Whore. Hooker. Call girl. Prostitute. The sex industry is alive and thriving, generating an annual revenue of over $100 billion dollars worldwide, because hey, sex sells. But who are the women who sell their bodies for money? What are their stories? If there’s anything Hollywood likes more than selling sex on the big screen, it’s telling a story with sex and merit. The roles actresses have played portraying prostitutes range from emotional to hilarious, and span across the better half of a century. Some of the actresses retained their gorgeous looks for their roles; Others shed it, openly embracing the sometimes hard and gritty life associated with the world’s oldest profession.
Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden
Van Fleet plays the hooker with a heart of stone in East of Eden. The 1955 film is loosely-based on the novel of the same name by John Steinbeck and also features James Dean as Fleet’s son. The basic plot is akin to a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, wherein a wayward young man longs for the affection of his deeply religious father against the obviously favored brother. It is set in 1917 and 1918, the years leading into the American involvement in World War I. Although the two brothers have been lead to believe their mother, Cathy Ames, is dead, it is revealed in the opening scene that she is very much alive and owning a brothel in nearby Monterey, California. Known also by the aliases Kate Trask or Kate Albey, Cathy has come into ownership of the whorehouse through first endearing herself to, and then poisoning, the former owner. She is considered the main antagonist in the movie, and the final catalyst towards driving one of the brothers away from home for good.
Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8
The last great star to come out of the old Hollywood studio system, the lovely Elizabeth Taylor stars in Butterfield 8 as Gloria Wandrous, the “most desired woman in town and the easiest to find.” This 1960 Metrocolor drama is based on a 1934 novel written by John O’Hara and tells the story of wayward Gloria, available upon request by calling Butterfield 8, or 288. Gloria is entangled in the affections of married Wes Ligget, the wealthy owner of a chemical company. Her best friend Steve tries to prevent Gloria from wasting her life away sleeping with strangers, while his girlfriend, Norma is worried Steve might secretly be in love with Gloria. While many of the issues in this film are resolved, be forewarned that not everyone gets a happy ending.
Jane Fonda in Klute
Once beloved actress turned Hanoi Jane, Jane Fonda was on her way to skyrocketing success after her role in the 1971 movie Klute. Fonda plays Bree Daniels, a freelance call girl who is being followed by detective John Klute as he attempts to find information about another missing prostitute. Daniels seems to enjoy her life from the outside, finding liberation in turning tricks, but deeper investigation proves she is deeply troubled. Scenes involving her psychiatrist show she is paranoid and numb. Her involvement with Klute leads to both a restoration of feelings and the discovery of a killer.
Kim Basinger in LA Confidential
Another film based on the 1990 novel, LA Confidential was a 1997 film noir adaption featuring a host of stars including Russell Crowe, Guy Peace, Danny DeVito, and Kevin Spacey. Basinger plays prostitute Lynn Bracken, a Veronica Lake look-a-like prostitute involved in the Nite Owl Killings. The movie focuses on the intrigue and corruption of 1950s LA, and Basinger is a hardened veteran of the night.
Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables
The 2012 rendition of the Broadway classic Les Misérables, Hathaway shaved her head to play Fantine, the doomed factory worker turned prostitute whose solo song “I Dreamed A Dream” never fails to bring a tear to the eye. Fantine is not featured in the movie for long, but is incredibly important to the overall storyline since she is the mother to Cosette, the little girl who is rescued from her suffering and grows to become a sheltered beauty. Fantine’s desperation to save her daughter from a similar doomed fate has resonated throughout the hearts of millions, and Hathaway was hailed for her heart-wrenching portrayal of the doomed young woman.
Charlize Theron in Monster
Theron was committed to her role in the 2003 film Monster, sacrificing her outstanding body to play real-life prostitute turned serial killer, Aileen Wuornos. Theron reportedly gained 50 pounds to play the Daytona native and sported a mullet for the role. After meeting at a gay bar, Wuornos and Selby Wall fall in love and move into a hotel. Wuornos continues selling her body but is assaulted brutally one day by a client named Vincent Corey, whom she ends up murdering in self-defense. Meanwhile, Selby is upset Wuornos hasn’t been able to support the both of them, so Wuornos tries to quit prostitution and find legitimate work, but since she has a nasty temper and no job qualifications, she is unsuccessful. She eventually returns to her trade, but now as a bloodthirsty and embittered woman who stalks and murders men, stealing money and cars to bring home.
Susan Hayward in I Want to Live!
I Want to Live! is a 1958 film noir which depicts the life and death story of convicted murderer Barbara Graham. Hayward plays Graham, a prostitute from a broken home who, despite her attempts to get clean, always finds herself back in trouble. Prior to her involvement in the murder, Graham was a habitual criminal convicted of several smaller crimes, including perjury. In addition to selling her body, she also lures men into fixed car games. At one point she tries to turn her life around, but marries a drug addict whom she has a child with, and ends up right back where she started. After becoming involved with a man who murdered a woman, she is arrested and sentenced to death, despite pleading her innocence. The movie leaves the possibility of Graham’s innocence open-ended.
Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry
Elmer Gantry, released in 1960, is the story of a traveling salesman with a charismatic personality who talks his way into joining the evangelical road show run by Sharon Falconer. Jones plays Lulu Baines, a former girlfriend of Gantry turned prostitute who is eager for revenge against her ex-lover. She convinces Gantry to meet up with her in private, where incriminating photos of their embrace are taken by a hidden photographer. Lulu ends up blackmailing Falconer and later the photos are printed, tarnishing Gantry’s reputation.
Mira Sorvino in The Mighty Aphrodite
A Woody Allen film, 1995 romantic comedy, The Mighty Aphrodite, is based on the story of Pygmalion. Allen’s character, Lenny, and his wife adopt a young son who they discover is brilliant. Obsessed with finding his son’s birth parents leads Lenny to discover Linda Ash, played by Sorvino, a prostitute and part-time porn star with delusions of becoming a movie star. Lenny tries to convince her to pursue a wholesome life and gets her away from her violent pimp. Several couples start and end before the film—bracketed at beginning and end with Greek chants and narrated along the way by a Greek chorus—reaches his conclusion.
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Audrey Hepburn, the well known and icon actress, portrayed the role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the film adaptation of Truman Capote's novel of the same name. As a beautiful and innocent prostitute, Golightly turns her attention to a handsome young man who has recently moved into her apartment building. Hepburn was an actress during Hollywood's Golden Age, and was known for her trendy style and was even inducted to the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame. Her on screen performances have lived on past her death.
Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman
In the 1990 romantic comedy, Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts stars as prostitute, Vivan Ward who falls hard for a successful and wealthy business man, played by Richard Gere. Hired as an escort to accompany him to social events, Ward mistakes him for a Roberts received the Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her part in the film. Pretty Woman is one of the most popular romantic comedies of all time.