Alphabetical Movie – Irma La Douce
I realize it isn’t universal but why are so many movies about prostitution a romanticized version of the profession? Is it that we can’t deal with the fact that the reality is pretty ugly? Being a prostitute is nothing like the world of Pretty Woman. Or The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Irma La Douce is interesting because in it, I can see Billy Wilder hinting at the ugliness that surrounds prostitution while staying carefully within the confines of the slowly disintegrating Hayes code. Yes, it is romanticized, but it also shows us an abusive boyfriend/pimp and the unhealthy mental programming most prostitutes accept without even realizing it.
Consider that Nestor (Jack Lemmon) becomes Irma’s (Shirley MacLaine) “boyfriend” (pimp) by beating up her old boyfriend. Once he does this, he wants to help support her so she doesn’t have to be a prostitute. Her response, however is to say that she will look bad if she isn’t able to support her “boyfriend” by working as a prostitute.
It feels like a pretty subversive play by Wilder there. One could argue that Irma is empowered because she is making the choice to prostitute herself. Yet, she is making that choice because she has been programmed to believe there is no other option.
I don’t think Wilder approves of the hierarchy but he never directly indicates he disapproves. Instead, he lets the situation speak for itself.
The relationship that develops between Nestor and Irma is no more healthy than the one it replaces. Nestor doesn’t want her to be a prostitute so he works all night so he has enough money to pretend to be someone else and he can pay to be her only client. It’s a relationship built on deceit because the foundation is rotten.
Wilder was pretty good at subversive comedy. He would make a light film that had a pretty ugly undercurrent if you just bothered to look.
He used MacLaine and Lemmon to explore dysfunctional relationships in The Apartment as well. Again, Lemmon and MacLaine’s behavior towards each other is tainted by the deceptive relationships that they are already supporting or a part of.
In the 60’s, I don’t think Wilder could show how ugly prostitution can be so he dressed it up as farce. We can still see the abusive nature of the “boyfriend”/prostitute relationship but the he softens the blow so we aren’t completely put off by it.
I contrast that with Pretty Woman, which offers a completely romanticized version of prostitution. How am I supposed to think it is such a bad life when she has managed to stay off drugs, stay clear of a pimp and look like Julia Roberts?
I think we all want to believe that prostitution isn’t so bad. That’s why we would rather watch the Pretty Woman version of prostitution because it is sanitized.
Irma La Douce is sanitized as well. The difference, at least to me, is that I think Billy Wilder knew that he was presenting a sanitized version of the truth and he tried to hint at something darker.