzie Borden's neo-doc Working Girls instead?)
Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven (1927) The ultimate Victorian-era victim of circumstances, gold heart beating under a manhandled breast, pursued by the same hypocrite society that drove her to a life of crime. And now I'm making this really beautiful film sound terrible. Gaynor, a small and frail-looking actress--a shadow of the streets, as Edith Piaf put it--is teamed with ultimate woman's-film director Frank Borzage. And Borzage was one of the few men who could make a movie that you'd weep at without hating yourself for it in the morning. Matching her here is frequent co-star Charles Farrell, who plays a Parisian sewer worker who wants to rise out of the depths to the open air. Some (Catholics, probably) would make the mental connection between Seventh Heaven's pairing of the two trades and St. Thomas Aquinas's cold-blooded comment that prostitutes were like sewers: despicable but necessary to society.
Barbara Stanwyck's Lily Powers in Baby Face (1933) Lily escapes her father's speakeasy in the steeltown of Erie, Pennsylvania and tricks her way to Manhattan. There, she uses her lean body and a sketchy knowledge of Nietzsche to get to the top. It's a key early performance by the Hollywood studios' most versitaile actress--as triumphant in comedy as she was in the darkest corners of film noir. Stanwyck shows us everything: the weary calculation and bitterness of a woman who lives off of men, as well as the irrepressible mockery that lights her up inside, luring ever more wealthy fools. Born Ruby Stevens of Brooklyn, Stanwyck had a pretty good idea of how people like Lily lived: an orphan, she grew up in 14 different homes in 11 years. If you track this down, get the newer uncensored version, which was released a year or two ago.
Donna Reed as Alma Burke in From Here to Eternity (1953) We're hopping from era to era, and Reed's version of the war-time comfort girl is definitive, complete with her exit strategy, a cottage in a small town in Oregon. Graceful even when becalmed in a sitcom, Reed does the movie-star trick of acting at a different tempo from the other minor characters around her; slightly slower, slightly more sure-of-herself. She's certainly desirable, and certainly available: commonly uncommon, as Gene Hackman says about his characters. Funny, Reed was exactly the first person I thought of when I started this list.
Giulietta Masina in 1957's Nights of Cabiria Undoubtably sentimentalized ... and yet we can imagine that everywhere there are pretty, kind and optimistic people who overcome ugly, mean and dispiriting lines of work. Fellini's Cabiria, a waif of post-war Rome, is on her rounds from one end of the night to the other; her adventures are usually likened to Chaplin's bittersweet films, and movies like City Lights and Modern Times are the only films that approach them for plaintive urban poetry. Popular enough to spawn the musical Sweet Charity, Nights of Cabiria is practically a musical already thanks to Nino Rota's score. It's music that deepens Fellini's material, even by challenging it, or cutting across the grain of the story. (And here, Cinematical's Jeffrey M. Anderson gives a much needed plug to Nights of Cabiria's distributor, Rialto.)
Catherine Deneuve as Severine in Belle de Jour (1967) And, since everyone knows what terrible work The Life is, why would anyone even fantasize about such a fate? Leave it to Satan's agent provacateur Luis Bunuel to hazard a few guesses: Boredom. Especially married boredom. Boredom with being a pristine sweet girl. Holding this chic bon-bon together is the gorgeous impassivity of Deneueve, as a respectable married Parisienne with extremely bizarre customers. (One of them, who has an enigmatic buzzing toy with him, seems to have got a hold of a Good Vibrations catalogue two decades even before they went into business. Inexplicable, but then again this is a movie that is way ahead of its time.) And has this been ripped off, or what? If there's really 800 movies about prostitute, 200 of them are variations on Belle de Jour's once-scandalous theme.
Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels in Klute (1971) Cinematical's Karina Longworth notes this story Jane Fonda was telling on herself. Fonda apparently couldn't get picked up by a genuine pimp when she was loitering around at dubious bars, trying to get some artistic background on the prostitute's milieu. She shouldn't have worried; it's the serial-killer plot of Klute that fails to hold much water today, compared to her and co-star Donald Sutherland's believabliltiy as two cut-off New Yorkers. Bree's shag hair cut, her rapid, almost toneless line of chat, and her burnt-out confessionals to her shrink, add up to an indelible portrait of a post-sexual revolution sex worker. And director Alan J. Pakula did a prime job conflating the life of a cop and a whore: two lines of work where the soul is in as much danger as the body. (The funniest bit, Bree quickly checking her watch as a customer helps himself, is possibly a steal from something Sean Connery did in Thunderball.)
Julie Christie as Mrs. Constance Miller in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) It's almost a comedy of mistaken identity, disguised as a western. In the 1900 frontier town of Presbyterian Church, Washington, two inebriated people misunderstand each other all the way to the end of the line. One is an always-drunken gambler (Warren Beatty) with a rep as a gunslinger. His partner in a "gooseberry ranch" (a brothel) is the Cockney prostitute Mrs. Miller, who secretly takes opium when she gets the blues. And everything around her contributes to the blues. The constant rain and snow in the Cascades. The scheming of the big mining outfit that wants to buy them out, And lastly the most hopeless problem of all: such as he is, John McCabe is the best man in the vicinity. Christie's mysterious, opiated smile sticks with you, as does her mix of contempt and sympathy for her customers. On her last dreamy moment on screen, Mrs. Miller fixes her gaze on a porcelain bauble, a little trinket from China. She leaves us with her mystery intact. This Robert Altman classic is a demolition of western movie myths, that clears the road to Deadwood, And Christie's Mrs. Miller is the best-case scenario of a prostitute on screen: the kind of woman who can meet a man halfway, who can use him, take him, leave him, or cut him down to size.
Runners up for the top seven include Shirley Jones: positively edible in Elmer Gantry, and one of the few women who put Burt Lancaster in his place and lived to tell about it; Ona Munson in Gone With the Wind (Oh, Rhett, why didn't you go away with Belle, you were made for each other!) and Carol Kane in The Last Detail, Not to forget Constance Towers in The Naked Kiss, Jennifer Jason Leigh in either The Men's Club or Miami Blues. And, never to be forgot, the scariest screen prostitute of all time, Barbra Streisand in Nuts (or as Michael Musto titled it, "Mentl").