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Nicole Kidman as Satine in Moulin Rouge! (2001)
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When I first heard that the admired French actress Isabelle Huppert plays a high-end call girl in the newly released film Special Treatment, my first reaction was, really?  Are there any leading actresses (other than Meryl Streep) who haven’t portrayed a “lady of the evening”?  Turns out, not many.

In fact, the list of prominent actresses who’ve played a prostitute is soooo much longer than I’d even anticipated. Here’s the Who’s Who of hookers, on screen:  Patricia Arquette, Mischa Barton, Kim Basinger, Monica Belluci, Julie Christie, Jamie Lee Curtis, Rebecca De Mornay Catherine Deneuve, Lisa Edelstein, Jane Fonda, Megan Fox, Jodie Foster, Greta Garbo, Janet Gaynor, Heather Graham, Melanie Griffith, Helen Hayes, Susan Hayward, Barbara Hershey, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Shirley Jones, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Shirley MacLaine, Michelle Pfeiffer, Donna Reed, Julia Roberts, Mimi Rogers, Susan Sarandon, Kyra Sedgewick, Amanda Seyfried, Elizabeth Shue, Mira Sorvino, Kristen Stewart, Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlize Theron, and Kathleen Turner, and Jo Van Fleet.

Donna Reed?  No wonder she was quoted as saying, “’Forty pictures I was in, and all I can remember is ‘What bra will you be wearing today?’”

Think of an actress who hasn’t played a hooker, and in most cases she’s either being considered for such a role (Anne Hathaway), or has played an ex-hooker (Sharon Stone), a hooker-hiring wife (Julianne Moore), or a stripper (Jessica Alba, Elizabeth Berkley, Halle Berre, Jessica Biel, Penelope Cruz, Daryl Hannah, Salma Hayek, Lindsay Lohan, Rose McGowan, Demi Moore, Natalie Portman, Marisa Tomei).  While I’m not equating stripping with prostitution, it fits with Hollywood’s obsession with women performing in a sexual way for pay.

How did playing a prostitute or stripper become de rigeur for Hollywood actresses?

These parts have admittedly resulted in some of the most memorable star turns in screen history, including Julie Roberts in   Pretty Woman, as well as multiple Academy Awards for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress:  Janet Gaynor in Street Angel, Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet, Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! , Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry, Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden, Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8, Jane Fonda in Klute, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential, Charlize Theron in Monster, and, yes, Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity.

To drive the point home, I’ve named 55 screen actresses—all well-known stars in leading roles.  This figure does not even begin to account for the unknown numbers of actresses in minor parts as prostitutes. 

Now let’s look at the other side of the equation. I’m no mathematician, but it seems pretty elemental that for every woman who is a sex worker, there are many more men who avail themselves of her services.  So, where are all the A-list actors playing johns?  There are so few, and it probably wouldn’t even occur to the viewer to think of them that way, with few exceptions, most notably Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.  (Try Googling “actors who’ve played a john” and you’ll come across “list of actors who played President of the United States ” and “actors who’ve played twins” and “actors who’ve played the Devil”… but, alas, not a single listing for actors who’ve played johns.) 

And, whenever a major Hollywood star appears on-screen with a prostitute, he becomes romantically involved with or enjoys a deep friendship with her—whether or not he “sampled the wares” first.  That was true for Nicholas Cage, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Clark Gable, Richard Gere, Rob Lowe, and Donald Sutherland, among others.

I understand why a storyline about the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and the man who saves her is appealing to a male (and even female) audience. The man gets to be the hero by saving the woman from “whoring” herself. At the same time, he gets to have sex with a “sexpert” and gets to feel special because, while lesser men have to pay for sex, the desired woman wants to have sex with only him—as a choice, not an obligation. The woman “wins” the love of a man in a world of men who only lust after her. It’s an appealing fantasy.

Indeed, there are countless such fantasies that Hollywood could (and obviously, it does) turn into entertainment for our viewing pleasure—and for its profit. Maybe, just maybe, though, a few more of those creative types could generate phenomenal parts for the leading actresses of our time that don’t require them to shimmy down a pole, or satisfy a stranger. I’d go see that.

In her "Vox Pop" column for PopMatters Meta voices her observations about pop culture, particularly as it intersects with our lives. She is endlessly fascinated by the myriad ways in which our pop culture choices reflect back on us -- our beliefs, our desires, our idiosyncrasies, our intellects. Wagner's published pieces include written commentaries, features, and profiles for Salon, Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. You can visit her blog here. When she's not writing, Meta is molding young minds as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, where she teaches creative writing. She also developed and occasionally teaches a column-writing class at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston.

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