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Dancing at the Blue Iguana (2000)

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(via imdb.com)

I’ll confess that Dancing at the Blue Iguana is a special film to me. Over ten years ago, I naively watched this film as research before I finally decided to join the ranks as a card carrying exotic dancer.

“Oh God,” I remember thinking after watching it. “Can I really do this?”

Dancing at the Blue Iguana, directed by Michael Radford, is a moody, winding drama that examines the lives of five strippers working at the San Fernando Valley’s Blue Iguana strip club. Jo (Jennifer Tilly), Jesse (Charlotte Ayanna), Jasmine (Sandra Oh), Stormy (Sheila Kelley), and Angel (Daryl Hannah) have dysfunctional, messy lives but ultimately they can depend on each other and are bound by the sisterhood formed in the Blue Iguana’s dressing room.

The film offers a series of snap shots into the girls’ personal lives. And boy howdy, their lives are a collective train wreck. Jo is the hot-headed drug addict that can barely make ends meet. She vehemently denies that she’s pregnant until her workmates force her to fess up. Later, she enthusiastically lactates on her customers. Jesse is the new girl who relishes in her sexual power but finds it damning when she seduces a struggling musician who reveals himself as an abuser. Stormy, the tortured one, rekindles a secret, incestuous relationship with her brother. Jasmine is the club’s requisite icy bitch. She doles out tough love and cynical witticisms to her workmates but surprises us when we learn that she is also a sensitive poet.

Angel made a convincing case for becoming a dancer. She is beautiful but lonely, well-meaning but ditzy—a classic dancer archetype. A shadowy hit man is hiding in the hotel across the street from the Iguana. Anonymously, he sends her mysterious gifts. When he finally reveals himself, he hands her an enormous stack of cash and disappears forever. This still hasn’t happened to me, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

The “girlfriend experience” concept is really interesting. In escorting, the “GFE” is treating a client as you might a lover—you talk to them about their day, share a bit about yours, kiss, cuddle, and have an intimacy that goes beyond penetrative sex. Men want space to be vulnerable and talk about what they’re going through to a woman who will pet their head and tell them it’ll be OK, enough to pay for it. Can a sex worker maintain that intimacy while still maintaining professional boundaries? And what do you do when you no longer want to maintain those boundaries, when you want to take it personal? How do you deal with the fallout?

“Can you dig that?” Also Known As: A Willie Dynamite Review

Willie Dynamite is the story of a pimp, for the most part. But! Because I could care fucking less about how hard it is to be a pimp, or how difficult it must be to keep your women together, or whether he decides to get out of the game in the end, I will be focusing very little energy on him. Anyway, his clothes make it difficult to take him seriously. I mean, he starts the film off wearing what could loosely be described as a hot pink matador-esque suit with puffed sleeves. Yes, puffed sleeves.

I’m pretty much only interested in the women.

The film starts off with them strutting about, dressed in what I can only describe as my dream wardrobe if I lived in the 70’s (and now, I won’t lie. Knife pleats and capes are timeless). The hair is large, the lips are red, and it’s all to show that they are classy ladies or so we’re told. These are women who were on the street but were….upgraded, according to the film. It brought to mind something I heard many times last year at the Desiree Alliance Conference, presentation is everything. From your photos, to the text in your ads, clients decide whether you are “worth” your rate by how you look. Like Willie says, “We’re selling an idea.”

For A Good Time Call (2012)

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Lauren (Lauren Miller) and Katie (Ari Graynor) in For A Good Time Call.

There aren’t many films about phone sex that are worth anyone’s time—notable exceptions being the excellent short film Sumi, the brief, funny phone sex segments of Tamra Davis’s 90’s hip hop spoof CB4, and about three-fourths of Spike Lee’s kind-of classic Girl 6. Despite its truly troublesome flaws, I have a soft spot for Girl 6, as it gets at least some things about the industry very right, which is more than most films do. The 2012 phone sex buddy comedy For A Good Time Call fits comfortably alongside Girl 6 as another genuinely mixed bag. Its focus is really more on friendship than phone sex, but it does manage to maintain a phone sex-centric narrative throughout a feature film’s runtime without making me want to throw my TV out my window.

For A Good Time Call, directed by Jamie Travis, is now available on Netflix and other streaming services. I’m relieved to report that it is a pleasant-enough way to spend 90 minutes, and one of the better cinematic portrayals of my profession; not hateful, judgmental, or a patronizing cautionary tale. But I’m exasperated that this baseline decency gives it such an advantage over much of the cannon.

FAGTC tells the story of straight-laced Lauren (Lauren Miller), who through a series of contrivances is forced to become roommates with bubbly, performatively slutty Katie (Ari Graynor). The two initially hate each other and it’s all very Odd Couple (they have history—in college, party girl Katie peed in Lauren’s car after getting wasted), but become bffs through the magic of starting their own phone sex line. One of the screenwriters, Katie Ann Naylon, has said on record that she operated her own phone sex line herself in college.

Bonding through working a phone sex line is actually a great premise for a fun, bubbly film, and it’s the crux of what I simultaneously love and find frustrating about this one. While the relationship between the women is both believable and refreshing, their business model is much less so.

Lauren discovers that Katie is a phone sex operator and confronts her during a call after overhearing the conversation and being confused. Now, I can understand why Katie would want to keep her phone sex gig a secret from judgmental Lauren. But it’s hard for me to suspend disbelief far enough to believe Katie would bring Lauren in as a roommate, into her workplace, without giving some kind of heads up or a cover story to prevent exactly this sort of hassle. I did phone sex out of an apartment with multiple roommates for years, and you’d better believe I told people while interviewing them and gauged their reactions. I couldn’t live with anyone who would mess with my income stream. I find it hard to believe that Katie would both not mention it and be so goddamn loud without at least taking the precaution of setting up a cheap white noise generator.

Then again, good girl Lauren, who slowly gets dragged into the weird, dirty world of phone sex, is supposed to be the audience surrogate, so making Katie’s psychology and behavior equally plausible may not have been a priority. She’s the weird one, so she’s weird! I don’t think the writers were thinking about the reactions of PSOs or anyone else who might relate more to Katie in the audience, despite the fact that the character is based on one of the writers.

Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss (2004) and Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam (1995)

Tearing through its exposition at a breakneck pace, Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss wastes no time getting to its main subject. Within the first five minutes, we learn that Heidi had a strict mother and an easygoing father who encouraged his children to act out. Soon after, we see teenage Heidi organizing the neighborhood girls’ babysitting schedules, foreshadowing of her management skills. In the next scene she learns her parents are divorcing. Three minutes later we see Heidi’s boobs as her creepy older boyfriend, Ivan Nagy, recruits and then sells Heidi to her future madam, Alex, for $450. At first, Heidi Fleiss is outraged with her pimp boyfriend, then for no apparent reason decides to go along with him.

Young Heidi’s first client is a curly-haired rock star. When he leans in to kiss her neck, she shoves her hand down his pants and demands $1,500. He scoffs at her so she turns to leave, asking, “Is it lonely at the top?” He then asks her to stay and the deal is sealed. Although I have never worked as a call girl—and please ladies, correct me if I’m wrong—but I’m going to make the assumption that insulting your client is a bad tactic. The scene felt unrealistic and I found myself doubting that the real-life Fleiss could have been so successful despite such poor social skills.