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Stripping Your Way to Success

March 7th, 2009

Wall Street Journal

Great interview about strippers in blockbuster film. 

By Lauren Schuker

On Sunday night, actress Marisa Tomei could take home an Academy
Award for her portrayal of a kind-hearted stripper in the critically
acclaimed film "The Wrestler." In a tradition that dates as far back as
the Oscar show itself, Ms. Tomei is the latest actress to win Hollywood
acclaim for playing a character with a job in the sex industry, such as
a striptease artist or streetwalker.

Four years ago, Natalie Portman was nominated for playing a young
stripper in Mike Nichols's steamy drama "Closer," and just a year
earlier Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her role as a real-life
prostitute-turned-serial killer (in "Monster"). In the decade before
that, Elisabeth Shue, Mira Sorvino and Julia Roberts all became Oscar
nominees (or winners) for playing women who sell their bodies but guard
their hearts -- one of Hollywood's longtime fascinations.

Taking the job was a no-brainer for Ms. Tomei, who hopes her
performance will help her land leading roles in future films. "When I
was offered the part, I was told it was going to be emotionally taxing
-- but those things to an actor are sweet sounds. I've always felt that
there was such strong creative expression in [pole] dancing, even if
it's deemed low-brow entertainment," says Ms. Tomei, who wore little
more than a G-string in several scenes in the movie.

Why
so many big screen strippers and hookers? Sex sells, and Hollywood has
built an industry marketing actors' appeal. Historically, there have
been fewer edgy roles for women, and the world's oldest profession --
prostitution -- offers a natural corollary to another time-tested role,
the male criminal. Another reason: Inherently flawed characters, who
possess what some might see as mental, moral or physical imperfections,
make for more courageous acting performances.

Voyeurism certainly plays a starring role in why moviegoers love to
watch women bare it all on screen, but there's also redemptive power in
many of the women's performances. Seeing ladies of the evening make
good represents the universal rags-to-riches story. "You can't help but
root for the girl -- it's about wish fulfillment," says Garry Marshall,
who directed "Pretty Woman," the hit film about one harlot's attempt at
upward mobility which landed Ms. Roberts an Oscar nod. "[Best-picture
nominee] 'Slumdog Millionaire' has a lot of the same things going for
it."

The
very first actress to win an Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture
Arts and Sciences played a woman reduced to prostitution. In 1929, the
Academy awarded its highest acting accolade to Janet Gaynor for three
different roles, including a sympathetic woman imprisoned on a one-time
stealing charge while out soliciting in Frank Borzage's "Street Angel."

During the following decades, the Academy would nominate dozens of
actresses for playing prostitutes, call girls, and courtesans of one
sort or another, including Greta Garbo twice (for "Anna Christie" and
"Camille"), Jodie Foster ("Taxi Driver"), and Nicole Kidman ("Moulin
Rouge!"). A good many of the nominees would go on to win, including
Shirley Jones ("Elmer Gantry"), Donna Reed ("From Here to Eternity"),
Susan Hayward ("I Want to Live!"), Elizabeth Taylor ("Butterfield 8"),
Jane Fonda ("Klute") and Kim Basinger ("L.A. Confidential").

Such roles tend to catch the eyes of critics because, more often,
actresses are cast in parts as the loveable girlfriend or charming
sidekick which don't necessarily allow them to show their acting chops.
"There aren't and have never been a lot of great roles for women in
Hollywood," says Patty Jenkins, who directed Ms. Theron in her
Oscar-winning role as a killer prostitute in "Monster," which opened
nationwide in early 2004. "Sadly, that creates this cliché that if a
woman plays a prostitute, she wins an Oscar."

Roles like the one Ms. Theron played in "Monster" produce standout
performances because they combine elements of sinner and saint in a way
more often embodied in male parts featuring sympathetic gangsters or
wayward cops. "It's much like the reason that there are a
disproportionate number of hit men in movies," says Ms. Jenkins.
"Anything exotic and dynamic is going to be overrepresented."

Natalie Portman in "Closer"Avoiding
the middle on the spectrum from saint to sinner is precisely what helps
top actresses score those accolades. "It's about going to extremes,"
says Jeanine Basinger, who heads Wesleyan's Film Studies department and
has written a book on how Hollywood films portrayed women during the
middle of the 20th century. "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." (As if to underline the
point, Meryl Streep is up for an Oscar this year for her role as a nun
in "Doubt.")

Going to those extremes of femininity can also help strengthen the
roles of actresses' male counterparts -- which is why the introduction
of a streetwalker character can make for a successful film, says noted
feminist writer Rebecca Walker. "The more naked you have the feminine,
the more easily the male can assume the traditional masculine role,"
she argues.

Many contemporary actresses consider themselves lucky to land roles
as strippers or prostitutes after what seems like a decades-long
drought for tough female roles in films. That kind of opportunity for
advancement inspired Ms. Tomei to take on the risque role of a stripper
past her prime in "The Wrestler," which hit theaters late last year,
around the time she celebrated her 44th birthday.

Ms. Tomei only had six weeks to prepare for the topless pole dancing that
her character Cassidy performs in the film. A mother by day and
stripper by night, Cassidy resists romance with Randy, the wrestler
(played by Mickey Rourke) because of her sense of professionalism. "The
lines are so blurred between client and lover, wanting a lover and
being independent, earning your own money and needing to be taken care
of, servicing men and losing your own center," Ms. Tomei says. "The
lines are crazy jangly."

Navigating those borders -- while wearing nothing more than skimpy
lingerie -- will help her land major parts in future films, Ms. Tomei
believes. "I'm hoping that with my role in 'The Wrestler,' I have
identified myself as a character actress who can play complex roles and
a variety of roles," she says.

Michael Radford, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 1995 film
"Il Postino," also directed "Dancing at the Blue Iguana," a 2001 film
about dancers who work at a Los Angeles strip club. The film, which
starred Daryl Hannah, Jennifer Tilly and Sandra Oh, did not initially
emerge from a script, but was rather constructed through improvisation
says Mr. Radford, who let his cast choose what kind of roles they
wanted to play.

And what roles did they choose?

Strippers, naturally. Mr. Radford says that his actresses were attracted by the
edginess of that occupation as well as the ways that stripper roles
deviated from the "vacant romantic roles" so often offered to women in
Hollywood.

Like Mr. Radford's cast, Ms. Tomei was interested in exploring what
real-life strippers experienced for her on-screen role. "When I was
offered the part," she says, "I told [director] Darren [Aronofsky], 'I
simply don't have the knockers for the job.' He replied, 'If you think
that, you haven't been to enough strip clubs.' Before filming, she and
Mr. Aronofsky visited a dozen strip clubs in New York and Los Angeles
to research her role, talking with real women who danced for a living.

"The main thing I got out of those visits was the variety of women
who dance -- there isn't just one type of stripper or even a body type.
That helped me break open the cliché of the hooker with a heart of gold
kind of thing," says Ms. Tomei. "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."