Based on a nonfiction book by Gail Sheehy, who interviewed and spent time with a group of real New York City hookers, the solidly assembled telefilm Hustling offers a sober look at the world of prostitution. The movie focuses on a Sheehy stand-in, sophisticated journalist Fran Morrison (Lee Remick). Curious why working girls have become ubiquitous in Times Square, and why the police seem incapable of containing the problem, Fran zeroes in on tough-talking pro Wanda (Jill Clayburgh), who is stuck in city jail. Fran pays Wanda’s bail in exchange for information, so Wanda explains her relationships with johns, pimps, and other prostitutes. This leads Fran to discover the network of city officials and slumlords making money off the sex trade, transforming Fran’s article from a color piece about hooking to an exposé about corruption. Understandably, the deeper Fran digs into the prostitution business, the more pressure Wanda feels to stop talking.
Hustling doesn’t shy away from the dangers of streetwalking—Wanda gets beaten and raped, and another prostitute commits suicide—yet the movie illustrates how some women can survive the business long enough to sock away cash and escape with their souls intact. Directed by reliable TV-movie helmer Joseph Sargent, who also made a handful of noteworthy features, Hustling moves along at a strong pace and boasts a great sense of atmosphere. There’s a documentary-style feel to the way Sargent’s cameras observe characters in dark alleyways, grungy coffee shops, and vile hotel rooms that rent by the hour. Sargent also benefits from vibrant acting.
Remick seethes with a believable type of rich-liberal indignation, and the supporting cast features a number of ’70s favorites, including Paul Benedict, Melanie Mayron, Dick O’Neill, Alex Rocco, and Burt Young. However, the movie’s best/worst element is Clayburgh’s performance. Spewing a cartoonish Noo Yawk accent and strutting with seen-it-all attitude, Clayburgh is compelling from start to finish even though she’s unable to blend the strong and vulnerable aspects of her role into a believable characterization. However, if the worst shortcoming of a move is an actress investing too much effort, that’s a sign everyone involved is trying to create something worthwhile.