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Leaving Las Vegas: A hundred minute insult to sex workers everywhere

September 1, 2014

I dislike Leaving Las Vegas. It isn’t because it’s an unpleasant movie, as I’ve watched unpleasant movies before that, although I’ll never watch them again, I appreciate. Precious was one such deeply depressing movie, but against all the odds it ended on sort-of a high note and there were signs that not everyone in the world of Precious was totally and flatly evil. You needed that; you needed to see that, not only do a large proportion of people care at least a little bit, some people care greatly for no apparent reason at all.

Precious, our main character, was also an overweight black teenage girl. There’s lot’s to get wrong there, but I didn’t spot anything and I have eagle eyes for that sort of stuff. Perhaps too eagley. Minor or supporting characters are important to note as well; focusing specifically on women now, one of the people most abusive towards Precious was her mother, and the person kindest to her was her female teacher, closely followed by her teacher’s female lover (yet another issue that could have been hashed up, but wasn’t). In short, you could not reasonably say that Precious was a film that flatly portrays women as victims drowning in a vast sea of disgusting men.

This is much the impression I get from Leaving Las Vegas. Technically, our main character is not the far more interesting prostitute working in Las Vegas, but rather some drunk client. Absolutely every other man in that entire movie is, bluntly, a right cunt. The drunk, called Ben and played by Nicolas Cage, is not up to much himself. I’ll say he is a convincing alcoholic; self-interested, difficult to know, impossible to help and on a determined path of self destruction.

This, oddly, is the person that sex worker Sera (played by Elizabeth Shue) falls in love with. The answer to why is simple; he’s the only person in the movie who doesn’t rape her, beat her up, evict her, cuss her out, mock her or generally treat her, by turns, like either a dog or a dog turd. That’s not to say he treats her well. Once they get together as a couple, he still cheats on her and acts like a chump about her job even though he said he was fine with it. On their first meeting, he enlists her to fuck him in much the same manner as everyone else. The fact that he doesn’t go through with it makes him some sort of hero, apparently.

Here’s where I part company with Leaving Las Vegas. I don’t think that the people who made it had a clear idea of what message they wanted to send out about prostitution, even though it is a major theme of the movie. I don’t think they really knew much about sex work, either. You see, by all accounts, it isn’t that uncommon for someone to hire a prostitute mainly for company and not for sex. There’s nothing special about it.

Not everyone who hires a prostitute is a total screw-up, either. Sure, if you’re a regular street-walker, you’re clientèle will be a mixed bag – that’s a mixed bag, not a bunch of arseholes, since we surely aren’t so prejudiced as to suggest that people who have less money are automatically more likely to be abusive – but Sera wasn’t a regular street-walker. She charged rather a lot, in fact, which meant her clientèle were likely to be businessmen and gamblers. In the latter case, screw-ups for sure, but not to Ben’s extent. A gambling addict doesn’t constantly slur, shake and sweat profusely, fall through glass tables and reek of booze. Their judgement is not permanently impaired either, only at the betting table. If I were a prostitute, I know which group of people I’d sooner risk.

A point for consideration: we never see Sera have sex with anyone who isn’t a nasty piece of work. We never see her regard her job with anything close to neutrality, let alone positivity, bar that bit at the very beginning where she is touching another woman – and that is intersected with a tragic sofa confessional about her first experience. In every anecdote and every depiction, with clients and with her ex-boyfriend-slash-pimp (soon turned late-ex-boyfriend-slash-pimp) she is always being abused in some way.

The message I got loud and clear from this depiction is that Prostitution Is Bad. OK, so passing over the view that this observation lacks subtlety at best, Leaving Las Vegas presents a schizophrenic view of it. Ben tells Sera that he respects her choice, with an eloquence not only impressive for a drunk, but impressive for anyone attempting to explain their position to a sex worker in inoffensive and unpatronising terms. I doubt I would do so well. So, which is it – do we respect her choice, because she knows what she is doing, or do we condemn it because it is always exploitative?

Here’s the thing. If you say that something is someone’s choice, then you are making one of two assertions, depending on your view of the action. If I say taking drugs is a choice, then if I am not anti-drugs, then I am saying that it is OK for someone to take them. However, if I am anti-drugs, I’m saying that it is that person’s fault if they take them and get addicted. It is the same with prostitution; if you depict sex work as inherently negative, then saying that such a person has freely chosen their path sounds like you are blaming them for everything they get.

Sera is not one of the prostitutes we could say has “no choice”. She is not desperate, not destitute. She lives in an average apartment in expensive Las Vegas. When her pimp pops his clogs, she’s free to use her money to do whatever she likes. Start a small business, perhaps. Yet she does not. The reason for this is unexplained. Maybe she feels she has no choice but, again, this view is far more typical of street-walkers on low income with dependants. Her situation doesn’t fit that mindset at all.

The only reason she continues, one would assume, is because she thinks it is an acceptable way to make money. Based on what we see of her job, such a conclusion is ludicrous. She would have to be wilfully ignorant about her situation. What person, faced constantly with the threat of rape, would stay in that line of work for any amount of money? But of course, if Sera were a real prostitute she would not be constantly faced with the threat of rape.

She might have to deal with some unusual fantasies. Bear in mind, a seasoned prostitute’s definition of unusual is a bit beyond what the rest of us might think. She would quickly get used to people wanting to be dressed all in white latex and spanked with a spatula, so I’m astonished that the film-makers felt she would object to a bit of anal. Frankly, I doubt she’d make a living at all if that were the case.

The worst of her experience could probably be attributed to creepy or pushy clients who think they can do as they please because they are paying. On the other side, she’ll also experience people who are a bit meek and desperate, not dangerous in any way. Others would be disinterested in the bother of emotional attachments that come with non-contractual sex. If we were accurately portraying a prostitute’s working life, these types of people would make up a substantial proportion of the clients we would see.

It’s such an insult to a sex worker to suggest that her life, even on high income, is fraught with constant danger. The creeps who gang raped Sera had “creeps” written all over them. If it’s clear to an onlooker, it’s gob-smackingly obvious to a sex worker. These are people who deal with those types of people every day, so would quickly get a feel for who’s safe and who’s not. For her to enter their hotel room willingly and be assaulted as a result, those guys would have to be disarmingly charming or mild-mannered.

There were things about Leaving Las Vegas I liked. The sofa confessionals seemed clunky at first, because I thought she was talking to some kind of shrink off-camera. Later it transpires she was just talking to herself in confessional style, which is an effective method of indicating her extreme loneliness and a decent way to end the film which from the outset clearly had absolutely no hope or intention of ending happily.

I thought the behaviour of bystanders was accurate, too; mostly indifferent, others thinking they don’t have to respect her because she is a person who accepts money for sex. Probably the best was the cab driver who, when Sera entered his cab battered and bruised, gave the helpful advice: “I’d leave him if I were you. A pretty girl like you… You could have any guy you want!” This simplistic view makes victims of domestic violence shy away from being honest about their experiences, fearing disbelief. It puts too much power in appearance, a power too easily doubted by victims and too easily used, subdued or forcibly removed by perpetrators.

Without wishing to cast any assertions on the nature of the writer-director Mike Figgis or anyone involved in the film, I think Leaving Las Vegas is misogynistic. It’s not a word I use lightly. Most films, where a touch sexist, are still most definitely not misogynistic. Leaving Las Vegas is in good company with its use of the boring trope of women taking care of men who little deserve it, like a cross between mother, nurse and maid. Many, many films persist with this depiction, which remains a male fantasy. Watch out for it carefully, if you think they don’t make romances for men; wherever you see that cliché, that’s exactly what you’re observing.

But, misogyny in film is more than that. It is the suggestion that women cannot do anything in their own interest without being punished, usually violently, by men, by society in general or by nature itself. Some day, I intend to do a body count of all the women who die in movies soon after deciding to do something for themselves for a change. It is as if our collective fear, mistrust, lack of interest or just plain befuddlement around single or autonomous women is so great, we don’t know what to do with them, so they must die.

A series of progressively worse things happen to Sera when she tries to live her own life for herself. She leaves her abusive pimp boyfriend and he tracks her down and beats her up. I was glad when he died, thinking “Oh good, now Sera can catch a break,” mistakenly thinking that in film, as in real life, you’d have to be extraordinarily unlucky to get free of one intolerable situation only to find yourself in another, entirely unrelated yet identical one, immediately and without reprieve.

I’ll give this to the pimp; at least he had depth. He had an (admittedly bad) excuse for the way he was behaving. He feared for his life, because he owed a lot of money. His fear made him angry and abusive. Yet, it also made him pitiful which made him less threatening. Sera’s knowledge of his “love” for her gave her some power and control over him and thus her life. Not that much, but as much as the movie allowed.

Alas, when he dies, she ends up pouring her whole soul into Ben the drunk, who gives nothing in return. He cheats on her and she kicks him out, as you might expect. Whereupon she is pretty much immediately gang raped. It’s as if the movie is saying: “Well, if you don’t stick by your man, this is what happens to you. Even if your man is utterly useless and selfish, you are his and you must stay with him.”

It distracts entirely from any of the redeeming characteristics of our main character. If the point of the movie was to say: “She’s fucked up and he’s fucked up, they’re a match made in heaven!” then in my view, it failed. It was obvious to me that she was not fucked up at all, despite the curious determination of the rest of society to make her so. If the point of the movie was to say: “He’s faulted, but she loves him anyway,” it also failed, because there was no indication that she had any better choices.

If she had a choice between a charming, functional man and an incorrigible alcoholic, and she chose the alcoholic, I would question her judgement and taste, but at least I could see it was a matter of judgement and taste. I could see that there may be an element of her being so messed up, it impaired her judgement. As it was, as far as I could see she had no better alternatives. This guy was the best guy in the whole movie universe. It was him, or be alone. And be raped.

Leaving Las Vegas is not a new movie. That should be relevant, but unfortunately it is not as if the depiction of women, or our view of prostitutes, has changed greatly in the following years. This is still a film held in high regard and considered a classic. I’m confused as to why older movies that exist to do nothing but promote old attitudes and clichés are held up as these stylised wonders of cinema.

Personally, if I’m to watch older movies, I prefer those that were progressive for their time. When I say progressive, I don’t mean shock value, which doesn’t age well. I mean sympathetic to maligned groups, or illuminating. What did I learn from Leaving Las Vegas – that drunk people are beyond help, that prostitutes are asking for trouble? These are not lessons, these are finger-wags.

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One Comment
  1. Sherrilynn Nelson permalink

    Wow. Absolutely acurate analysis. You have the ability to see the truth: He was a parasite, and he did her a favor by eliminating himself from her life, since she was too blinded by ‘love’ to see the truth & break free for herself. This guy really was a jerk, no doubt about it! Completely self-absorbed, dishonest, cheating, useless, pathetic, and just plain rude. He wouldn’t have given her a second thought, if he hadn’t admired her body and wanted to get (buy) a piece of it. She, meanwhile, was pure at heart. Not even the life sh e lived had tainted her– she remained innocent, childlike. She honestly gave everything of herself, expecting (and getting!) nothing in return. She was left to make excuses for him, and clean up his messes. And he was fine with that– it gratified him, I think– as he settled in all the more comfortably under the roof she provided by walking the streets. In the end, he wasn’t worth the pearl that had been laid at his feet, and thankfully, she was spared a life of agonizing misery with him.
    Alcoholics and the people who are addicted to them should seek a spiritual solution to their problems– death is not the only, nor best, solution. She’ll unfortuately, by the logic of this film, simply fall in love with the next loser she almost gets killed by… and so on. I believe women (and men) who have found themselves in abusive
    relationships (with or without addiction issues) need to learn how to make better choices for themselves. It’s hard, but not impossible– seek help and you will be given a second chance at living a life you only dreamed of!

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