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Hackford-Mirren 'Love Ranch' film and the old-new debate over legal prostitution

June 27, 2010 |  1:15 pm

When I was invited to a screening of "Love Ranch," the new Helen Mirren film directed by her husband, Taylor Hackford, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect -- maybe something sentimental and charming, like "Calendar Girl"? Something gritty under a gilding of splendid music, like Hackford's "Ray," or "Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara"?

Both of the principals have Oscar-winning films under their his-and-hers belts, and that tends to liberate them to be bold and imaginative in their film choices.

And "Love Ranch" proves that taking those chances can pay off. It certainly had moments of charm, and it was touching, and seedy, and tragic, and clear-eyed. The film doesn't sentimentalize or sensationalize life in 1976 in Nevada's legal brothel, the Mustang Ranch. Doll it up as "love" and dress it up with pink hearts, it's still prostitution, and even its legality then and now doesn't make it a woman's dream life or career.

The film is based on something that actually happened in 1976 at the Mustang Ranch: the shooting death of a young boxer who may or may not have had an affair with the brothel owner's wife, who manages the operation.

The brothel's middle-aged husband-and-wife co-owners, Charlie and Grace Bontempo, are played by Joe Pesci and Mirren. He, not surprisingly, is crass, lecherous, violent; she, clad in a madam's tough-dame protective armor, turns out to be capable of surprising herself, and us.

In one scene, as Pesci is walking into a boxing gym with a new $300 cowboy hat, Mirren sizes up the big chapeau and the little man wearing it: "Who do you think you are -- Clint Eastwood?" His comeback: "Who do you think you are -- the Queen of ... England?" Which of course drew a great giggle at the screening, because Mirren won an Oscar playing that sovereign lady, the Queen of England.

In the gym, the couple meets a young Argentine boxer that Pesci soon represents, touchingly played by the Spanish actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta. In the 1970s, real-life rumor suggested that the boxer and the Grace Bontempo character embarked on an affair; the film treats this as fact.

This film flips the "on" switch to any number of conversations, perhaps the most significant of which is the old-is-new argument about legal prostitution. It still goes on in Nevada, at the Mustang Ranch and elsewhere. Are the women at those brothels better off than women working illegally? Should prostitution be legal? It's not a question the film answers, but you can.

On a less abstract note, the film's 1976 setting was delivered with fidelity and a kind of louche beauty -- all that Detroit tin! All that polyester!

And at the screening, we were offered the usual bottle of water we've all come to expect at these events -- except this bottle was shaped like the flat pint-flask for liquor, and it bore the label of the Mustang Ranch.

-- Patt Morrison

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