ON SEPTEMBER 17, Hollywood trots out the latest example of one of its favorite fashions when John Duigan's Molly, the story of an irresistibly "special" girl played by Elisabeth Shue, opens in theaters everywhere. Though most of us are aware, I hope, of the rich diversity with which women inhabit this planet, the world of popular cinema relishes such easy categories as "prostitute" or "developmentally/physically disabled." Aside from the occasional American Gigolo or Forrest Gump, most actors are busy blowing things up, so Hollywood chooses to put its actresses through this very particular rite of passage. It's worth taking a look back at the results. To a business that traffics in broad strokes, disabilities reveal the ultimate in courage and sensitivity, and female sexuality is okay as long as it involves a cash transaction.

I don't know how she fares in Molly, but Shue was Oscar-nominated for her turn as a prostitute in Leaving Las Vegas. To be honest, I never quite believed Shue as a hooker, but she made such a moving human being, and director Mike Figgis treated the character with such unfettered respect, that it was easy to let it slide. Unfortunately, the poster for Molly has Shue beaming at us and lookin' cute in the way that Hollywood likes to believe the developmentally disabled would be, if only they could find love and a good soundtrack.

Garry Marshall recently put Juliette Lewis through the paces as a cuddly li'l gal in The Other Sister. Lewis gives it her all, and Marshall makes it clear that much wackiness ensues when you put a developmentally disabled girl in formal wear. Lewis' only hooker bit has been in The Basketball Diaries, despite the fact that most people I know are convinced that all she's ever done is play dumb whores. This is a shame, because she's perhaps tragically underrated as an actress, holding her own at a very young age in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, and stealing Cape Fear from even a heavyweight like Robert DeNiro.

Oddly enough, it was stealing scenes from DeNiro in Taxi Driver that also put a preternaturally gifted Jodie Foster on the map. As a hooker. At age 13. We could discuss her stab at misfit immortality, but I have a feeling the less said about poor Nell the better.

Everyone's favorite victim, Jennifer Jason Leigh, has, to my recollection, gone the prostie route in at least three films: Miami Blues, The Men's Club, and Last Exit to Brooklyn. I still cannot bring myself to watch the most celebrated of her hooker turns, in Brooklyn, because the thought of seeing Leigh mercilessly gang-banged is enough to make me want to rent Pretty Woman again (sometimes it's nice to believe that peddling your flesh means that Richard Gere will screw you and take you to the opera). For real exploitation thrills, however, it's impossible to beat Jennifer's big screen debut, Eyes of a Stranger, a repugnant slasher film which was the first to prey upon her discomfiting vulnerability, casting her as a deaf, dumb, and blind girl being stalked by a serial rapist/killer. Her protective older sister is played by none other than Lauren Tewes, who hasn't ever been developmentally disabled or a whore, but who was on The Love Boat, which, being an Aaron Spelling show, automatically fulfills both categories.

With an appearance on a classic episode of Spelling's Charlie's Angels as a lip-glossed jailbird forced into sex duty, Kim Basinger should have satisfied her call-girl quota, but Hollywood had other plans. Basinger has played several dewy variations on the hooker theme, from her temptress in The Natural all the way to her Oscar win for L.A. Confidential. She's never gotten her notoriously nervous hands on a mental or physical disability, although her hooker in No Mercy was illiterate and chained to Richard Gere.

Sharon Stone had a piece of the ever-present Gere in Intersection, but since she wasn't a hooker, she was, of course, frigid. In fact, shockingly, Stone has never been a prostitute, though let's face it -- she's been cinema's metaphorical whore for years, due to the fact that her characters usually enjoy sex, Intersection notwithstanding. The closest she's come to heartrending mental retardation would have to be the tragic split personality she portrayed in a pantsuit in an old Magnum P.I. episode.

Debra Winger would probably say her first whorish experience was as Wonder Girl on television with Lynda Carter, but it wasn't until the atrocious Everybody Wins that she actually got to be a prostitute, opposite Nick Nolte. With Winger floundering painfully, Arthur Miller's ambitious mess of a script has her playing a schizophrenic tramp who is figuratively and literally used by a group of politicians (Marilyn has never been too far from Arthur's psyche). As an actress with limited technique, Winger can often be one part brilliance to two parts woeful, but her performance as Barbara Hershey's slow-witted sister Martha in A Dangerous Woman is astute in the sense that at least it's not about the mental handicap. Thankfully, she's aiming for the inner torment caused by Martha's inability to express herself, or worse, the ineptitude of other people in listening to her. Winger's unapologetic sexuality, always one of her defining strengths, remains frankly real here; the film never tries to candy-coat it or use it like the cute joke it is in The Other Sister.

In the end, it will take work from those like the under-used Winger (and sympathetic directors like Woman's Stephen Gyllenhaal or Leaving Las Vegas' Mike Figgis) to defy the Hollywood notion that being on the outside of "normalcy" means cuddling with an understanding friend while the music swells. It will take even more diligence to put forth the idea that female sexuality does not exist only on the outskirts of society.

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