Perhaps it was the unending coverage of Eliot Spitzer's recent hooker shenanigans that reminded me of Lizzie Borden's 1986 film Working Girls. I must have seen this for the first time in the late 1980s, when I was working in a video store and could rent any title for free. I avoided this one for a long time, as I thought that a film about female prostitutes wouldn't particularly appeal to me; this was also just before hookers became Disneyfied in the form of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. But when I finally saw it, I was mesmerized. It has stayed in my mind since, though I did not actually see it again until last night. It had been teased back into my consciousness by a CNN news story about the world of high-class prostitutes in New York, and I began searching for a copy. The DVD is currently out of print, and goes for large sums on eBay; there was however a VHS copy available for $5.00, and this was what I watched last night. I'm happy to report that not only does the film hold up, but it's probably even better in 2008 than it was in 1986.
Working Girls covers one day, late morning to evening, in a fairly upper-class New York City brothel, and is told largely through the eyes of Molly (played by the excellent Louise Smith), a Yale-educated lesbian whose African-American lover (who has a young daughter) doesn't know what she's doing for a living. Molly rides her bike through the streets of Manhattan after a cozy and domestic breakfast with her girlfriend and the child, and after parking her bike in one of the brothel's rooms, dons a slinky but not slutty blue dress, applies makeup, and readies herself for the day's work. She interrupts her colleague Gina (Marusia Zach) inserting a diaphragm; when asked why she doesn't simply use a sponge or the pill, Gina replies, "I'm not screwing up my hormones for two shifts a week." The work in question is depicted in a routine, definitely un-erotic fashion: the men who pay for Molly's services are catalogues of ticks and fetishes and fantasies. One insists that Molly pretend to be blind so that he, the "doctor," can cure her condition by taking her "virginity." Another likes fairly standard bondage, while another gives her a wrapped package containing a beige shirt that Molly had admired on him the week before -- he follows this gift by asking if he can see her "on the outside," a request which Molly routinely turns down. The film admirably and somewhat bravely shows men with less-than-perfect bodies -- in other words, normal men -- and women whose breasts are not perky Playboy images, but real breasts: somewhat saggy, somewhat out of shape. The sex scenes sometimes have a startling pathos and poignancy: the men are all rather sad cases, either because they're smarmy and arrogant, or because they're painfully shy, inept, or so locked into their fantasies that they dare not reveal them to anyone they can't pay. Particularly lovely is a moment where Molly coaches a very nervous guy about how to put his arm around his new girlfriend, how to kiss her, and how to know whether or not the time is right for sex. "What if she wants to have sex with me?" the man asks plaintively, and Molly's kind and compassionate response highlights more than any other moment in the film the skill with which a prostitute makes her customers feel important -- I truly can't tell whether Molly actually likes this man or if it's part of the act.
Far more interesting than the sex is what goes on between the sex. The brothel's main room could be just another office: the girls have lunch, gossip, make fun of Lucy, their horrid boss (played with delirious bitchiness by Ellen McElduff), compare notes on the various "RGs" (regulars), talk about what their lives might have been and still could be. One of the girls is a college student, who has to leave her shift early, this being Thursday -- she has a night class. The film's feminist slant -- the women are all strong in their own ways and have a competence and control in their work that is remarkably out of keeping with the image of prostitution as a slipshod and scattered profession -- was probably something of a novelty for the mid-1980s, a time I remember of appalling backward conservatism. Working Girls is a time capsule in another sense: in a scene that is chilling in hindsight, a john refuses to wear a condom, and Gina informs him that this is okay, but that it will cost him extra -- those were the early days, when AIDS was still a "gay disease." But the true glory of the film is the way in which the mundane routines -- again, this could be your standard office, and just as boring for its workers -- are laid bare for the viewer: the procedures involving the phone, appointments (particularly whether or not the john is a "one" -- one hour -- or a "half"; he can "go" twice in a "one"), showers, towels, and the exchange of money. The girls are instructed to make sure that the customer is "completely comfortable": in other words, naked, so that they'll know he's not a cop. Borden, who wrote the story and the screenplay, introduces a new employee, Mary (Helen Nicholas), so that Molly can show her around the house and teach her the ropes. There's the standard pocketing of a little extra cash on the side, the standard faking of appointment lengths in the ledger, the standard smoking of pot when the boss lady's gone. Lucy, the madam, appears midway through the film and again at the end, and is a gaudy tyrant and former prostitute herself, who is now the mistress of one of her own RGs (all of the other women in the house have slept with him too, declaring him "easy" to work with) and who yammers on incessantly about the panties she purchased that day, the ski trip she's taking to Gstaad, and, above all, "class" and how the other girls don't have it -- all before getting taken out to be screwed by her former john at the Plaza Hotel. It's reassuring to know that even a female pimp leaves something to be desired.
The film is very low-budget, and sounds as though it was looped in its entirety. But I find something very appealing in that mid-80s film stock in low-budget pictures -- most 80s films feel too slick for my taste, and Working Girls has a tactile feel to it, a texture. It reminds me of the long conversations with my friend Brad in which we would wax rhapsodic about the glories of the graininess of 1970s film stock. Only a few films from the 80s have this feel: Working Girls is one; Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances and Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette are others. For want of a better phrase, this graininess, this texture, gives the viewer something to gnaw on, or something to cling to -- you could slip and slide easily on most of the glitzy films of the decade. I'd actually hate to see Working Girls remastered, for the visual texture matches the subject matter.
Some might find the ending of Working Girls a bit predictable, but it gives the film a nice circular shape, and reinforces the film's latent feminist intent, which is to show that these women are not stupid, not disease-ridden, not perverse. They have fallen into a profession that none of them can claim to enjoy, but one that they stay in from what might best be called a sense of inertia. "The two things I love most in life are sex and money," says Lucy, in a rare moment of honesty. "I just never knew until much later they were connected." Working Girls is probably the only film I've seen that explores that connection in a witty, sad, poignant, smart, raw, unglamorized, and surprisingly honest way.