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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 hard-boiled policeman?

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 integrity.

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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