She’s Outlaw: The Independent Women of Vice Squad and The Deuce

HBO

“You go it alone, come a dark hour, you are alone.”
— Rodney (The Deuce, Episode 5: “What Kind of Bad?”)


When we consider the world of prostitution, we don’t generally think of the women who make up its labor pool as outlaws, despite the fact that they are technically breaking the law. The reason for this is obvious: Historically, most (though by no means all) sex workers—professional companions in particular—are presumed to live incredibly difficult and desperate lives, which most either fell or were forced into after suffering years of abuse, addiction, and poverty. Dubbing them outlaws would seem not only callous in regards to their situation, but would also bestow a certain romanticism upon their profession that—perhaps excepting the highest-class escorts—is incommensurate with their reality.

Enter the 1982 neo-noir thriller Vice Squad, directed by genre journeyman Gary Sherman, and shot on location in the downtown section of Los Angeles known as Skid Row.

The first utterance of “outlaw” in the film, in relation to a sex worker, comes during the first of several harrowing depictions of violence perpetrated against women. (In this case, the audience is spared witnessing the worst of it, though Sherman manages to give enough hints as to the gruesome details that it effectively feels like we watch it happen.)

The victim is Ginger (Nina Blackwood), a young prostitute who recently fled her abusive pimp, a psychopathic cowboy known only as Ramrod (Wings Hauser). He tracks her down at the motel where she’s been hiding out, and proceeds to inflict such brutal torture upon her body that it eventually succumbs to the trauma.

In the lead-up to her murder, Ramrod grills her, saying, “The street-talk has it that you’re thinking of turning outlaw on me. Now suppose you tell me that’s not true?”

In this context, the word’s meaning is easily understood. Ramrod is as much a slave owner as he is a pimp, his rule over the women in his employ (or, more accurately, his bondage) as ironclad as the word of God Almighty.

Starz / Anchor Bay

Vowing to avenge Ginger’s death, the detective in LA’s vice squad, Walsh (Gary Swanson), recruits her loyal friend Princess (Season Hubley)—a pimpless prostitute by night and suburban single mother by day—in a sting operation targeting Ramrod. They are successful in their efforts, but soon enough Ramrod escapes custody and embarks upon on one of the all-time great cinematic rampages, littering the streets of Los Angeles with half-a-dozen mangled bodies in his relentless pursuit of an unknowing Princess.In the course of his search, he questions his gun dealer, a tatted-up leather-freak known as Fast Eddie, who has the dirt on seemingly everyone connected to the streets. When Ramrod asks who Princess’ pimp is, Fast Eddie replies, “She ain’t got no pimp. She’s outlaw.”

And it’s here that the phrase takes on a deeper meaning. It was one thing for a street-level tyrant like Ramrod to use it to describe women who would seek to run out on him, but what Fast Eddie’s casual dropping of it implies is that—within their world—a woman working by herself, for herself, is considered an outlaw even amongst other criminals. The ecosystem of the black market has its own laws and mores, and an independent woman runs counter to all of them.

Vice Squad has never quite achieved the status that its small cult of devotees (myself included) feel it deserves. Perhaps this is due to the way that it confounds expectations. For a movie whose premise and setting would seem to promise lots of gratuitous T&A, there is almost no nudity, and the one sex scene shown in full is anything but titillating.

In the few feature films that he directed, Sherman usually succeeded in elevating the often schlocky material he was given by imbuing it with deeper socio-political concerns. Here, he set out to make not an exploitation flick, but rather a film that presented the exploitation of women in a serious manner. To this end, he was mostly successful. While the film’s propulsive tone, broad acting, stylized dialogue, thrilling action, and penchant for dark comedy and surreal non-sequiturs make it uniquely exciting and endlessly rewatchable, they also tend to undercut the power of its more harrowing parts.

If the film is remembered for one thing in particular, it’s likely Wings Hauser’s performance as Ramrod, and with good reason: With his giant features, hulking frame, and husky Southern drawl, Ramrod recalls no less a classic villain than Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell from The Night of the Hunter, minus any pretense of religious decency, and with a taste for sexual violence dialed up to 11. If, to use the example seared into our collective imagination a few years down the line by Axl Rose and company, Skid Row truly is a jungle, then Ramrod is its apex predator, and Hauser’s commitment to, and believability in, the role is all-encompassing. In a more just world he would have been a massive star.Yet, for however much Hauser/Ramrod is synonymous with Vice Squad, much of the heavy lifting is actually given to Season Hubley as Princess, a performance that (much like her overall acting career, which seems to have come to an end somewhere around the turn of the last century) has gone largely thankless and forgotten. Almost half of the film’s runtime is spent following Princess as she traverses the hellscape that is Skid Row at night, giving the viewer a surprisingly unsentimental, yet deeply empathetic and non-judgmental look at the everyday life of a working sex worker.

Even if she is reduced to a distressed damsel in need of rescuing in the final act, she’s at least given the final line—a line which sums up the tragic, unsentimental ethos of the entire film. As she’s being wheeled into the back of an ambulance, having barely survived her final confrontation with Ramrod, she tells a similarly wounded and exhausted Walsh, “You’re never gonna change the streets…”

It’s a portrayal that deserved more accolades at the time of the film’s initial release, and still does today. But if there’s little chance that Hubley will ever be rediscovered and given her proper due, there is at least some hope that what Princess represents will find proper recognition, now that a new example has come along to tell a similar story.

*

Moving 10 years back in time to 1972, from one crime-ridden, trash-strewn, piss-soaked no man’s land to another, we come to the world of New York’s Times Square by way of The Deuce, which premiered on HBO this past August and finished airing its first season in October.

In place of the verisimilitude Vice Squad conveyed by way of its docudrama style filming, the series—from The Wire showrunner David Simon, alongside co-creator George Pelecanos and a murderer’s row of staff writers (including renowned novelists Lisa Lutz, Megan Abbott, and Richard Price)—brings us fully into its world via meticulous re-creation, aided by top-shelf production value.

Equal parts thrilling crime drama and sociological examination, the show stands out as a definitive account of its epoch, one which has come to define New York City as much as any other throughout its long and storied history. Here, in all their shambolic glory and tragedy are the pimps, hustlers, smut peddlers, perverts, mobsters, cops, bartenders, bouncers, drunks, and dopers that made the real-life Deuce into as thriving a market for vice as America has ever known.

And much like the Skid Row of the ‘80s, the main commodity within that marketplace was sex. While the mobsters, pimps, and dirty cops that ran the neighborhood may have overseen the wider operation, it was women who provided the true labor, be they the sex workers that worked the street, single room occupancies, and massage parlors, or the actresses and models who appeared in the dirty movies, peep shows, and magazines.

For the most part, these women never reaped the financial rewards earned by their labor. Which isn’t to say that within this exploited workforce there weren’t individuals who found angles to exploit on their own behalf, in order to pull themselves out of the worst of the muck.

Such is the case of Eileen “Candy” Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who, like Vice Squad’s Princess, is an independent sex worker with a young child she works to support. As is the case with Princess, Candy is fast approaching middle age and is feeling utterly worn out by her years in the life. Unlike Princess, though, Candy grabs hold of an opportunity to make a better life for herself once she notices a coming sea change within her community.That sea change is the dismantling of long-held obscenity laws within the city of New York, which will soon make pornography legal. The first season of The Deuce ends right as Deep Throat—a mob-funded dirty picture which went on to become a legitimate cultural phenomenon, as well as one of the highest grossing films of all time—opens in its first run. All at once, smut moved out of the underground and into mainstream society (even as sex workers like Candy were moved indoors, to massage parlors, in order to present a cleaner, friendlier image of the city).

Thus began a truly tectonic shift, not only in New York, but within America as a whole. It was the moment when the previous decade’s ethos of free love was scooped up and repackaged by the forces of capitalism. Not long after pornography was allowed to be shown openly in theaters, home video would bring it into the American household. This would set it firmly within the mainstream, where today it takes up an inordinate amount of real estate in our everyday lives. As Simon himself put it in an interview with The Guardian, “If you’re not consuming porn, you’re still consuming its logic.”

It’s a logic that Candy understands innately, not only because her years of first-hand experience have given her a sharp business savvy, but also because, as she is surprised to discover, she possesses an artistic temperament that makes her a natural filmmaker.

If the shape of her arc seems to strain credulity, it shouldn’t. Although women have traditionally held little real power within the porn industry, despite being central to it, there have always been exceptions to the rule—such as Candida Royalle, a performer-turned-director/producer during porn’s old-school heyday, who served as an inspiration for the character of Candy.

Regardless of historical precedent, Candy’s journey feels earned because, much like Princess, we’ve watched her put up with the soul-crushing indignities of her work, which include all manner of fresh humiliation (such as a rat crawling up her arm while she’s servicing a client in a cheap movie theater, or when another customer dies of a heart attack mid-blowjob), to say nothing of the latent danger she risks with each new trick.

That danger doesn’t stay latent for long. Shortly after her first attempt at breaking into the movie industry proves unsuccessful, Candy suffers a vicious beating at the hand of a violent client. Despite the lingering trauma—both physical and mental—she puts herself back to work almost immediately.

It is here, at roughly the season’s halfway mark, where The Deuce produces its most riveting scene, as Candy wards off the professional advances of Rodney (Clifford “Method Man” Smith), a slick pimp who’s long been trying to recruit her into his stable.

Seeing her swollen face, and sensing how exhausted she must be from having to look out for herself for so long, Rodney makes his biggest pitch yet, an argument effective in its combination of seemingly genuine sympathy and appeals to pragmatism. Both he and Candy are well aware that he’s not wrong when he tells her, “You keep expecting better, but you keep getting worse. I mean, you go at it alone, come a dark hour, you are alone.”He reminds her (as if she needs reminding) that this isn’t the first time she’s come close to being murdered by a customer, nor is it the worst beating she’s taken. He strikes a deep chord when he questions how much longer she can realistically hope to keep going at her current rate.

His badgering begins to wear down her defenses, and soon she’s at the point where she can no longer contain her tears, which she allows Rodney to gently wipe from her bruised cheek. In this moment, we see her struggle with the desire to give into his promises of security and stability, false as she knows them to be. As pimps go in the world of The Deuce, Rodney is far from the worst. Her acquiescence at this moment would be all too easy, and entirely understandable.

But it would also signal the death of her spirit, as she would be giving up the one thing she’s cherished the most up to this point: her independence. Which is why, even though the moment itself is played as anything but triumphant, we can’t help but feel relief when she finally rebuffs him.

This scene, which could stand on its own as a one-act play, is a masterclass in writing, directing, and, most of all, acting. It’s as good as anything in The Wire—which makes it as good as anything that’s ever been on television.

*

While there were several American films made during the period chronicled in The Deuce—set and filmed in its exact location no less—which explored, or at least brushed up against, the same themes (Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Klute), it is Vice Squad that I was most reminded of when I first watched the series last year.

The storylines of Princess and Candy can both be considered somewhat definitive portrayals of a working girl’s long dark night of the soul. Whereas Princess manages to merely survive hers, Candy is actually able to change her entire situation (at least as of the finale of the show’s first season). But the vicissitudes of life being what they are, it’s easy to imagine each of them in the other’s place. They are, after all, one and the same; no matter how dire their circumstances, no matter the amount of abuse, shame, or scorn heaped upon them, each will survive. In these two portrayals, the American sex worker is afforded far more personal dignity—of the stoic ideal—than is found throughout much of the American cinematic canon.

Part of that dignity is conveyed by their clear-eyed recognition of their place in the world. The pimps and hustlers of The Deuce and Vice Squad all fool themselves into thinking they have what it takes, not only to survive their harsh surrounding, but to thrive within it. They are, for all of their criminality, hardly outlaws, since they are working on behalf of the same profit motive as most Americans. They might transgress the official law of polite society, but they uphold its deeper order.

What makes Candy and Princess different is not that they work in opposition to this order, but rather that they refuse to buy into the lie that there is any true law that coincides with it. When Princess tells an actual lawman that he’ll never change the streets, or when Candy refuses to bend to the will of the criminal social strata that says she has to earn on behalf of a man, they each do so in recognition that the laws which they are transgressing are, in fact, useless. That they do this without buying into the cheap fantasy that their self-determination is representative of some American entrepreneurial spirit only gives their choice extra power.

Candy and Princess both recognize that the various notions of law and order which others would subject them to are nothing more than a trick to be turned. And they both know, from experience, that no matter how many tricks you turn, it will never be enough for those who would seek to own and control them. So if you have to do the work, you might as well go into business for yourself.