Hollywood rewards for playing a prostitute
By Karen Go
The best part of the Oscars, if you are a movie fan and celebrity hound who
reads People, is guessing who will win what and then seeing if your
guesses are right. So this year, my friends and I eagerly gathered,
speculating and commenting at the scene. Everyone I was with was rooting for
Titanic. I knew it was bound to capture a lot of Oscars; the real
question was whether it would beat Ben-Hur for the most Oscars ever won
by a film.
Despite all the fun and teasing that comes along with the Oscars, my mind
turned to more serious thoughts as the show went on. No, I was not wondering
why all the men this year decided to wear floor-length coats, or why Leo, the
man (or should I say "boy") of the moment did not go to the Oscars. As Kim
Basinger won for Best Supporting Actress, I first felt shocked, and then
puzzled. Shouldn't the Oscar have gone to Gloria Stuart, a veteran actress who
had never received an Oscar though she had been acting for more than 50 years?
But I really shouldn't have been surprised.
Stuart portrayed the beautiful and proud Rose in Titanic, who fulfilled
her dreams and defied an evil, manipulative man to become a strong, willful
(and of course still beautiful) woman. Kim Basinger played a Veronica Lake
lookalike in L.A. Confidential. Did I mention that she plays a
prostitute, albeit a high-class one, who finds redemption in the arms of a
I had thought that the Academy would reward a woman who had acted for years
and had finally gotten the world's attention as a sweet and sprightly old woman
who loved her Jack on the Titanic. But I forgot--the Academy loves even
better a woman who takes on the role of a prostitute with conviction and
I don't think I've ever missed an Oscar night since I have been old enough to
understand what the word "cinematography" means, and many examples of the
Academy rewarding women for roles as prostitutes come to mind. Consider Jodie
Foster, CC '84, as one of the youngest Oscar nominees as the teenage hooker in
Taxi Driver, Julia Roberts nominated for a Best Actress award as the
prettiest woman that the world (and Richard Gere) had ever encountered,
Elizabeth Shue receiving a nomination as a prostitute in Las Vegas who tries to
save Nicolas Cage, and Mira Sorvino winning the Oscar for her role as a
prostitute (not a high class one this time, but seeking redemption with good
old Woody Allen). Apparently, the Academy and the public love women in
"challenging" comedic and dramatic roles--roles as prostitutes who look for or
receive redemption. But what is it that the public really enjoys?
"Oh," someone could argue, "it's such a stretch for actresses to play the role
of a prostitute. It really makes them act to their fullest potential. And they
give real emotional depth to these women." Yet the idea that playing a
prostitute requires more skill than performing the roles undertaken by the
other nominees rings hollow to me.
Did Basinger really have to reach into the depths of her soul to portray a
Veronica Lake lookalike any more than Stuart did to play a survivor of the
Titanic, or the often overlooked Julianne Moore did to portray her
drugged-out character in Boogie Nights?
No, there is something else that makes these women who act in the roles of
prostitutes so special to the viewing public. There is a strange societal
obsession with seeing women in demeaning roles, making themselves objects of
desire and mere commodities. And in Hollywood, where women in film are all to
often wives or girlfriends hanging on the arm of the male hero, playing the
role of a prostitute is now considered a way to diversify.
In actuality, however, continuing to use the prostitute as a symbol of a
"real" female (as opposed to the less authentic trophy wives or girlfriends) is
distorted and produces a disturbing picture of society. How can actresses ever
break the societal trend of viewing women as objects when the primary way to
oppose the typical woman appears to be acting as a prostitute?
Furthermore, Hollywood prostitutes are nothing like real prostitutes.
Actresses such as Basinger take on this type of role hoping to get beyond the
limits of the roles traditionally available for women. By portraying
prostitutes, however, these actresses propagate the false myth of prostitution
as somehow being a mysterious and beguiling occupation. If your average
prostitute really looked and acted like Basinger, do you think she would be
walking some seedy street? Glamorizing prostitutes only serves to make the
commodification of women appear cool--and unfortunately, the Oscars continue to
reinforce this stereotype year after year.
Karen Go is a junior in Saybrook.
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