There is a colourful book to be written about the depiction of prostitutes in cinema history, from the evil harlots of early Salvation Army shorts to Julia Roberts's fun-loving streetwalker in Pretty Woman (1990).
One of the oddest chapters in this history is surely the existentialist phase of the 1960s and '70s, when prostitution was imagined by filmmakers as almost a noble, philosophical act.
There was Nana (Anna Karina) in Godard's Vivre sa vie (1962) who "gave her body to others but kept her soul to herself". And there was Jane Fonda in Klute (1971), symbol of the liberated New Woman, spending much of the film in soulful sessions with her psychotherapist.
I did not think it would be possible to make such a movie in the '90s, until Leaving Las Vegas came along. This film offers, in fact, an existentialist double-whammy: not only is prostitution romanticised as enabling a pure moment of life at the edge – alcoholism, too, receives the identical treatment.
Of course extreme, lawless, amoral modes of behaviour have long provided the cinema with many of its finest hours – as Martin Scorsese's Casino (1995), another essay on Vegas, ably reminds us. But Leaving Las Vegas is among the most overrated and phoniest films of the '90s.
Ben (Nicolas Cage) crashes out of his job in the film industry and heads to Vegas with the express intention of drinking himself to death. He meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a hooker who has mixed with some bad criminal dudes. Ben and Sera begin a largely Platonic, no-questions-asked relationship, each accepting the other's lifestyle and self-destructive neuroses.
This story is meant to be touching and tender in a tough, hard-bitten way – a portrait of mutual understanding and love beyond the pale of normal society and its values, somewhat in the vein of Last Tango in Paris (1972) or Barfly (1987). Along the way, it proposes an unflinching gaze at certain extreme emotional states – desperation, obsession, the death-drive – as such films as Bad Lieutenant (1992) have done.
Yet nothing in Leaving Las Vegas rings true. Although decked-out with all the predictable signs of grunge, it is an evasive, compromised, soft-boiled movie that cushions every one of its blows. Writer-director Mike Figgis's MTV-inspired attempt to convey the seediness of Vegas with fussy visual effects and a non-stop score of treacly modern jazz is laughable. The endless parade of empty cameos (including Lou Rawls and Laurie Metcalf) is just tiresome.
I am puzzled by the general acclaim this movie has garnered, especially in relation to its cast. Shue works hard to inject some emotional truthfulness into her scenes, but she is not believable for a second as a down-at-heel hooker. Julian Sands as a Russian pimp is simply execrable.
And while Cage ingeniously conveys many shades of drunken behaviour, he remains a mixed blessing on screen – his excesses and eccentricities inseparable from his undeniable presence.
Indeed, Leaving Las Vegas confirms my worst suspicion that some people only recognise great screen acting when the spectacle of a performer shouting and upturning tables is shoved in their faces. Figgis and Cage are only too willing to oblige on this score; a meaningless Oscar was indeed the actor's reward.
© Adrian Martin March 1996