Oscar Roles: Prostitutes Dominate Women (Best Actress, Supporting Actress) Winning Roles

Butterfield 8 Butterfield 8
The prostitute with (or without) a heart of gold is an enduring screen image in Hollywood’s history, and the second most prevalent Oscar role for women, after acting, or women laying actresses.  
Elizabeth Taylor won her first (undeserved) Oscar for “Butterfield 8” (based on John O’s novel) as Gloria Wandrous, a New York call girl. Gloria describes herself as “the slut of all times,” but basically, she is a good?natured woman whose main aspiration in life is to gain respectability, marry a decent man, and live a suburban life.  However, trapped in bad circumstances and unable to forget her past, there is no hope for Gloria. After a disastrous affair with a wealthy and married Yale graduate (Laurence Harvey), she finds her death in a fatal car crash.
 
Jane Fonda’s first Best Actress Oscar, for “Klute” in 1971, is acknowledged a great performance. For no apparent reason, the film was named after its detective (played by Donald Sutherland), but it should have been titled after its heroine, Bree Daniel, a tough New York call girl. Bree may be a victim of her circumstances, but she also enjoys the power she possesses over her clients. Like other films, Klute also makes an explicit association between the two traditional female professions, acting and prostitution. When Bree complains to her analyst that she has had no luck as an actress, the latter responds, “What’s the difference? You’re successful as a call girl, you’re not successful as an actress.”  
 
Other films have also made similar links: One of the three films for which Janet Gaynor was honored with the very first Best Actress was Street Angel, in which she plays a poor prostitute who takes a refuge from the police with a circus, where she meets and falls in love with a painter (played by her frequent co-star Charles Farrell). Claire Trevor won a supporting Oscar for Key Largo, in which she’s cast as a gangster’s alcoholic mistress and fading torch singer.
 
More Supporting than lead Oscars were bestowed on women playing prostitutes. In East of Eden, Jo Van Fleet plays James Dean’s presumably dead mother, a woman who broke free of her family and is now a notorious madam. Dorothy Malone gave an intensely hysterical performance in Douglas Sirk’s stylish melodrama, Written on the Wind, as a rich, frustrated nymphomaniac who seduces gas?station attendants in cheap motel rooms.
 
Woody Allen’s films abound with prostitutes. In “Shadows and Fog,” Allen wasted the talents of two Oscar-winning actresses–Kathy Bates and Jodie Foster–by casting them as hookers; the film was ignored by the Academy and the public. In Allen’s 1995 comedy, Mighty Aphrodite, Mira Sorvino became the eighth actress to win an Oscar for playing a hooker, albeit a bright and cheerful one. It took Allen decades to respond to the criticism that there are no speaking parts for black actors in his films, but then, in his self-referential, foul-mouthed comedy, Deconstructing Harry, the main female character is a black prostitute. So much for progress.
 
Some of the Oscars for screen prostitutes have rewarded actresses for deviating from their clean-cut, wholesome screen image. Anne Baxter began her career as the “girl?next?door” in patriotic war films (“The Pied Piper,” “Crash Dive,” “The Fighting Sullivans”), but she won a supporting Oscar for a major departure from that image, in “The Razor’s Edge,” as a woman who becomes a dipsomaniac prostitute after the death of her husband and child in a car crash.
 
Donna Reed
 
Donna Reed built a name for herself as a sincere, wholesome girl, as in Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which she plays Jimmy Stewart’ loyal wife, but she won the Oscar for a role that was the exception, Alma, the good-hearted “hostess” in “From Here to Eternity.” Under pressures of censorship, that film was less explicit than the book in describing Alma’s line of work; in the book, she’s a prostitute.
 
1960: Year of the Hookers
 
In 1960, the two female awards were given to actresses who played prostitutes: Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8 and Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry. Jones was recruited to Hollywood from the Broadway stage, having established herself as a singer. At first, she played shy, romantic girls in musicals (“Oklahoma!” “Carousel,” “April Love”). However, only when Jones changed her image, playing Lulu Bains, the good?hearted prostitute in “Elmer Gantry,” she earned the Academy’s recognition. “I am sick of portraying ingenues with sunny dispositions, high necklines, and puffy sleeves, who are girlishly aggressive about happiness being just around the corner,” Jones complained.
 
Did I mention that Greek actress Melina Mercouri received a Best Actress nomination in 1960 for playing a jolly, joyous prostitute in “Never on Sunday,” directed by her husband (McCarthy politics victim), Jules Dassin.
 
Oscar 1995: (Another) Year of Hookers 
Cut to 1995, when three of the ten women nominated for acting awards played prostitutes, which motivated emcee Whoopi Goldberg to quip: “Elizabeth Shue (“Leaving Las Vegas”) played a hooker. Sharon Stone (“Casino”) played a hooker. Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”) played a hooker. How many times did Charlie Sheen get to vote?” Poker was alluding, not to subtlely, to the scandalous reports that Sheen had spent thousands of dollars as a celeb customer of the high-profile Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss (later celebrated in a documentary devoted to her life).