A Wall Street Journal piece titled "Stripping Your Way To Success" begins: "Marisa Tomei hopes to join the host of actresses honored for playing strippers and prostitutes." Hopes to be part of that crew? Really?
Lauren A.E. Schuker's article goes on to count the many, many times a woman has been nominated for an Oscar for playing a stripper or a courtesan/prostitute: Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron, Mira Sorvino, Elisabeth Shue, Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, Greta Garbo, Nicole Kidman, Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Basinger, Jane Fonda. The very first actress to win an Oscar was Janet Gaynor, who played a hooker in 1928's Street Angel.
Why do actresses take these parts, and why does Hollywood reward them? "There aren't and have never been a lot of great roles for women in Hollywood," says Patty Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron in Monster. "Sadly, that creates this cliché that if a woman plays a prostitute, she wins an Oscar."
Jeanine Basinger (not related to Kim), who heads Wesleyan's Film Studies department, has a slightly different perspective: "The way to land an Oscar as a woman is either to take off your makeup or put on a lot more. You're either a prostitute/stripper or you're a mother/nun." Schuker adds: "As if to underline the point, Meryl Streep is up for an Oscar this year for her role as a nun in Doubt."
As for Marisa Tomei, she certainly embraced her role:
"My aim in the film was to honor the women I met and to represent them in a meaningful way. I wish there was a movie called The Stripper because I found out so much about these women, like the physical toll that dancing takes on a stripper's body, and on her feet, that we couldn't fit into the movie."
Clearly, strippers and hookers often have story arcs which are more complex, more interesting than roles like "quirky girlfriend" or "graceful wife." Can we blame actresses for being attracted to these characters? On the other hand, why does a woman have to play a sex worker to get props?
*Inspired by Shirley MacLaine's assertion that the best parts for actresses fall into one of the above categories.