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

Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
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.
1 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.
2 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...
3 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.
4 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.
5 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.
6 of 27
Klute (1971)
Jane Fonda won an Oscar for playing Bree Daniel, a prostitute embroiled in the disappearance of a man who'd been sending her letters. It is one of Fonda's best-ever performances — and, as directed by Alan J. Pakula, an excellent example of the slow-burn thrillers that '70s Hollywood did so well.

Sees prostitution as...
a reason to be paranoid.
7 of 27
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
The year 1971 was a busy one for on-screen sex work. Like Fonda, Julie Christie was nominated for Best Actress for playing a prostitute, in Robert Altman's typically loose and sprawling historical take on the world's oldest profession. Mrs. Miller (Christie) teams up with McCabe (Warren Beatty) to start a brothel in early-20th-century Washington. Despite suffering from an opium addiction, Mrs. Miller is a savvy businesswoman.

Sees prostitution as...
an industry for enterprising spirits.
8 of 27
The Happy Hooker (1975)
Xaviera Hollander’s memoir The Happy Hooker was sort of the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day. Fifty Shades did not end up making for a very good movie. The Happy Hooker didn't either.

Xaviera (Lynn Redgrave), as the title suggests, enjoys having sex for money. How swell!

The Happy Hooker inspired two sequels, The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington and The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood, neither of which star Redgrave.

Sees prostitution as... well, happy.
9 of 27
Taxi Driver (1976)
Jodie Foster was just 14 when she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Iris, a tough-minded, straight-talking 12-year-old prostitute in Martin Scorsese's gritty classic. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) becomes obsessed with trying to protect her, straddling the most human and most violent sides of his personality.

Sees prostitution as...
a product of a city's underbelly.
10 of 27
Pretty Baby (1978)
Brooke Shields’ role as Violet in Pretty Baby is even more scandalous than Jodie Foster's turn in Taxi Driver. Growing up in the brothel where her mother (Susan Sarandon) works, Violet is sexualized at far too young an age. In one disturbing sequence, Violet’s virginity is auctioned off. The film, which features Shields nude, was deemed “child pornography” at the time. But it had defenders. Roger Ebert wrote that Pretty Baby “itself is not a perverted film: It looks soberly, and with a good deal of compassion, at its period of history and the people who occupied it.”

Sees prostitution as...
a corrupting force.
11 of 27
American Gigolo (1980)
Richard Gere was at the height of his sex-god glory when he played Julian, an escort to rich ladies who loves his life of giving pleasure...until he gets framed for murder.

Sees prostitution as... hedonistic. And dangerous.
12 of 27
Lola (1981)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's satire of '50s West Germany tells the story of Lola (Barbara Sukowa), a prostitute and cabaret performer. She bets the father of her child (Mario Adorf) that she can seduce a commissioner (Armin Mueller-Stahl).

Sees prostitution as... part of a metaphor for the Germany's post-war recovery.
13 of 27
Night Shift (1982)
Call girls make for good comedy in Ron Howard’s movie starring Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton as morgue employees who start running a brothel. At one point, Keaton’s Bill tries to define the word “prostitution.” He doesn’t do a great job.

Sees prostitution as... a way to make a crappy job more interesting.
14 of 27
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)
This campy musical ponders the serious question of whether prostitution should be legalized. At the movie's outset, a romantic relationship between the town sheriff, Ed Earl (Burt Reynolds), and a madame, Miss Mona (Dolly Parton), allows the Chicken Ranch to thrive. But a TV host (Dom Deluise) gets wind of it all and creates a scandal, forcing the brothel to close. You end up wishing it would stay open.

Sees prostitution as... a rollicking good time.
15 of 27
Risky Business (1983)
In this '80s classic, a high school senior (Tom Cruise) gets involved with a prostitute (Rebecca De Mornay) while his parents are out of town. Sex on public transportation and scary run-ins with nasty pimps ensue.

Sees prostitution as...
a way for a young man to come of age.
16 of 27
Angel (1984)
Let's not mince words: Angel is a piece of exploitative schlock. A Los Angeles teen gets straight A's at her prep school, but come sundown, works on Hollywood Boulevard. Why? Because she’s been abandoned by her parents. And a serial killer is threatening her life! New York Times critic Vincent Canby couldn’t have said it better: “Angel will almost certainly turn out to be one of the top sleazemobiles of 1984.” Over 30 years out, that’s still a pretty accurate assessment. Two equally crummy sequels followed.

Sees prostitution as... prurient fantasy for shock.
17 of 27
Pretty Woman (1990)
Pretty Woman is the quintessential "hooker with a heart of gold" movie, but it could have been a lot more depressing. Garry Marshall's romantic comedy was originally titled 3,000. In that version of the script, Vivian (Julia Roberts) is a drug addict kicked to the curb at the end of the movie. Happily — or not, depending on your opinion — that project morphed into the blockbuster that made Roberts America's sweetheart. It goes without saying that Pretty Woman romanticizes prostitution. In the world of this film, a streetwalker is just a damsel in distress, waiting to be saved by a man with a cash.

Sees prostitution as...
a fairy tale.
18 of 27
Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
What, did you expect Woody Allen to have an especially nuanced approach to this subject? Lenny (Allen) meets prostitute and porn star Linda (Mira Sorvino, in an Oscar-winning performance) because she happens to be the mother of his adopted son. Linda is ditzy; Lenny is squeamish. This being a Woody Allen film, they end up having sex despite their age difference and his paternalistic treatment of her.

Sees prostitution as...
a job for dumb women.
19 of 27
Dangerous Beauty (1998)
Based on a true story, Dangerous Beauty takes place in 16th-century Venice. Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack) isn't forced to become a courtesan, but she sees it as her best option given that she is not wealthy enough to marry into the upper echelons of society. Though her career choice means she has to have sex with a variety of men, it also allows her a measure of independence. She pursues her passion of poetry. All goes well for her until she is accused of witchcraft.

Sees the profession as... empowering, to an extent.
20 of 27
Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999)
Ah, yes, the classy comedy of Rob Schneider. This vehicle for the SNL comedian is downright nasty, but the joke is less on male prostitutes and more on the women who pay them.

Sees prostitution as...
an insulting-to-intelligence sight gag.
21 of 27
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Baz Luhrmann's campy ode doesn’t really get into the nitty-gritty of what it would have been like to be a courtesan in 19th-century Paris. Everyone’s too busy singing Madonna and Nirvana for that. Instead, the nature of Satine’s (Nicole Kidman) work is just an obstacle for her lover (Ewan McGregor).

Sees prostitution as...
22 of 27
Sonny (2002)
Before he became the jack-of-all-trades we know now, James Franco played the gigolo son of a prostitute mother (Brenda Blethyn) in Nicolas Cage’s poorly received directorial debut. Sonny tries to examine the effect hustling has on a young man born into the profession.

Sees prostitution as... a job that will mess a guy up.
23 of 27
Monster (2003)
Monster dramatizes the true story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron), who murdered and robbed her johns. Wuornos’ crimes are horrifying, but so is her life overall, with rape a constant threat. Theron won an Oscar for her widely heralded, transformative performance.

Sees prostitution as...
an evil that breeds evil.
24 of 27
Hustle & Flow (2005)
While many movie pimps are villainous, Hustle & Flow asks its audience to empathize with DJay (Terrence Howard), a musical genius who just needs his shot. Cue: "Hard Out Here for a Pimp."

Sees prostitution as... a road to artistic freedom.
25 of 27
The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
Steven Soderbergh’s film is not a documentary, but it does take a vérité approach, following around an escort (porn star Sasha Grey) as she goes about her life. It’s interested in the transactional element of her work, and is careful not to comment on it.

Sees prostitution as... a career like any other.
26 of 27
The Immigrant (2013)
There’s a conundrum at the heart of The Immigrant. On one hand, it’s an aesthetically gorgeous film, painting a stunning picture of '20s New York. But amid all that exquisite ornament is a downtrodden Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) at the mercy of a pimp (Joaquin Phoenix). For this woman, prostitution is her only option, a prison from which she does not have the means to free herself.

Sees prostitution as...
exploitative and cruel.
27 of 27
Tangerine (2015)
The frequently hilarious Tangerine doesn't romanticize the life of a sex worker, but it’s not a dour film. Best friends Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are trans prostitutes in L.A. Recently out of jail, Sin-Dee goes on a mission to find the woman who had sex with her boyfriend. Alexandra begrudgingly gets mixed up in her drama.

Sees prostitution as... a flawed profession that affects real people.

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