Butterfield 8 and Klute are interesting parallel movies. They both won Oscars for their leadings ladies, Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda. Both films have a bit of a reputation for focusing on call-girls. Both films star kind-of-clunky men as the romantic leads. Each movie takes a different view of sexually liberated women.

I’d come across knowing references to both movies since childhood, which fueled my curiosity about certain things. Some of the references were in the oddest places, like a magazine article on lipstick (featuring that famous shot from Butterfield 8), or hair (featuring that shot of Jane Fonda striding down the sidewalk). I finally got to see both movies this summer.

The first movie I saw was Butterfield 8. Although released in 1960, it seemed to be set a few years earlier. Liz was beautiful and wore the most wonderful clothing. She was a heck of a drama queen. I “knew” she was supposed to be a call-girl and I assumed that Butterfield 8 was her agency, although it appeared to simply be an answering service. Mostly, she seemed like a party girl. Nothing else added up. She was a hard-drinking slut and had a lot of male admirers. She never seemed to do much else besides choose a different guy to go home with every night. But she falls in love with one of her guys and is insulted when he attempts to pay her for the evening by leaving an envelope, which inspires the mirror-lipstick-writing, and then she steals his wife’s fur coat. The rest of the movie is about their romance and her attempts to give up her ‘life’ and avoid her mother. Her motivation for her behavior is explained by the usual story of molestation at a young age (tragic in real life, but how come she couldn’t be a slut just because she was?). She and her married, conflicted lover have a week-long romantic interlude that ends badly. He insults her by trying to pay for her week by letting her keep the fur coat. She completely rejects him and the coat, which led me to believe she wasn’t much of a call-girl at all, but a very confused young woman. The movie ends in tragic, predictable style. She dies; he lives and slinks away so no one would know that he was involved with her. Thanks, Hollywood.

I found the book in a used bookstore a few weeks after I saw the movie. I bought it and read it, of course. The original story was set during the Depression. She was fortunate to be pretty enough to be a model and make a living. She was most certainly a party girl of the first degree but there isn’t a hint of money exchanging hands at any point in the book. She falls for her married man and he starts semi-stalking her after their week of romance. This causes her to run away and meet a much more gruesome death than in the movie version. He lives and slinks away so no one would know he was involved with her. Thanks, John O’Hara.

I’m not for sure why the film got tagged as a call-girl movie. Liz was lovely and her character was very free sexually, even by today’s standards. I just didn’t pick up the vibe that she accepted anything beyond drinks, cigarettes and a warm bed. She was obviously offended the two times in the movie that a man tried to pay her (envelope and coat). Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe sometimes lots of sex is just lots of sex, with no further motivations.

Eleven years later (1971), Jane Fonda gives us the character of Bree, a New York call-girl. Jane is Bree. There’s no question. The character has a depth and a personality I wasn’t prepared for. All I’d ever known about the movie was that it featured a big-city hooker and the only picture I ever saw was the one where she’s walking down the street in the big coat and go-go boots. It’s not until I saw the movie that I found out that’s her casual clothes. She dresses a bit like a secretary for her appointments (much like I did, but I don’t wear go-go boots during my down-time).

Bree is the Manhattan call-girl (until Nancy Chan came along). She has a therapist; she lives in a tiny, old apartment; she takes the occasional class; smokes a little weed; she has a full closet. She also has a wide variety of men she sees on a regular basis and apparently has built a network of colleagues as well. She’s been doing this for a while. I loved Jane’s all-American, no-nonsense voice. It fit Bree perfectly.

The movie’s plot involves the usual junk about some guy trying to kill various call-girls. This gives the plot a chance to introduce P.I. Klute (Donald Sutherland), as the love interest! (yeah, I know) He’s a very quiet man, brooding, and completely disapproving of Bree. Naturally, this causes her to have a wild attraction to him. I don’t understand the attraction nor does their romance make much sense. She manages to seduce him and he gets (quietly) mad at her for it. The rest of the film unrolls and they end up going to the country (Midwest?) to live together. Him happy, I assume. She is optimistic but I got the impression she wasn’t completely sure it would work out.

Once Bree steps on-screen, all I wished was that the movie would be about her. Jane was so great. She played Bree as a real person, not a construct. The two biggest reasons I liked the character? She was very level-headed and realistic and she approached her clients with empathy and humanity, treating them like real people. Why Hollywood (or anyone) has such an issue with allowing women in the adult industry to be normal is beyond me. Nor do I understand why generic movie-clients aren’t allowed to be real people too. They’re always either perverts or bad guys. This movie is quite remarkable in its real and humane treatment of Bree’s world (this cinema verite does not extend to the plot, however).

I guess you can tell which film I recommend. Although both are Oscar-winners, only Klute comes across as something other than silly. I’m willing to bet that if my former clients watched Klute, they’d fall for Bree’s character too. Offhand, I can’t think of another movie that I found to be as honest as Klute. See it if you want to get inside the head of a very nice, normal call-girl.

PS: Dangerous Beauty was nice and presented a beautiful argument but I think that The Merchant of Venice probably offered more realistic glimpses of the average Venetian courtesan.

2 thoughts on “Two Classic Movies about the Classic Career

  1. Kariera,

    I’d blame the plot on the original book written by a guy. For me, the movie is a piece of Hollywood-hooker history, so I have different interest in it than most people.


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