On Becoming a Man

 

An Ethical Review-Essay

 

by Brantley Thompson Elkins

 

Do you have a teenage son? Are you worried about the kind of ideas he may be getting about sex and women from popular culture? Make no mistake about it; he’s probably encountered porn by now, heard about “making it” from guys just a few years older than himself.

There must be dozens of movies in which “coming of age” means nothing but getting laid. And that’s all Danny [Will Wheaton, best known as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation] and Bert [David Kaufman] are after in The Last Prostitute (1991). They’ve heard about a legendary courtesan who lives several states away, they’ve saved up their money, they’ve told their parents they’re going to summer camp, and....

When they arrive in the town near where she lives, the guy who gave them their last lift takes off with their money and everything but the clothes on their backs. They hike the rest of the way in a drenching rain, finding Loah [Sonia Braga] at her farm. Only it turns out she’s retired from the business, and tells the pathetic teens to hit the road—but then takes pity on them and hires them on to muck out the stable and the like.

Loah owns a prize stallion, the gift of a prince, and makes good money hiring him out for stud. She’s also fallen for Joe [Cotter Smith], a neighboring rancher who -- unlike his fellow ranchers -- doesn’t look down on women or think they don’t have any business in ranching. She’s getting her life together; for the first time in years, she doesn’t feel dead inside.

Danny and Bert still have hopes of scoring with Loah, imagining that she must be horny as hell and inclined to initiate them, as she once did with sons of clients. But she soon disabuses them. Becoming a man? In tribal rituals of old, she tells them, that didn’t mean just having sex. Young men were subjected to grueling tests; they were scared out of their wits, they shed their blood before they learned the secrets of the tribe.

At first, Danny seems hardly any better than Bert – or any other horny teen in any number of movies. At one point, he even pretends to have made it with Loah to impress his buddy. But as time passes, as he comes to know Loah better, he can feel her pain, and understand how much she needs Joe – who knows nothing of her past; any more than do her other neighbors.

When an older rancher, once a client, finally realizes who Loah is, he blackmails her into signing over the stallion by threatening to expose her to Joe and the rest. But Danny rides to the rescue, and returns blackmail in kind: “Why don’t you ask your daddy how he got his hands on Silverkill,” he challenges the rancher’s teenage daughter. When he returns with the stallion, however, Loah’s troubles are far from over.

Bert, jealous of Joe, betrays her secret to him and then tries to rape her. Danny manages to drag him off her, getting beaten up for his trouble.

“How could [Bert] have changed so much?” he protests afterwards.

“He didn’t,” Loah tells him. “You did. You grew up.”

Danny finally gets what he came for, but only because he has earned it: “You got the hell scared out of you for me,” Loah says. “You got bloody for me. But you have to learn the secrets of the tribe.”

Danny asks nothing more of her after his initiation; instead, he goes out of his way to try to make things right for her and Joe, who has rejected her as “that kind of woman.” She loves him, Danny argues, she’s the “kind of woman” who loves him so much that she was willing to sacrifice Silverkill for his sake. And the thing is, Joe needs her even more than she needs him: “She may be your last chance before you turn into an old coot like the rest of the old coots out here.”

When Joe arrives with his men to help Loah rebuild her barn – burned down by a cigarette Bert had flicked into the straw – the last thing Danny sees is their reconciliation. He’s done something noble for the first time in his life. Time for him to go home now. But we know he’ll be a good man, a man who respects women, who will one day be a good husband and a good lover and a good father.

The Last Prostitute was originally a TV movie, directed by Lou Antonio, who has also directed episodes of a number of TV series, from The Rockford Files to Dawson’s Creek and, most recently, Numb3rs. Carmen Culver, who wrote the script from a play by William Borden, is best known for her work on the miniseries The Thorn Birds. How they got together on this project, I have no idea. But I do have an idea that the movie was sorely needed, and still is.

The gangsta culture that celebrates violent machismo and dismisses women as bitches and hos is only the tip of the iceberg. How often have you read about college boys from white middle class families who drug college girls or get them drunk to “score” with them? How many men do you know, or at least have heard about, who cheat on their wives and brag about it to other men? Or, worse, physically abuse them?

Much of our popular culture seems to celebrate immaturity, as witness the musical beds of Hollywood stars whose quickie marriages, quickie divorces and serial betrayals are a staple of tabloids. Fathering children out of wedlock and then ignoring them seems to be practically a badge of honor for a growing number of men (Even for women, it seems, single motherhood is “cool.” Yeah, how many single mothers in the rest of the world are as rich as their Hollywood idols? And if the children of single mothers and broken homes in Hollywood are, unlike their counterparts in poor households, economically secure, are they any more emotionally secure?).

Against this mindless culture of irresponsible immaturity, only two alternatives are usually offered: the neo-Puritanism of the religious right, which thinks that women are vessels of evil temptation, that men must never share pleasure with them before making the awesome commitment to marriage, that even masturbation is a sin; and the fanaticism of certain radical feminists, who believe that all men are evil by nature – born rapists, whose desire for a woman’s body is invariably an expression of hatred rather than love, who should be ashamed of having dicks and would be better off if they were castrated.

Young men today are desperately in need of positive images of what it means to be a man. But how often do they get them? How often do you see the real meaning of becoming a man on the screen? Don’t let the title fool you; The Last Prostitute is about decencyreal decency, a concept abused as much by the self-appointed guardians of morality as the meaning of “coming of age” is abused by cynical panderers to adolescent self-indulgence.

The Last Prostitute has never come out on DVD, in a time when nearly everything does. It apparently received only passing notice when it was first broadcast, and has gotten little attention since. But the VHS version can still be found at Amazon.com as of this writing. Take a chance. Judge the film for yourself, and you may agree that it would be a perfect gift for that teenage son.

Dec. 29, 2005