Trying to figure out how many prostitutes have turned up in the movies is a mug's game, but let's play it a little, shall we? James Robert Parish's 1991 Prostitution in Hollywood Films (McFarland) lists 389 films in which prostitution is a subject or subplot. Parrish includes everything from Porky's to all six versions of the penthouse-to-pavement melodrama Madame X. The IMDB tops this number by claiming about 800 movies with prostitution as a subject. Ever since the first important film on the flesh trade -- the 1913 Traffic in Souls, just inducted into the Library of Congress -- the subject of the Fate Worse Than Death has fueled comedy, drama, and film noir. Oh, and science fiction -- remember the "Furniture Girls" in Soylent Green? Playing a hooker is also good Oscar fodder. So far it's gained six Best Actress awards and 15 nominations, as well as seven Best Supporting Actress wins and five nominations.
This count requires some give and take: Madeleine Kahn's Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles (an Oscar nominee) was officially a dance hall girl (wink, nod). Sally Bowles in Cabaret didn't make the count, though it's fairly clear how she paid the rent. Ditto the no-visible-means-of-support Holly Golightly. Hey, we're all prostitutes! So the top seven below need kibitzing and counter suggestions, and perhaps some flame-broiling. The idea here is for time-tested films, meaning that more recent working girls aren't aboard, despite impressive acting by Sophie Okonedo in Dirty Pretty Things, Taraji P. Henson in Hustle and Flow or Morena Baccarin in Serenity. (And Brittany Murphy was no slouch as The Dead Girl.) Let's overlook Reagan-age free-market propaganda disguised as sex comedies, and pass on that famous trio of savvy businesswomen Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places and Rebecca de Mornay in Risky Business. (How about Kathy Baker in Street Smart, Marilia Pera in Pixote and Louise Smith in Lizzie Borden's neo-doc Working Girls instead?)
Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven(1927) The ultimate Victorian-era victim of circumstances, gold heart beating under a manhandled breast, pursued by the same hypocrite society that drove her to a life of crime. And now I'm making this really beautiful film sound terrible. Gaynor, a small and frail-looking actress--a shadow of the streets, as Edith Piaf put it--is teamed with ultimate woman's-film director Frank Borzage. And Borzage was one of the few men who could make a movie that you'd weep at without hating yourself for it in the morning. Matching her here is frequent co-star Charles Farrell, who plays a Parisian sewer worker who wants to rise out of the depths to the open air. Some (Catholics, probably) would make the mental connection between Seventh Heaven's pairing of the two trades and St. Thomas Aquinas's cold-blooded comment that prostitutes were like sewers: despicable but necessary to society.