Talking Pictures

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Yariv Milchan

The kiss: Catherine McCormack and Rufus Sewell embrace in Dangerous Beauty.

Margo St. James on the power of sex and Dangerous Beauty

By David Templeton

In his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation, David Templeton escorts renowned social reformer and notorious ex-prostitute Margo St. James to see the new film Dangerous Beauty, the true story of a courageous and influential courtesan in 16th-century Venice.

MARGO ST. JAMES can’t stop crying. What started as a soft, silent trickle of tears about halfway through the film Dangerous Beauty has gradually intensified into the unstoppable downpour of empathy and emotion that St. James is now bravely attempting to quell. On screen, black-robed priests of the Spanish Inquisition have forced the heroine–Venice’s influential 16th-century poet and prostitute, Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack)–to stand trial and account for the “bewitching power” that the wealthy wives of Venice have accused her of wielding over their smitten husbands. When Franco calmly confesses–not to witchcraft, but simply to having been born a woman of little wealth, with few choices open to her beyond that of the relatively privileged life of a courtesan–St. James, once a prostitute herself, and equally influential in her own city of San Francisco, is just about undone.

“Jesus!” she exclaims, wiping at her damp cheeks as the lights come up. “You didn’t tell me this would be such a tearjerker. But being that this is the first film I’ve seen in eight or nine years,” she laughs, “I’d say you picked a good one for me to go out on.”

For some of us, a decade in between movies might seem a long time, but Margo St. James is hardly the average person. She’s busier than most.

When not producing and starring in her award-winning weekly cable show, Streetwise (Tuesday nights on San Francisco’s Channel 53), or traversing the country to lobby for the decriminalization of prostitution, this bona fide cultural icon and author helps pay her bills as a waitress at a local restaurant, while tirelessly working in her spare time on behalf of the National Task Force on Prostitution and COYOTE (Cast off Your Old Tired Ethics), the prostitutes’ rights group she founded in 1973. She is the co-author, with Gail McPheterson, of A Vindication of the Rights of Whores (Seal Press, 1989) and continues to write on the status of sex workers around the world. As if that weren’t enough, St. James also occasionally runs for public office. She narrowly missed winning a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors in the last election, and is gearing up for a probable victory this November.

This afternoon, though, she’s taking a bit of time for herself.

“One thing I’ll say about that film,” she proclaims a few minutes later, stirring a double decaf cappuccino at a nearby coffeehouse, “the men were all hunks! Of all the guys she was sleeping with, there was only one old one. I remember those days. I used to pick out the good ones, too, you bet.”

When St. James laughs, her voice deep and flirtatiously husky, several heads turn to locate the source of the sound. As skilled as she is at commanding the attention of a room, it’s clear she’ll make a fascinating politician.

“There were some basic truths in the film that can’t be denied,” she continues. “For instance, the wives, the ‘good women,’ who all joined up with the right wing to attack their own kind–that’s been happening in this country for the last two decades, with hard-core feminists like Andrea Dworkin joining the fundamentalists in coming out against prostitution.

“There’s such a stigma about the money! What did that one guy say to Veronica in the film? That the courtesans were ‘trading love for greed’? Well, that’s the big taboo: sleeping with men for money. It’s perfectly legal–in this state anyway–for a woman to have sex with anyone she chooses, at any time. But the minute five cents changes hands–then boom! She’s a whore, and she goes to jail. It’s ludicrous.”

I mention a criticism some have made of Dangerous Beauty: that its presentation of a prostitute who enjoys having sex is nothing but a male fantasy.

“Let me tell you something,” St. James says, leaning forward. “It’s not necessarily a fantasy. Even back in the ’70s, some probation department guys made a study in Pittsburgh, and they found that the most downtrodden women on the street, whores who were being recycled through the jail every week, told them that they got some gratification from hooking. Not necessarily that they had orgasms–though I was one of the first to admit to having orgasms with customers–but that they felt honestly gratified afterwards.

“And yeah,” she chuckles, “it was probably just the money, but you know, I found, personally, that if I was seeing three or four customers a day …” She pauses a moment, considering the matter seriously. “Let me put it this way,” she finally says. “It’s really true about sex. The more you get, the more you want. And some days, it was pretty damn enjoyable.”

The real Veronica Franco, as in the movie, was held up as a reason for the plague that was sweeping though Venice and across Europe: the deaths as God’s punishment for the wanton ways of the courtesans and their clients.

“Religion loves epidemics,” St. James remarks. “And God is always punishing the whores. It’s all superstition, of course. I’m an atheist.

“Being 60 years old, I’ve seen a lot, and lived through a lot of positive changes, and they’re all wonderful,” she continues. “But I’ve also seen the rise of fundamentalism and the AIDS pandemic that came along and almost shut down everything, including the women’s movement. Whores are still one of the first groups to get blamed for everything, from AIDS to the depreciation of property.

“What this country needs is a woman in the White House,” she insists, “and preferably a whore. Someone has to stand up and take away the moralists’ red herrings, and I think it’s up to the women to do that,” she laughs her no-nonsense laughs, adding, “be they whores or otherwise.”

From the March 5-11, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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