September 23, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Evidently I live in the wrong neighborhood: The prostitutes on my side of town look nothing like the hooker Melanie Griffith plays in Milk Money. They’re skinny or lumpy, bruised or bloodless, cheaply dressed or missing teeth. They look, very plainly, like women selling their bodies, and if they possess legendary hearts of gold, they’re hiding their assets. They are, in fact, walking advertisements for the fact that prostitution is a desperate and dangerous occupation with damn little opportunity to hook up with men who look like Ed Harris. Or Richard Gere.

Griffith, though, she’s a marvel. As V, the soft-hearted prostitute whose bursting goodness charms a decent suburban widowed dad more than her bursting bosom, she manages to transform the degradation of turning tricks into the sort of playacting little girls might enjoy when they tire of staging tea parties. Her voice squeaks, her cleavage heaves, and her high heels clatter like she’s wearing Mommy’s pumps. In our only peek into V’s work life, she’s seen feeding a strawberry to an old guy in the backseat of a fancy car. So that’s what those battered-looking girls who occasionally stray onto my street corner do when they’re picked up and driven away in dented Pontiacs! They eat dessert! A kid could watch all of Milk Money without ever knowing what the leading lady actually does for a living. For that matter, so could a willfully naive, AIDS-phobic adult.

In her way, V is the natural successor, in these plague years, to Vivian, the Cinderella streetwalker so charmingly created by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, which came out in 1990 at the end of the yuppie years. Where Viv glamorized prostitution and tied sex to wealth and to the acquisition of really good clothing, V (love those vibrating, Eve-allusive, crotch-shaped V names, don’t you?) infantilizes the job and suggests that it’s clean and innocent enough for children to enjoy. Where Pretty Woman suggested that turning tricks is a way to find Mr. Right, Milk Money suggests that hooking is a way to find Daddy. Where the Prince Charming in Pretty Woman is a rich, world-weary captain of industry almost too tired for sex, the hero of Milk Money is a middle-class father almost too idiotic for action.

And this is what I figure: Fear is the reason. Fear of AIDS, fear of sex, fear of the ratings board, fear of offending. The fearful ’90s has turned Melanie Griffith — poor Don Johnson-plagued, Revlon-hawking Melanie — into an aging Barbie doll. O wussy PG-13 moviemakers, who wear their condoms so tight they’re afraid to make a comedy about hookers that’s really funny, or a serious fable that’s really serious! Out of the titillating, ancient drama of prostitution, filtered through changing moral values, have come some of the most memorable plots in movie history, and some of the meatiest, best-costumed roles, from Shirley MacLaine in Irma La Douce to Jane Fonda in Klute. Sex-for-sale has been done funny and tragic, stylized and gritty. But never before has it been portrayed so safe, so neutered, so impossibly coy that in the end the actual act-with all the dangers it currently carries-has nothing to do with the occupation. Now it’s about strawberries!

Griffith-game, hard-living, fragile Melanie, a woman in deep need of better career management-has the dubious honor of playing one of movie history’s most plastic of all hussies, a whore manufactured by nervous moviemakers who don’t want to alarm anyone, for nervous moviegoers who don’t want to think about what whores really do for a living. Thanks to Milk Money, I now know that all a hooker needs in order to set up shop is access to a fruit stand.

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