Top 10 Films About Prostitutes

Top 10 Films takes a look at the “world’s oldest profession” through a bunch of great films featuring iconic characters working as prostitutes.

It isn’t surprising to see cinema addressing prostitution throughout its history since the subject has distinct weight attached to it. Completely illegal in some countries while being legal and regulated in others, prostitution is an interesting subject particularly in how its inherently intimate nature can open avenues to investigate character. Perhaps its greatest attribute as a story concept is how someone gets into the business of prostituting themselves in the first place, and how it impacts on their lives. However, while some films try to understand the motivation behind prostitution (the best of these feature highly on this top 10 list), male and female self-discovery for example, others use it as a device for comedy, adventure and even romance. In Top 10 Films’ list, we take a look at some of the best films to feature prostitutes as key characters within the story.

10. Night Shift (Howard, 1982)

Top 10 Films about Prostitutes
Night Shift sees Happy Days colleagues Ron Howard (in the director’s chair) and Henry “The Fonz” Winkler (in the leading role) bring this delightful comedy to life. The film also features an ensemble of strong comedic performances – particularly from Michael Keaton in his first starring role and Shelley Long – as Howard and co. approach working girl life with entrepreneurial but decidedly light-hearted flair. Winkler plays Chuck, a man who decides to reduce the stresses of working the stock markets to take refuge as an attendant at the local morgue. When he’s forced to work the night shift he meets Keaton’s Bill “Blaze” Blazehowski whose neighbour Belinda, a prostitute, is having trouble with her pimp. They decide to work together to give Belinda and her fellow prostitutes a safe haven to conduct their “business” in the morgue.

9. Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992)

Top 10 Films about Prostitutes
If you need help in the old west who better to hire than Clint Eastwood. When a group of prostitutes realise the authorities won’t do anything about the men who violently attacked one of them (leaving her scarred for life), they seek private retribution and offer $1,000 to whoever kills the perpetrators. Step up Mr Eastwood.

8. McCabe and Mrs Miller (Altman, 1971)

Top 10 Films about Prostitutes
Robert Altman’s self-proclaimed anti-western tells the story of John McCabe whose self-assurance and smart opportunism sees him set up home in Presbyterian Church. Set sometime in the early 1900s, the man, rumoured to be a sharp-shooting gunman, establishes a brothel to further milk the town of its money. When a professional “madam” turns up promising to make the brothel more profitable, McCabe and his prostitute-by-trade right-hand-woman Constance Miller make the business even more successful.

7. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)

Top 10 Films about Prostitutes
What is most provocative in Martin Scorsese’s film isn’t the squalid living conditions of the prostitute Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle befriends. Nor is it her wayward, drug-peddling pimp. What really hits home is her age. She’s twelve-years-old. Jodie Foster, who plays the young girl, displays street-smarts way beyond her age, but no matter how mentally strong she appears, that skinny, childlike stature highlights her lost innocence and ultimate fragility.

6. American Gigolo (Schrader, 1980)

Top 10 Films about Prostitutes
Enter the “working guy” stage left. Richard Gere, in a reverse of the role that he would later become so famous for in Pretty Woman, takes up work as a male escort in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. He achieves gratification from the job – he enjoys being able to serve his clients’ needs, and is drawn to the prestige that comes with the money he makes. However, his life is turned upside down when he becomes a prime suspect in a murder case. Unable to get the alibi he needs from a client he was with, Gere’s Julian Kaye begins to run out of ways to clear his name. Schrader’s world of prostitution features high rollers and the high life, its sordidness remaining within the bedroom. Gere’s gigolo Kaye is a man whose desires can be understood, his plight sympathised with. Ultimately, this has lighter tones than Schrader’s other great film featuring a prostitute (Taxi Driver). However, just like Travis Bickle’s overarching loneliness in the Martin Scorsese-directed film, Julian Kaye appears similarly empty.

5. Pretty Woman (Marshall, 1990)

Top 10 Films about Prostitutes
Pretty Woman paints its picture of the life of a Los Angeles based prostitute in much lighter shades than, for example, Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver. Julia Roberts plays the call girl who answers Richard Gere’s plea for by-the-hour companionship. What transpires is true love; or at least true love in the sense that few people can turn down endless streams of cash, lavish socialising in the best restaurants, and expensive clothes.

4. Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969)

Top 10 Films about Prostitutes
Jon Voight plays new-to-the-game gigolo Joe Buck who leaves rural Texas behind for the bright lights of big city New York. However, life as a male prostitute is harder than he thinks. His target market – wealthy women – fails to respond in kind, forcing him to turn his attentions to more sordid acts. The film is best remembered – rightly so – for the blossoming oddball friendship between Joe and the equally lonely Rizzo (played by Dustin Hoffman who delivers one of his finest performances). Rizzo becomes a sort of surrogate pimp and the pair’s unlikely friendship blossoms from, firstly, a moment of kindness on Rizzo’s part to allow Joe to stay with him, and then their petty crime business ventures.

3. Risky Business (Brickman, 1983)

Top 10 Films about Prostitutes
The film that thrust Tom Cruise to super stardom is the film about a teenager running a high class brothel. Privileged, bright and somewhat unpredictable, Cruise plays Joel Goodson, a young man tasked with looking after his mother and father’s home while they are away on a trip. Living in Reagan-era America, the onus was on doing it for yourself in a commercially rich, materialistic world ready for the driven to earn their power and wealth. It is therefore fitting that Joel should turn his family home into a profit-making enterprise when prostitute Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) and her friends begin serving customers there. It is all too good to be true but that’s the charm of this 1980s classic.

2. Working Girls (Borden, 1986)

Top 10 Films about Prostitutes
Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at 1987’s Sundance Film Festival, Lizzie Borden’s film explores a single day in the lives of a bunch of high class prostitutes in Manhattan. The film has been praised for its portrayal of strong female characters alongside its even-handed presentation of a modern day brothel. Like the title suggests, these “working girls” are there to do a job which Borden shows as being as ordinary and mundane as any other. The film’s simple, straight-forward realism leaves little room for eroticism as Working Girls focuses on the “work” of “the oldest profession”.

1. Belle de Jour (Bunuel, 1967)

Top 10 Films about Prostitutes
The name Belle de Jour derives from the French title given to the daylily which means “beauty of the day”. This relates to Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve), a young woman who decides to bring something different into her daily routine by secretly working as a prostitute while her husband is at work. Bunuel’s film explores Severine’s inability to be intimate with her husband despite her love for him, while fantasising about being dominated by other men. At first reluctant, she is drawn to Madame Anaïs’s brothel where she begins to work. While her husband knows nothing of her secret life during the day, their physical relationship improves. But can Severine keep her alternate life secret from her husband? Indeed, does she really want to? In revealing her life as a prostitute, she could once again be forced to suppress her ingrained desires, fantasies and fetishes.

Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.

More on Top 10 Films you might like: Top 10 Drug-Themed Films | Top 10 Films about Alcoholism | Top 10 Teenage Rebellion Films | Top 10 Male Adventures in Self Discovery | Top 10 Cult Films

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. David Baruffi Reply

    A few films you forgot…

    My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie)
    Leaving Las Vegas
    Monster
    House of Pleasures
    Student Services
    Klute

  2. Mark Reply

    Good choices. Not sure if all the details below are correct, but just for the hell of it here’s a list of 9 films involving prostitutes (some of which address the issues mentioned in the above preamble):

    (1) From Hell (The Hughes Brothers, 2001): It’s arguable that no top 10 film list involving prostitutes should be without a Jack the Ripper film (which means Pandora’s Box is another possibility, as is Murder by Decree).

    (2)Very Bad Things (Peter Berg, 1998): Kobe Tai’s grisley death sets the wheels in motion for the unfortunate boys.

    (3) Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1996): At least the alcoholic writer (Nic Cage) leaves on a happy ending. Liz Shue’s career didn’t exactly take off after this, despite her Oscar(TM) nomination.

    (4) I Killed Andy Warhol (Mary Harron, 1996):Lili Taylor is a hoot as Valarie Solanis.

    (5) Every Man for Himself (JL Godard, 1980): My advice to anyone wanting to see this is don’t have a few drinks beforehand – it gets kinda dull, although the rimming scene with the rich guy and the prostitutes is pretty strange.

    (6) Salo (Pasolini, 1976): They only play a minor role in the debauchery, but they are still egging the boys on nevertheless … can’t remember if the one who eventually jumps out the window is a whore of just the piano player.

    (7) My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sandt, 1992): If Midnight Cowboy can be on there (etc)

    (8) Nutts (Martin Ritt, 1988): Hooker Barbara Streisand kills funny man Leslie Nielsen because he’s trying to get her to take a bath.

    (9) Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2000 and something): Still trying to figure it out …

  3. Rodney Reply

    I thought this list was going to go in a completely different direction. Glad it didn’t.

    Some nice films here – for me, though, Pretty Woman would sit right at the top. Although that could just be the 80’s boy in me.

  4. Dan Reply

    @Mark: You’re right about that automatic link between Jack the Ripper and his prostitute victims. It definitely crossed my mind when putting together the above selection. Not sure though that any films about the serial killer really stand out. I like bits and pieces of From Hell but its a “bits and pieces” sort of film. Surprised your above choices didn’t also mention Klute…

    @Rodney: yeah, Pretty Woman is the one that really stands out. Thought it was interesting to highlight how Gere reverses the role somewhat for American Gigolo despite him being nearly as well off as his Pretty Woman character.

  5. Pete Turner (@ilovethatfilm) Reply

    Wow I’ve only seen Taxi Driver from this list. Must get round to watching at least those top four. For me, it doesn’t get any better than Monster with Charlize Theron. That film was absolutely horrific and tragic.

  6. Evan Crean Reply

    This has to be one of the most fascinating Top 10 list ideas you guys have come up with. Aside from Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, and parts of Risky Business, I haven’t seen the majority of the films on this set. I’ve been wanting to see Night Shift though since I love 80s movies, Henry Winkler, and Michael Keaton. I think it’s coming up soon in my Netflix queue.

  7. Alex Withrow Reply

    Great list, love seeing Midnight Cowboy and Belle de Jour here. Two films that deal with prostitution in unique yet effective ways.

  8. Josh Reply

    Gotta admit, there are a few here I’ve never seen. Of the ones I have, though, some good picks. I would probably have had to include Leaving Las Vegas, though. That’s one of the ones that immediately came to mind for me.

  9. 3guys1movie Reply

    This is the most unusual top ten list I have seen in weeks. Good topic!

  10. Christianne Benedict Reply

    Hrm. My own list would look totally different (except, maybe, for Belle de Jour). Probable inclusions: Nights of Cabiria, The Story of a Prostitute, Gate of Flesh, Blow Out, Baby Face, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, The Diary of a Lost Girl. I’d have to give this some thought. Cabiria is a definite, though.

  11. Colin Biggs Reply

    Just watched McCabe & Mrs. Miller tonight, such a great film. Glad to see it on your list.

  12. Chris Reply

    What about the excellent ‘London to Brighton’ ?

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