It’s been called the oldest profession in the world: offering companionship and sexual favors for money. As movies reflect life, portrayals of prostitution are numerous.
Though most of the time women are depicted as the purveyors, men are fully capable of taking on the role as well. Witness a young Warren Beatty doing a terrible Italian accent in “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” (1963) or Richard Gere dressed to the nines in Paul Schrader’s caustic “American Gigolo” (1980).
Whether it’s a male or female selling their bodies, these movies depict the arrangements as sleazy or fairly civilized, according to price and circumstance. Earlier movies did more suggesting than showing due to censorship, while features made after the mid-sixties became increasingly explicit.
However they’re presented, most always there’s something intrinsically sad and degrading about these fleeting, transactional relationships. Neither party comes out looking good. Over time, movies have presented a host of variations on this troubling theme, while consistently capturing the futility lying just beneath the fun.
In the #MeToo age, we are more conscious than ever before of systemic objectification of women, and that’s immensely important. However, this shouldn’t suggest that we ignore or overlook a phenomenon that spans centuries and that’s unlikely ever to go away entirely.
The continued presence of paid escorts conveys something fundamental about the human condition — our capacity for loneliness, frustration, denial — and a sometimes desperate need to touch, feel, and connect. Often for the provider, it’s simply a matter of survival.
All this is the stuff of great cinema — mostly drama, but sometimes even comedy. It’s also striking how many actors and actresses playing these kinds of roles have won or been nominated for Oscars. Below are just twelve examples spanning half a century of movie history.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Bill Holden plays Joe Gillis, a broke writer who becomes the paid companion for silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). It doesn’t end well for Joe, but Holden and Swanson both got Oscar nods.
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Army misfit Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) finds comfort in the arms of Alma (Donna Reed) in the days leading up to Pearl Harbor. Reed, known for “good girl” roles, took home a statuette.
THE Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Federico Fellini cast his wife Giuletta Masina in the title role. A streetwalker, the childlike Cabiria yearns for love but receives only ridicule. This Oscar winner is one of the director’s saddest films; bring Kleenex!
Elmer Gantry (1960)
The wholesome Shirley Jones stunned her public with her portrayal of Lulu, the scheming hooker who threatens to bring down preacher Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster). Jones snagged an Oscar for this.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Paul Varjak (George Peppard) is a frustrated, penniless writer and kept man, thanks to the wealthy Mrs. Failenson (Patricia Neal). But Paul only has eyes for neighbor Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn).
Belle de Jour (1967)
The frigid, affluent Severine (Catherine Deneuve) doesn't need to become an escort, but bored in her marriage, decides to try it. She turns out to be a natural. Luis Bunuel’s enigmatic film still fascinates.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) leaves Texas for the mean streets of New York and tries to make a living bedding down rich ladies for money. It’s not so easy. Voight got an Oscar nod for this and became a star.
Jane Fonda won her first Oscar playing Bree Daniels, a high class escort who’s receiving death threats. Donald Sutherland is the detective who investigates. Alan J. Pakula directs this superb spine-tingler.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is surrounded by filth and corruption in New York City. In a final noble act, he resolves to save child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from a grim fate. Jodie got an Oscar nod for this.
Pretty Woman (1990)
Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) is a handsome, workaholic tycoon who meets adorable call girl Vivian (Julia Roberts). What starts as a transaction quickly becomes something more. This made Julia a star.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
In Curtis Hanson’s colorful tale of vice in 1950's Los Angeles, Kim Basinger plays Lynn Bracken, a call girl who's billed as Lana Turner’s double. Kim won her first Oscar for this at age 45. She looks — and is — terrific!
Mysterious Skin (2005)
Greg Araki’s intense drama about a damaged, young male hustler provided a stark change of pace role for former child actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Beware: this grim, uncompromising film still packs a wallop.