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A History Of Prostitutes (& How They're Treated) In Movies

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    Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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    The most famous movie about a prostitute is also the one with the happiest ending. In Garry Marshall's Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts' Los Angeles streetwalker is swept off her feet by Richard Gere's dashing businessman. And in this rose-colored view of sex work, his intentions aren't gross.

    Cinema has a long, storied history with prostitutes — especially female ones. According to a recent study by Fusion, no Best Actor Oscar has been granted to a man for playing a male sex worker, while six women have won Best Actress trophies for playing female prostitutes.

    Attitudes have changed through the years. In the late '60s and throughout the '70s prostitution was portrayed as a seedy operation that entrapped young women and men. Hooker comedies like Night Shift and Risky Business, which feature men becoming pimps for kicks, came a decade later. Prostitution got romantic in the '90s and early '00s with films like Pretty Woman and Moulin Rouge!.

    Click through as we examine how 27 movies handled the risque topic.

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    0 of 27

    Anna Christie (1930)
    Greta Garbo’s first talking picture is based on a Eugene O’Neill play about a woman who tries to conceal her stint as a prostitute from her father. Garbo plays Anna as a broken soul, but doesn't make her meek. She owns her sordid past. Prostitution doesn’t ruin Anna, it hardens her.

    Sees prostitution as... another one of life's many tragedies.

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    1 of 27

    Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
    Blake Edwards’ brightly hued adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella isn’t explicit about what Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) does for a living. She does, however, have a financial relationship with men. Remember, she gets “$50 for the powder room.”

    For what it's worth, Capote was also unclear about the matter. In a 1968 Playboy interview, Capote explained that Holly is not “precisely a call girl” and called her an “authentic American geisha.” (Tomato, tom-ahto.)

    Given that what Holly does in exchange for money is obscure, it’s easy to fawn over her glamour. (That dreamy wardrobe!) Still, we're meant to see that her life is shallow — devoid of true love until the movie's final moments.

    Sees prostitution as...
    vague.

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    2 of 27

    Irma la Douce (1963)
    Unlike Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Irma la Douce does not skirt around the fact that its protagonist has sex with men for money. The plot centers on a fired cop, Nestor (Jack Lemmon), who becomes smitten with Shirley MacLaine’s Irma, a woman of the night. Nestor uses a disguise to woo her, leading to hijinks.

    Sees prostitution as... good for farce.

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    3 of 27

    Belle de Jour (1967)
    Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour is primarily interested in the erotic interests of one woman. Séverine, played by Catherine Deneuve, is a housewife with intense bondage fantasies. She starts spending her afternoons working at a brothel in order to explore her sexuality.

    Sees prostitution as... an outlet for a frustrated housewife.

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    4 of 27

    Midnight Cowboy (1969)
    Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a naive Texan who comes to New York to make it as a gigolo. He teams up with a scrappy, sickly con man named Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) to take on the unforgiving city. Still the only X-rated movie to ever win a Best Picture Oscar.

    Sees prostitution as...
    a sleazy business for a sleazy world.