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13 Women who Won an Academy Award by Playing a Hooker

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website.

(Image: Anne Baxter wins in 1948)

Okay, maybe it's pure sexism, but the surest way an actress can grab a Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress Academy Award is by playing a prostitute. Whether a "hooker with a heart of gold," a high-class call girl, or a destitute woman who turned to the streets, any actress knows well that if she takes on a role dealing with this occupation, she had a better shot at an Oscar win.

Sexism? Hmmm... well, I may be wrong on this count, but I don't think any guy has ever won an Oscar for playing a male prostitute. Jon Voight was nominated for his male hooker role in 1969's Midnight Cowboy, and I think that's as close as it ever got. Well, let's not digress into social discourse about "why women become hookers" right now. Suffice to say that the social structure through the ages has definitely made it harder for women than for men to go out and earn an honest living. And of course, there is the obvious (to any fair-minded observer) difference in the sexual makeup of men and women.

By the way, it's not just Oscar "wins" -many of movie's well-known "women as hookers" performances, i.e. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990), Shirley MacLaine in Irma la Douce (1963), and Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) did not win Oscars (I mistakenly thought both Julia and Elisabeth had won for their roles), but they did get nominations.

So far, 13 known actresses have taken home an Oscar statuette for playing "a woman of questionable repute" (okay, I think I've about exhausted the list of hooker metaphors). Let's take a look at these 13 actresses. Eleven of the 13 definitely played prostitutes; two are a bit nebulous.  

1. Janet Gaynor in Street Angel (1928)

 

At the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, Janet received the first-ever Oscar, but for three different movies, not just Street Angel. Interestingly, for the only time in Oscar history, an actress got an Oscar for three different films. So, although Street Angel was only a partial contribution, Janet still was technically the first.

2. Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931) A very melodramatic old movie where Hayes' main character suffers nine misfortunes, one of which was becoming a prostitute.

3. Anne Baxter in The Razor's Edge (1947) Anne plays tragic alcoholic Sophie Nelson. She was a "thrown-away woman who turns to prostitution." Pretty overwrought, huh?

4. Clare Trevor in Key Largo (1948) This is one of two nebulous prostitution labels on the list. Clare plays a boozy, broken-down torch singer in this, one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart films. Although Clare may or may not have been a hooker in this film, she did specialize in playing the "hooker with a heart of gold." In the classic Western Stagecoach (1939) she played a frontier prostitute "reformed" by John Wayne. Also, in the wonderful 1937 film Dead End, Clare played Bogie's ex who was forced into prostitution by unforeseen circumstances. Clare received Oscar nominations for both roles.

5. Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity (1953) It's a long way from playing Mary Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) to playing an Oscar-worthy hooker seven years later. (Maybe it took more money than George thought to pay back the Building & Loan!) Now, to be fair, this designation is nebulous, too. Donna pays a "dance hall girl" in the film. She is obviously very "friendly" and "entertains" her guy customers who "visit" her, but she is not a definite hooker. Remember, too, this was the Fifties, a very conservative era in movies. It wasn't like most scripts could openly say a woman character was a prostitute. They relied, usually, more on intimation. So I can't honestly say Donna was a hooker here, but her character acted in that direction.

6. Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden (1955) Her performance is sometimes overlooked just because this is one of the three films made by legendary movie icon James Dean. East of Eden is immortal for movie fans as being "James Dean's film debut." James was nominated, too, but Jo took home an Oscar for her performance as a murderous prostitute.

7. Susan Hayward in I Want To Live (1958) Susan chews up the scenery here as a prostitute/drug addict/accused murderess who was sentenced to death. The film was actually based on a true story.

8. Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8 (1960)

One of cinema's undisputed legends (I always thought she was a greatly overrated actress, although she was a very nice lady in real life). Liz earned her first Oscar playing a New York call girl. She was to win a second for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). Liz was later to claim she won (at least partly) because of the "sympathy vote." Many Hollywood historians agree with her analysis. She was bedridden with near-fatal pneumonia in the weeks before the Oscar ceremony.

9. Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry (1960) Mrs. Partridge was a hooker? Holy Cow!! Well, Shirley, a very beautiful actress, picked up (no pun intended) her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress by playing a prostitute. Oh yes, did you catch the year here? 1960, the only year in Academy Award history in which both the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards went to women playing hookers.

10. Jane Fonda in Klute(1971) She could have probably gone on to bigger things, but shortly after winning, she stepped up her anti-war activities and became known as "Hanoi Jane." I'm sure the studios and her agent were not exactly thrilled by her political stance, but neither were millions of Americans. But, to be fair, she was also cheered on by millions of other Americans for her outspoken anti-war views.

11. Mira Sorvino in The Mighty Aphrodite (1995) Woody Allen is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, but I believe this was his last really great movie. Man, he's made some clinkers in the years since. Mira plays her hooker very campy and cartoony, but conveys a very sympathetic character nonetheless. And Woody, you have given me about a half-dozen of my all-time favorite films, and some of the greatest films ever made, so this is not a put-down! Oh yes, one last bit of move trivia here: Mira beat out both Elisabeth Shue, who also played a hooker in Leaving Las Vegas and Sharon Stone in Casino (in which it was implied that she was a prostitute) for Best Actress that year. Holy cow, three "hooker role" nominations in the same year!

12. Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential (1997)

Not only did she play a hooker, but Kim also became the first-ever "Bond Girl" to win an Oscar (Halle Berry joined her a few years later).
13. Charlize Theron in Monster (2003)
Okay, take a beautiful woman, pack 50 extra pounds on her, give her a gnarly mullet wig to wear, and have her play a prostitute-turned-serial-killer. It's a sure-fire Oscar-winning formula as Charlize Theron became the last actress to date to win an Academy Award by playing a hooker. The 84th Annual Academy Awards ceremony will be broadcast this Sunday evening.

Not that it matters, but the picture of Elizabeth Taylor is from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" where she got an Oscar nomination for playing a hot and bothered woman who can't figure out why her hot husband (Paul Newman) won't sleep with her (he's gay). Not a hooker, but knowing Tennessee Williams, she was probably thisclose from becoming one!
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Great read, Eddie. One correction: In 1995, Mira Sorvino won Best Supporting Actress. Susan Sarandon won Best Actress that year for "Dead Man Walking". Looking forward to your next article!
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Oh... P.S. Eddie - You mentioned Elizabeth Shue in "Leaving Las Vegas", which made me remember how I fell in love with her singing "Then He Kissed Me" in the opening titles of "Adventures in Babysitting". She was so wholesome and cute that to play a hooker later in her career shows versatility ! Thanks again Eddie for making me think!
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Eddie Deezen's article about the 13 ladies (like in "ladies of the night) was spot-on. How Eddie can view things that many of us overlook is amazing.
I have read many articles and stories that Eddie Deezen has written over the years, and he still amazes me how he comes up with his topics.

In his current article, I never realized how many of these actresses who played prostitutes really did a 180. Look at Shirley Jones for example... she went from "Music Man's" leading lady to a "Sex Starved Man's" leading lady - quite a change from how she was typecasted.

And Rosanne Arquete! This girl is so beautiful, no wonder her past boyfriend wrote the hit song "Rosanne" about her. She must have had him wrapped around her little finger (was she preparing for that role in Woddy Allen's film?).

Whatever the case, I think Eddie should seriously think about becoming a professional writer! He has a way to paint a picture with words and his subject matter is always fun and interesting.

Go Eddie! I can't wait to read what you write next.
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All these actresses were phenomenal in their roles, but I always adored the underrated actress, Anne Baxter. Glad she nabbed an Oscar for the great movie "The Razor's Edge." Wonderful stuff from you again, Eddie. Your articles are favorites of mine.
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Eddie: Shirley Jones also played the head of a brothel in 'The Cheyenne Social Club' with Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. No oscar for that, but a delightful comedy. Thanks for a most excellent article. Mrs. Partridge is twice as nice.

Carl
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I love Eddie's articles - because of his experience in show biz, he seems to bring an intimate knowledge of the subject matter to these articles - that seems especially true with this one.

Keep 'em coming!!
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Illustrates the double standard our society holds about prostitution (the oldest career in the world): we put women in jail for being prostitutes, but give other women awards for pretending to be prostitutes. It's the whole Madonna/Whore thing: "We want you to ACT like a slut, but not actually BE one."
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Great article Eddie. I was so unaware that there were so many women who won Oscars for playing Ladies of the Evening. I can't believe Shirley Jones did. As you wrote...MRS. PARTRIDGE was a hooker!! Marion the Librarian gave new meaning to the Dewey Decimal System. And not one of those Partridge boys was named John either. Go figure. Best performance in my opinion was Charlize Theron in Monster. She is such a beautiful woman and to see the transformation into her character is like WOW! I remember being bummed out that Elisabeth Schue lost to Mira Sorvino. Mira is another one of my favorite actresses but Schue was phenomenal in Leaving Las Vegas. Anyway...keep them coming Eddie. I love your articles!!
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@Tod -- There are plenty of men who won for playing mentally challenged characters. Rain Man, etc.

It's not just about minorities. Oh, and women are not a minority. There are more of them than men. Oppressed or subjugated, maybe, but not a minority.
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Donna "Reed" not "Redd." And the same thing holds true for other minorities. Hollywood happily gives out nominations to actors who reinforce cultural stereotypes through film.
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