Sunday, September 26, 2010

Hookers: From Garbo To Grey.

I always have a problem with cinema hookers. For some reasons hookers seemed to be born into cinema with a heart of gold. No one likes a fallen woman, therefore, filmmakers always made sure of a major point. They obscure the fact that she's a hooker, and leave it as a bleak depiction of a some kind of modern Mary Magdalene. It's very Christian, and yet, with all the advances and lack of stigma given to prostitution and a general shedding of puritanical filmmaking, when you get asked to play a hooker, you're more than likely to regurgitate an old tradition, with the boundaries being very limited. You might get to flash the good stuff and make yourself down, to be more appealing for today's Academy, but other than that 'underdog' nomination that two people clap for when you're name is called on Oscar night, and then not followed after  'and the Oscar goes to...' hookerism has become one of the most tired cliches in Hollywood, right after the stubborn man with mental difficulties, and the David vs. Goliath scenario.
Let's look at the evolution here. One of the first real, graphic, and vivid depictions of hookerdom was when Greta Garbo did it in "Mata Hari"(1931), a pre-code film about the life of the infamous spy who traded sex for strategy secrets during World War I.
In the film, there is virtually no mention of the former part of her resume, but that she is the most powerful woman in the world, seducing men with her undeniable charm, luring them in with her exotic feminine wiles.
The real story behind Mata Hari, is a very morbidly sad one. Born in the Netherlands, she became what was at that time called a Courtesan. She eventually ended up in Paris, where her time as a double agent began. She was eventually convicted of espionage and executed by a firing squad. She was known as to be so severe an agent, because she was able to lull the most stoic and stubborn military men into bed and then have them tell her their secrets while they were in the throws of ecstasy. 
Mata Hari, photographed circa 1913 
Greta Garbo as Mata Hari in the self-titled film's poster made in 1931 
Lets jump about 80 years forward to the newest film about working women; Steven Soderbergh's 'The Girlfriend Experience' (2009). Now, most people would classify 'Erin Brockovich' (2001) as a 'hook-with-a-heart-of-gold' film, but PC rules prevent against that. In the latter, it is the format. Only Erin Brockovich isn't a hooker, but appears like one; a minor technicality. 
'The Girlfriend Experience' is appropriately named, as it deals with one of the unwavering mathematical constant aspects of hookerdom. Those dirty old men that go to the Bunny Ranch in Nevada, or the few other legal brothels in the states always seem to order the same thing. It is the most popular dish on the whore menu; the girlfriend experience. They don't want the Pamela Anderson look-alike, even if she's wearing that skimpy red bathing suit, and her hair is the same color as mustard. They want to talk, they want to feel like they have known said hooker for a while. They complain about their marriage, their banal white-collar torture job, and their bratty kids who just won't calm the fuck down. 
There is probably a saying in every language and in every culture, that is something to the degree of 'I need someone who will do things that my wife won't'. But they still want her to behave and act like the wife for that sordid 30 minutes that they buy inside a dim lit, awkward room in the back. 
Joan Crawford stated on the record to Louella Parsons that the perfect woman should be 'a lady in the parlor, and a whore in bed'. This was back in the 1940's, and for some reason, it seems like puritanical government has pushed us backwards. We as women are either ladies or whores. I would like to bring up an instance in the poorly adapted version of the play 'Closer' (2004) by Mike Nichols, where Clive Owen's character, Larry is interrogating Julia Robert's character (Anna) about her infidelities with Jude Law's character (Dan).
Here is the conversation (partial): 
Larry: Is he a good fuck? 
Anna: Don't do this. 
Larry: Just answer the question! Is he good? 
Anna: Yes. 
Larry: Better than me? 
Anna: Different. 
Larry: Better? 
Anna: Gentler. 
Larry: What does that mean? 
Anna: You know what it means. 
Larry: Tell me! 
Anna: No. 
Larry: I treat you like a whore? 
Anna: Sometimes. 
Larry: Why would that be? 

It appears that in this day and age, whore-ism is the most repugnant of mental being. Mental being the key word. Feeling like a whore, does not necessitate physically walking the street in stripper heels charging 30$ for felatio. This is completely understandible especially because every undergrad program requires you to read at least 2 essays by Betty Friedan, but if you focus on this sociological phenomenon through a cinematic perspective, there is a major change in values that is of utmost irony and needs to be noted. 

Back in the good ol' days, which are not only before our time, but before most of our parents' times, sexuality in film was highly taboo and stricly regulated. Despite this, the biographies of the biggest female stars of that time (as well as male) talk in detail about the harem like atmosphere that they were living in during their best years. Errol Flynn used to get up to 30 young excited extras to walk around his Brentwood home serving Champagne and mint juleps. There are many stories like this, but my favorite has to be Joan Crawford (I know, I know). In the infamous 'Mommie Dearest' written by Christina Crawford, her adopted daughter after Joan's death in the 1980's, there are many things one would never imagine flying today, not even by Hollywood standards. One such story is how Christina (when she was about 6 to 10) would have to answer the door and make a drink for whoever was calling for her mother. The men ranged from David O. Selznick to Yul Brynner. Joan would be upstairs getting ready, and Christina was to entertain them, as much as a 7 year old could, and she was always made to refer to the man as 'Uncle'. Imagine that scenario. 
Ding Dong...hello Uncle Cagney, would you like a Whiskey sour? Please sit, make yourself comfortable while my mother oils the inside of her thighs. 
Does this make her a whore? Is Marlene Dietrich a whore for sleeping with three generations of Kennedy's? Is Marilyn a whore for sleeping with numerous agents so that she would finally get signed at 20th Century Fox? Is Marion Davies a whore for doing all of her co-stars because W.R. Hearst was just too old and fat to satisfy her when she needed it? 
No. But if Lindsay Lohan does it, or when Miley Cyrus gives Adam Shankman a lap dance, or gets photographed by Annie Lebovitz with her back exposed, she's definitely fallen into the deviant ways of womanhood. 
Let's get this straight. If Annie Lebovitz tells you to take your shirt off, you do it. If she tells you to make out with a monkey while straddling the American flag, you do it. 

So let's come full circle. From Garbo as Mata Hari to Sasha Grey in 'The Girlfriend Experience'. Garbo was ironically the biggest prude of her era. She had a great love (John Gilbert), and after he died, and her career went to hell, became a total recluse hermit crab. She only came out every once in a while dressed head to toe in dark colors with her hair up and her famous eyes hidden behind thick shades. Her closest relationship was with that of her assistant who could do everything required in going out of her apartment (groceries, shopping, etc.). You could say she was that crazy cat lady without the cats, but to be kind, let's call her the old maid spinster. Very 'Sunset Blvd.'. 
Sasha Grey is 22 year old porn star. She's not just a porn-actress, she's a bona fide, award-winning star, and garners millions in revenue for her films which range from the 'romantic fantasy' to 'gangbang slut', if you were to type in keywords on 
In interviews, Soderbergh said he chose her because she had 'a quality'...i know, how tired and cliche is that? And how much porn did he have to watch for research? But amidst the cornucopia of platinum blonde, fake boobed, dinky ingenues, it would appear she really does stand out in the industry. His film gave her a kind of voice; her own 20/20 exclusive. That show must have done a million and a half episodes on prostitution, and it is always about these unfortunate women who can't stand what they are doing, have more than once been beaten, and are usually addicted to something or other to dull the pain that is their existence. It's all very heart-wrenching and hypocritical, but in Sasha's case, we see a girl who is smart, able, and has all the makings of a bright future in college, and everything else that we classify as 'acceptable'. She comes from a prominent background, and doesn't look like a streetwalker. She looks like that girl that your sorry ass was too chicken to ask to the prom back in the day. She is sans regret. She is above moral influence. In a way, she is more of the 'modern woman' than Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich. 
Grey with Soderbergh at the premier of 'The Girlfriend Experience' in LA, 2009. 

With the release of this film, she and Soderbergh made every snooty critic write down in bold capitals that he doesn't watch porn, and had to look her up on wikipedia so that he could familiarize himself with who she is. She made the transition of being the one you turn on when you sleepily trudge into your garage, pull out a bottle of Johnson and Johnson's and do your thing at 3 o'clock in the morning, to someone who is now noted for her 'vivid and bold' performance. I'm sure Marlon Brando's ghost is enraged by just how method this whole thing is; a porn star playing a hooker. I'm sure her copy of 'An Actor Prepares' was heavily annotated. 
But here's the thing, her performance is irrelevant. The circumstance and aesthetic are just affects of the cultural disturbance that happens. She brings pornography into a respected atmosphere. She can walk the red carpet with Steven Soderbergh and appear at Cannes, being hounded by legitimate journalists instead of horny fat teenagers at Comi Con. One can only imagine if she was nominated for an Oscar, but that would never happen. We only accept women who are whores who 'evolve' into something greater and end up being a benefit to society. Even if she was to out-act Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, Elizabeth Taylor (in Butterfield 8), she would still be the whore, sans the heart of gold. 
What this film has done if anything is transformed that stock character. She doesn't have to reform, nor feel sorry for what she is doing for a living. She makes more money in a day than I ever will in a month. And now that she's done a 'legitimate' film, even more than that. 
The question is; if someone like Garbo, Dietrich, Streep etc. plays her quintessential role as a prostitute, will that pigeonhole her? Conversely, if bona fide Sasha Grey makes the apparently smooth transition from porn to narrative, will she get offers in the future from big studios and directors? A puzzlement indeed. 
Thoughts are always and greatly appreciated. 

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