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‘Working Girls’ (NR)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 25, 1987

Gina can't wait to get home to her boyfriend, with whom "sex means something." In the five years they've been dating, she says proudly to fellow workers Molly and Dawn, "I haven't cheated on him once." Her colleagues see no irony in Gina's statement, though all three of them make their living as high-priced hookers in a New York condo that's half brothel, half sorority house.

There's even a housemother, Lucy, who fusses at her charges because their housekeeping is sloppy and their manner impolite. But don't call her Madam, since even her therapist doesn't know what Lucy does for a living (if he did he'd probably raise his rates as often as Lucy raises hers). Of course, the "girls" can't tell their boyfriends, or girlfriends, the truth either.

Heck, they can't even come to terms with what to call themselves. They don't like "hooker" or "prostitute" or "whore," though Dawn (Amanda Goodwin) does confess "I've always been a whore." ("But never a groupie," she adds, bent on establishing some standards.)

The operative term is "Working Girls," which is the name and the subject of Lizzie Borden's new movie. A sharp-focus look at a much-mythologized world, "Working Girls," with its little-known actors and actresses, seems at times more like a documentary than a fiction film. The director is sympathetic to the workers, though not the work; her camera neither condemns nor condones, but merely records.

The film is about a long day in the life of Molly (Louise Smith), a Yale grad with degrees in English lit and art history who lives with her lesbian lover and her child. Molly gets up and gets ready for work like anyone else, with a visit to the john. Once she gets to work, of course, the johns start visiting her. And a motley crew they are -- all ages, sizes and colors. Their demands range from sloppy kisses and unusual positions to mild domination, and they check out the women as if they were nothing more than fresh fruit at the market.

Still, Molly and her friends have plenty of time to sit around and gab, which they do in revealing and ribald ways. Campfire Girls they're not: The talk is a mix of frustration with the job and frustration with the johns.

Molly's education shows: After one client tries to be worldly wise by insisting "Rome's a whore," she corrects him ("That's Paris, Jerry; Henry Miller"). She's not the only one with a head on her shoulders. Dawn, who's not partial to Lucy's authority, is a law student. Other working girls include the even-tempered Gina (Marusia Zach), who has her own crossover dream (a beauty shop); April (Janne Peters), moving into her forties and reluctantly turning to drug trafficking; and Mary (Helen Nicholas), who answers a classified for a hostess job and decides to give hooking a shot. "You'll get used to it," Molly counsels her. "And if you don't, you should just find something else to do."

Borden's johns, for the most part, are self-important wretches whose loneliness (contrary to myth) is not a mitigating factor (though many of them try to establish "outside" relationships with the women as a way to mask the crass nature of the connection). The prostitutes laugh at them behind their backs, suffer their demands, cater to their egos, swallow their own pride.

They also cheat on the receipts, send out for lunch, fuss at each other and cover for each other, sometimes with hilarious results. When Molly runs an errand to the drugstore and takes orders for every conceivable type of protection, the druggist looks at her quizzically: "You don't take any chances, do you?"

Madam Lucy, played with shrill southern sweetness by Ellen McEldruff, is hardly a sympathetic figure. Self-centered, manipulative, distant yet omnipresent, she long ago stopped working herself. Now she just collects the money, calling the women "babe," scolding the rebellious Dawn about her housekeeping one moment, resorting to a little-girl voice as she tries to talk Molly into pulling a double shift. "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" this is not.

Lucy has a ritual litany, spoken to every customer: "What's new and different? ... How's business? ... Would you like a drink?" When she's not around, the women sell themselves; when she is, they're sold, and there really is a difference.

While she demystifies prostitution, managing at times to make it seem as boring as it must often be, Borden (and cowriter Sandra Kay) make the characters almost too sympathetic. Most of "Working Girls" takes place inside the condo, and Judy Irola's camera sometimes crowds in too tight, as if to underline the idea of confinement. The acting is solid and matter-of-fact. For a film about prostitution, there's not that much explicit visual sex. Words speak lewder than actions here.

Working Girls, at the Key Theatre, is rated R and contains nudity and explicit language.

Copyright The Washington Post

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