Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Sex work at its darkest


James Franco stars in HBO's "The Deuce." Photo: Courtesy HBO-TV
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HBO's "The Deuce," premiering Sept. 10, might convince people considering a life in the sex trade to make another career choice. This dark, gritty, serialized drama follows a group of people plying their sexual wares in New York's Times Square in 1971. The show's title is a reference to the nickname for West 42nd St. between 6th and 8th Aves. The Deuce, these days a family-oriented tourist trap, was then a seedy stretch filled with dive bars, filthy adult theaters and filthier hotels. The first episode so effectively recreates the atmosphere of the 42nd St. of old that it's almost possible to smell the steam rising from the manholes in the sidewalks.

James Franco gives two powerful and very distinct performances as twin brothers Vinnie and Frankie. Vinnie is a barman who finds himself in debt to the mob to the tune of 50 grand, thanks to Frankie's excessive gambling. Though it isn't revealed in the premiere episode, in future episodes those debts will push the brothers into peddling pornography. "The Deuce" recreates the rise of New York's adult film business during the early- to mid-1970s.

In the series' freshman outing we see the disintegration of Vinnie's home life. His wife flaunts her cheating and does not appreciate how hard he works to feed the family. Vinnie leaves his wife in disgust and moves into a cheap hotel, where he sees a pimp cutting one of his "girls" because she didn't want to "work" on a cold, rainy night. Both are customers of his at the bar.

Maggie Gyllenhaal co-stars as Candy, a tough-as-nails hooker who has no qualms about telling a young john that this is nothing more than a job to her. We see how different her street life and her private life are when she goes home to her apartment and listens to her answering machine. Her landlord wants to deal with some plumbing issues, and her mom wants her to visit her son. We later see Candy at her mom's house. It's hard to believe this is the same person who was walking the streets of The Deuce the night before.

Gyllenhaal also gives two distinct performances. In interviews Gyllenhaal has said that she researched her role by reading "Porno Star," the autobiography of real-life 70s porn queen Tina Russell, and by studying "The Rialto Report," a website that documents the history of the porn industry. Though it focuses primarily on straight porn, "The Rialto Report" has made several entries regarding gay porn.

Men and women shed their attire with equal abandon, and the nudity is surprisingly graphic, even by HBO standards. There's a brief shot of a man getting a hand job in a phone booth. He's seen fully erect, albeit for a quick second. There's another penis shot when Candy gives a teenaged customer his birthday blowjob.

But there's a lot more going on here than just dick and tit shots, there's character development. Viewers will see the human side of these lost souls. In one moving sequence a prostitute sits in her john's apartment while they watch the classic 1930s film "A Tale of Two Cities." She cries because it's a sad movie. He cries because he's lonely and just wanted some company. After the film she asks him for extra money: she has to answer to her pimp for taking time to stay for the movie. The old man hands her another roll of bills.

"The Deuce" is disturbing and fascinating. It's a daring production. HBO should be applauded for having the courage to green-light it. Look for it on Sept. 10 at 9 p.m.


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