If there is one thing that actresses have learned over time, it’s that if you want to earn rave reviews and a few awards, then you should probably play a hooker in a film. Many people thought of Sharon Stone as just another actress coasting on her body until Casino came around, where (you guessed it) she played a call girl. Stone’s portrayal was so well received that she ended up winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar Nomination. But it doesn’t stop there. Critics and award committees seem to love it when female actresses take to playing ladies of the night that somehow keep their hearts of gold, often showering them with rave reviews and an occasional Oscar statue. How else would you explain the success of movies such as Pretty Woman or Mighty Aphrodite?
Though it may seem like a recent trend, this has actually been the case since the start of the Academy Awards. Many of Hollywood’s leading actresses have taken on the challenge, and while not all of them have reached the critical success of others, it is hard to deny that there appears to be some sort of connection between playing a hooker and getting critical praise (or at least a nomination.) Here’s a look at some actresses whose biggest acclaim came from playing hookers.
10. Kim Basinger
Not only did L.A. Confidential bring Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe into the limelight, but the neo-noir film also helped Kim Basinger win an Oscar. In the Curtis Hanson directed film, Basinger played Lynn Bracken, a prostitute who is surgically altered in order to resemble Veronica Lake. She has ties to the case Crowe is investigating, and the unlikely pair eventually fall in love. Hanson reportedly cast Basinger in the role because she was able to project the same beauty and glamour from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
9. Charlize Theron
This award winning performance by Charlize Theron in Monster apparently had two ingredients that drove critics wild: Theron played a prostitute, and she also un-glamorized herself for the role. The former model certainly did make an impressive transformation when she played “first female serial killer” Aileen Wuornos, utilizing a dental prosthetic, weathered make-up and some extra pounds to fully realize her character. Fun Fact: Designing Women’s Jean Smart played Wuornos in a 1992 made-for-TV movie.
8. Elisabeth Shue
Before her comeback of sorts later on, actress Elisabeth Shue was best known for her roles in The Karate Kid, Cocktail, Back to the Future II and III, and Adventures in Babysitting. Though she worked steadily over the years, in 1995, Shue forced people to notice her once again with a raw and gritty performance in Leaving Las Vegas. The Hollow Man star played a prostitute that is hired by Nicolas Cage’s character to spend the night with him, though he only wants to talk. Along the way, the two form a strange relationship. Shue impressed critics so much that she was nominated for almost every major award possible, including the Academy Award.
7. Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor was well known for her over-the-top persona, both on and off the screen. That is why many felt that her Oscar for Butterfield 8, in which Taylor played a call girl, was undeserved. Even the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf star was so upset by her performance that she actually went into the bathroom and threw up. In her mind, the Academy awarded her based on sympathy, since Taylor had come down with near fatal pneumonia weeks before the Oscars were to be held.
6. Donna Reed
Donna Reed is best remembered for her roles in the celebrated It’s a Wonderful Life and The Donna Reed Show, but she was not afraid to take on a few less than moral characters. One of the actress’ most acclaimed roles was that of a dance hall girl (or nightclub hostess, depending on the review you read) in From Here to Eternity, a part that won Reed an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. To be honest, her character was never really called a hooker, but Eternity was made in the 1950s, so perhaps they could not outright say the word during such a conservative time in filmmaking.
5. Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda has had a long and varied career, but interestingly enough, one of her best roles ever was that of a prostitute in Klute. Klute starred Donald Sutherland as a small town police detective who goes to New York City in search of Jane Fonda, since Fonda’s character had been writing letters with the man he is searching for. As per movie conventions, Sutherland falls for Fonda. This wasn’t the first time Fonda received accolades for playing a hooker. In 1962, Fonda played another prostitute in Walk on the Wild Side, which helped her get named as Most Promising Newcomer by The Golden Globes.
4. Shirley Jones
In the same year that Elizabeth Taylor scored her first Oscar by playing a hooker, Shirley Jones (yes, you read that right) also took home a statue for Best Supporting Actress for playing a prostitute. That’s right, Mother Partridge played the role of hooker seeking revenge in Elmer Gantry, which also starred Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons. Jones’ character was the former girlfriend of Elmer Gantry (Lancaster). Early on, Gantry leaves her penniless and in bad standing with her minister. She had no choice but to end up as a lady of the night. As of today, 1960 is the only year in which two actresses won awards for playing hookers.
3. Mira Sorvino
Playing a hooker will obviously get you noticed, but playing a hooker with a heart of gold and a great sense of humor will get you an award. Don’t believe us? Well, here’s Mira Sorvino’s role in Mighty Aphrodite as an example. Sorvino won rave reviews and an Oscar for playing prostitute and sometimes p**no actress Linda Ash, a ditzy girl with a crude sense of humor and dreams of becoming a stage actress. Sorvino was so utterly charming and bubbly that it’s really not that hard to see why critics simply drowned her in glowing reviews.
2. Janet Gaynor
So it appears that this trend started at the very beginning. At the very first Oscar’s telecast, Janet Gaynor was the first ever recipient of Oscar statuette for her role in 1928’s Street Angel. Gaynor played a young woman who desperately needs to find a way to pay for her mother’s medicine. Naturally, that leads to some illegal stuff that gets her caught in the act. Gaynor’s character then runs away and joins a traveling carnival. She finds true love, but her past still haunts her every day. To be fair, Gaynor actually won the award for three roles and not just for Street Angel.
1. Julia Roberts
Julia Roberts had already snagged her first Academy Award Nomination with Steel Magnolias, but she really came into the forefront after playing a hooker in director Gary Marshall’s Pretty Woman, perhaps the best loved hooker/romance in all of movie history. In the film, Richard Gere played a millionaire who just happens to run into lady of the night Roberts, and offers to pay for her company. The two eventually start a fairy-tale romance that led both stars into super-stardom, and earned Roberts her first Best Actress nomination.