Review: Lizzie Borden's 1986 Sex Work Drama "Working Girls" Feels More Radical Than Ever

by Sam Cohen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 26, 2021

The pitfalls and roadblocks of sex work are often depicted on the screen, but few films have the gumption and approach to give such a difficult subject the best platform. That's part of why Lizzie Borden's 1986 drama "Working Girls" feels so revelatory; it depicts sex work as a constant push and pull between safe and abusive labor. In a way, sex work is so very similar to other industries in the way abuse can sneak in and dehumanize someone until they break.

The Criterion Collection brings "Working Girls" to Blu-ray with a new 1080p presentation sourced from a new 4K digital transfer personally supervised by Lizzie Borden. The film was originally shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, so expect a thick layer of grain across the picture and a pleasing, textured image that accentuates the obliqueness of the spaces used in the film.

As for special features, there are a few, but the most revealing of them may be a new conversation between Borden and filmmaker Bette Gordon, recorded exclusively for this release. The two filmmakers both successfully penetrated male-occupied spaces in their films and revealed the power dynamics underneath, and it's a pleasure to hear them chat about their appreciation for one another. In addition to all of that, there's a terrific new interview with sex workers active today that shows how the industry has evolved in some ways, and devolved in others.

Molly (Louise Smith) is a part-time photographer in NYC who also works at a brothel in Manhattan run by the domineering Lucy (Ellen McElduff). Their clientele is diverse, although they cater much to men looking for emotional involvement as well as sex. This is a day in the life of Molly, as she juggles multiple clients, fostering relationships with her coworkers and dealing with Lucy's ambition, which threatens to upend the lives of all her employees.

"Working Girls" has a studious eye for desensitizing the thorny subject of sex work. Borden simply shoots these private spaces as if it were any other office, as in an opening sequence when Molly needs to insert a diaphragm before taking any clients. Molly is shot elevated and from behind, so when her coworker walks in to see what's happening, they have a laugh about it. This is just one of the many small moments where these women must prepare their bodies for work and, in a way, pump themselves up for what comes next.

While I don't feel "Working Girls" may be as trenchant as one may expect from a film about sex work, it definitely aces how sex work has been commodified and even twisted to match the needs of a hustle and bustle location like NYC. Luckily for us all, this new Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection packages this gem of a film with a great presentation and plenty of special features to dig into.

Other special features include:

• Audio commentary from 2007 featuring Borden, director of photography Judy Irola, and actor Amanda Goodwin
• New conversation with Goodwin, actor Louise Smith, producer Andi Gladstone, and assistant director Vicky Funari
• New conversation with sex workers Antonia Crane, Daphne, Selena the Stripper, and Jo Weldon
• English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• Plus: An essay by author So Mayer and excerpts from a 1987 interview with Borden by film critic Scott MacDonald

"Working Girls" is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.