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Strippers on Film: Battlers, Showgirls, Hustlers, and More

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by Ari Mattes for The Conversation

In her landmark 1975 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey argues classical Hollywood style is built upon the fetishization of the female body.

Female characters are frequently photographed in wide, full body shots, constructed to please an imaginary male viewer, and male protagonists tend to be situated closer to the camera, implying agency. Classical Hollywood style, Mulvey suggests, turns all popular film into a kind of striptease.

As the star-studded Hustlers struts across our screens, we can reflect on how strippers have been portrayed since the beginning of cinema and ask: is there anything left to take off?

Classic hard knocks stories

This celebration of the spectacle of female erotic energy is not limited to film, with its history going back to the earliest recorded art works including Venus of Willendorf. Though the term “striptease” was first used in 1931, the concept stretches back to Sumerian myth. Striptease was standardized in 18th century London brothels.

Early Hollywood stripper-protagonists were rare until the sleazey VHS boom of the 1980s (see Abel Ferrara’s Fear City featuring an oft-naked Melanie Griffith). One exception was Barbara Stanwyck in Lady of Burlesque (1943), directed by Hollywood great William Wellman.

Joanne Woodward in The Stripper. IMDB

In the 1960s, two films established the standard stripper narrative – Gypsy (1962) and The Stripper (1963), which follow failed actresses stripping to survive.

Such films are moralistic to a fault, going to absurd lengths to prove the stripper is virtuous but driven to strip by extreme hardship.

Cassidy in The Wrestler – for which Marisa Tomei received an Oscar nomination – is a single mum. Erin (Demi Moore) in Striptease is toughing it through a custody battle. In Flashdance, one of the 1980s most stirring dance films, heroine Alex (Jennifer Beals) strips by night and welds by day, while she waits to audition for a classical ballet school.

Watching and judging

The irony of these hard knocks melodramas that position stripping as a last resort is that stripping is used to attract viewers to the film in the first place. The imagined viewer is able to feel morally superior while still reaping the erotic fruits of nude dancing.

Things go off the rails a bit for Magic Mike but he’s portrayed as less desperate than female strippers on film. IMDB

Due to novelty – and the reverence with which women are supposed to treat sex in movieland – films featuring male strippers, like Magic Mike and The Full Monty focus more on the joys and pitfalls of performance than on a sense of desperation (though both these films maintain the “tough times” structure).

Paul Verhoeven’s critically lambasted 1995 film Showgirls eschews such moralism.

With his signature ice-cold craftiness, Verhoeven takes a functional approach to stripping, looking at it as a kind of sensory technology in a broader system of corporate American entertainment. Verhoeven manages to de-eroticise the film’s bountiful nudity. Ironically, this was one of the complaints critics had against the film, with Roger Ebert lamenting it “contains no true eroticism”.

Though panned by critics, Showgirls managed to de-eroticise stripping. IMDB

There is something detached about Verhoeven’s camera, and this side-stepping of any attempt at intimacy or empathy with the characters makes for a more interesting film than its stock-standard plot would suggest, involving a dancer trying to make it as a Vegas showgirl and stepping on the throats of colleagues along the way.

Hustlers

Lorene Scafaria’s acclaimed new film, Hustlers, focuses less on the morality of stripping, instead offering a satisfying heist movie in the context of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Writer-director Scafaria says she hopes the film shows strippers in a new light, as athletes.

The stripping in the film is depicted as akin to other high-risk vocations, the strip club a place of precarious employment. When the GFC damages business, a group of savvy strippers begin ripping off rich businessmen. While it’s easy to read the plot in terms of gender – empowered women getting their own against predatory men – it’s equally effective as a kind of class critique.

Roselyn Keo, on whose life Hustlers is based, states her story has more in common with the Wolf of Wall Street than Flashdance. It’s no surprise the film has been popular: the combination of an outlandish true story with a cast dominated by celebrity pop stars effectively taps into the zeitgeist.

Art of the strip

There are many strip sequences in Hollywood films that are incidental to the main narrative (Pussycat Doll romps in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, club hi-jinks in Beverley Hills Cop, Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, or Olive’s dance sequence in teen comedy Easy A).

One of the most legendary strip sequences in Hollywood history indeed does not involve a stripper, and contains no nudity. In Charles Vidor’s hard-boiled noir film Gilda, Rita Hayworth removes her black satin glove while lip-syncing Put the Blame on Mame.

As Mulvey writes, film is an erotically-charged medium, trading on our enjoyment of watching other people pretending they’re not being watched. The striptease simply offers an amplified version of that spectacular pleasure.

The Conversation publishes knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence from academics and researchers in order to inform public debate with facts, clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.



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Film Events

WeHo HRSS Presents ‘Tsirk (Circus)’ Film Screening & Panel – Feb 28

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WEST HOLLYWOOD — The City of West Hollywood’s Human Rights Speakers Series will host a free panel discussion and screening of the feature film Tsirk (Circus) on February 28 at West Hollywood’s Council Chambers.

This Soviet musical comedy, directed by Grigori Aleksandrov and Isidor Simko, tells the story of Marion, an American circus artist, played by Lyubov Orlova, who flees to Russia after being persecuted because of her mixed-race child who is played by James Lloydovich Patterson.

Although billed as a lighthearted circus romance, this complex film explores themes of miscegenation, racism in America, and the rise of global white supremacy in the 1930s.

Opening remarks will take place at 7 p.m. followed by the film screening, and panel discussion.

The panel discussion will feature: Sasha Razor, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages & Cultures at UCLA, Sarah Valentine, Scholar/Author, When I Was White, Rob Adler Peckerar, Executive Director, Yiddishkayt, and will be moderated by Boris Dralyuk, Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The event is free, but seating is limited, but RSVP is requested. Validated parking will be available at the adjacent five-story West Hollywood Park parking structure, limited to availability.

The City of West Hollywood’s Human Rights Speakers Series brings together diverse communities to learn about and discuss global, national, and local human rights issues in a supportive environment. The series reflects the City’s commitment to human rights and core value of Respect and Support for People.

Friday, February 28, 2020 at the City of West Hollywood’s Council Chambers/Public Meeting Room, located at 625 N. San Vicente Boulevard.


For additional information about the Human Rights Speakers Series, please visit www.weho.org/hrss. For more information, please contact City of West Hollywood Arts Technician Joy Tribble at (323) 848-6360 or at jtribble@weho.org. For people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, please call TTY (323) 848-6496.

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Celebrity News

Lily Tomlin to Receive Hand & Footprint Ceremony at TCL Chinese Theatre in April

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HOLLYWOOD — Iconic actress and comedian Lily Tomlin will be honored with a hand and footprint ceremony on Friday, April 17 at the world-famous TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood during the eleventh annual TCM Classic Film Festival.

Tomlin, a Tony, Grammy, eight time Emmy and two time Peabody Award winner, has had a remarkable career starting in the 1960s starring in cinematic classics, television staples and on stage.

“Lily Tomlin’s talent has endured for fifty years because she knows who she is. She’s managed to play broadly drawn roles alongside more nuanced characters without a hint of falseness,” said Ben Mankiewicz, TCM primetime anchor and official host of the TCM Classic Film Festival.

“Not long ago, Tomlin told The New York Times, ‘I wanted people to see the characters as human beings. And see themselves in them, too.’  The humanity she finds in the women she plays has enabled her to transition, seemingly with ease, from groundbreaking work on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to four Emmy nominations for Grace and Frankie, where she co-stars alongside another seminal artist, Jane Fonda.

There’s a consistent richness to her work, in comedy and drama, as well as on stage in her innovative one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, and on the big screen.

Whether your favorite Lily Tomlin performance is The Late Show, or 9 to 5, or Nashville…wait, I’m not done. Or All of Me, Flirting with Disaster, I Heart Huckabees, or A Prairie Home Companion, you know all of those pictures were made more memorable because Lily Tomlin was among the cast. It’s hard to imagine a more deserving artist to have her hand and footprints cemented outside Hollywood’s signature classic movie house.”

This marks the tenth consecutive year TCM has featured a hand and footprint ceremony at the legendary TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX. In 2011, Peter O’Toole was the honoree, followed by Kim Novak in 2012, Jane Fonda in 2013, Jerry Lewis in 2014, Christopher Plummer in 2015, Francis Ford Coppola in 2016, Carl and Rob Reiner in 2017, Cicely Tyson in 2018, and Billy Crystal in 2019.

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Celebrity News

Jennifer Hudson In Character For Aretha Franklin Biopic ‘Respect’

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MANHATTAN (TMZ) — What you want? Baby, Jennifer Hudson ‘s got it … especially if you’re looking for someone to nail the role of Aretha Franklin !!!

Jennifer and Forest Whitaker were filming the upcoming biopic — aptly titled “Respect” — Friday in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. Props to the wardrobe and hair department too … ’cause Jennifer’s got the Queen of Soul down pat.

Forest is playing the role of Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin, a Baptist minister and civil rights activist also known as the man with the “Million-Dollar Voice.” As you know … Jennifer was reportedly hand-picked for this role by Aretha before she died in 2018. Seeing the Oscar winner on set … we gotta say, Franklin couldn’t have chosen better.

We’ve already seen Jennifer as a young Aretha, kissing her onscreen husband, Marlon Wayans,in November … and now we’ve got another look.

Bottom line … Jennifer ain’t gonna do you wrong when “Respect” hits theaters this summer.

Check out this Aretha Franklin Photo Gallery

Tune in to TMZ on TV weekdays Monday through Friday (check syndicated/local listings)

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