Tune in Tonight: "Love for Sale"
For a very long time during the 70s into the 80s, according to television the third most shameful profession, after serial killer and pornographer, was being a prostitute. Though many women have made a fruitful, prosperous career out of something the rest of us give away for free, according to pop culture it’s a one way ticket to shame and ruin, made more complicated by the fact that, unlike most other jobs, you can’t simply quit and walk away, because the stink of it will follow you wherever you go. Sell chemical weapons for the military, become a hitman for the mafia, but for heaven’s sake, don’t exhibit bodily autonomy and profit from what the good lord gave you, anything but that!
1979’s Love for Sale (also known as Love for Rent, presumably Love for Lease With an Option to Buy was just too much of a mouthful) dips its toe in the pool of luridness, but stubbornly refuses to get all the way in. A family drama that very occasionally, in tiny five minute increments, becomes a suspense thriller, it stars Annette O’Toole as Carol, a high class Hollywood escort working under the name “Marta.” Like Buddy Hudson in Hollywood Wives, who could have been one of her co-workers, she expresses deep shock and offense whenever anyone suggests that she might be willing to have sex for money, though she sometimes is. Estranged from her father (Darren McGavin, playing the same blustering dad role he would later perfect in A Christmas Story), she sends money and gifts to her younger, impossibly naïve sister, Lynn (Lisa Eilbacher), back home in Oklahoma City.
Lynn, engaged to a nice hometown boy, receives a wedding gown from Carol, but her father protests, preferring her to be married while covered in material from just under her chin down to her toes. After he ruins the gown Carol sends, Lynn runs off to Hollywood to visit her. She’s barely off the plane before she finds herself in the seedy part of town, walking past signs that read VIDEO CASSETTES HARDCORE and MASSAGE GIRLS GIRLS. Life in the big city for Carol looks like an endless modeling shoot, but for Lynn it’s shrieking jazz-disco music and pimps all but picking her up and carrying her away on their shoulders. Her brow perpetually furrowed with worry, Lynn eventually catches up with Carol, and unquestioningly buys her story that being a struggling actress who occasionally gets paid to go on no-sex “dates” with visiting businessmen is how she manages to afford a convertible and a tastefully decorated home near the beach.
If you’re wondering how long it takes Lynn, who was both born and fell off the turnip truck yesterday, to shake the cobwebs loose in her head and figure out what exactly Carol does for a living, it’s exactly halfway through the movie. Even then, she doesn’t so much “figure it out” as “stumble upon it.” Naturally, the audience is supposed to be as appalled as Lynn is, but, really, Carol seems to be doing alright for herself. She’s able to live on her own in comfort, and her “business manager” (Rhonda Fleming) treats her with respect. Many of her clients really do only want her companionship, so she gets paid $25 an hour to just show up somewhere looking pretty. It’s certainly a better gig than Lynn’s job, which appears to be bothering people on the phone to sell them dance lessons. Nevertheless, Lynn’s brow furrows even harder and she weeps, as if discovering that Carol earns money by taping bags of hashish to her body and traveling back and forth to Turkey.
Despite her shock and dismay, only one scene later Lynn has inexplicably decided that she’s going to become an escort herself. Her brow quickly unfurrows and she gets into the life, competing with Carol for dates and even snatching away her favorite client, for whom Carol has feelings. This all happens so fast it feels as though several pages of script are missing, and you wonder if the plot is going to take a hard left turn, more than halfway through, into a horror movie where we learn that Lynn’s innocent hayseed persona is an act, and she’s really there to take over Carol’s life, Single White Female style. Alas, we never get anything that juicy. Lynn moving in on Carol’s territory is barely even addressed, ignored in favor of a big, boring reveal of why Carol is estranged from her father, followed by a heartwarming reconciliation.
Carol abruptly decides that she and Lynn should return to Oklahoma City, but before they can leave, literally during the last five minutes of the movie, a disturbed former client of Carol’s (Eugene Roche) shows up and attacks Lynn, who fights him off with a bottle of perfume. Somehow, a client breaking into her house and assaulting her sister changes Carol’s mind about leaving Hollywood, and she puts Lynn on a plane home. Brow furrowing harder than ever, Lynn is reluctant to leave, but eventually does, and Carol isn’t even out of the airport before she runs into one of the employees of her escort service, who smiles knowingly at her. The movie ends on Carol thinking about what she wants to do with her life—get a real job, or continue getting paid to go out to fancy dinners and dancing with lonely middle-aged men.
There’s a seed of a halfway interesting plot to be found in Love for Sale, in that Carol doesn’t seem to feel shame about her job until Lynn shows up for an uninvited visit. She doesn’t set Lynn up in her own apartment because she’s trying to hide what she does, but because she gets in the way. It would be perfectly reasonable to put her uptight butt on the next plane home, but she lets Lynn hang around and wear her down with her whining and crying. Of course, she should be ashamed, and her opting to stay behind and continue in the life she’s built for herself rather than return to her hometown with her tail between her legs is supposed to be viewed as a tragedy. To suggest otherwise would be to condone the choices she makes for herself, and we still can’t have that. Sex workers are to be alternately ogled and criticized, rather than left alone to support themselves.
As mentioned at the beginning of the review, Love for Sale comes tantalizingly close to trash, but sadly backs off at the last minute. The script feels half-finished and is weirdly paced, not even making it clear how long Lynn stays in Hollywood. It could be a couple weeks, or a couple months, and her decision to become an escort like her big sister plays like it was made overnight. Confrontations that should come up, such as one about Lynn stealing Carol’s sugar daddy, never happen—we don’t even get an explanation as to why Lynn starts working for the escort service, when she’s clearly not cut out for it. It’s a rush job produced during a time when TV movies about prostitutes/escorts/call girls seemed to be released at least once per week, meeting Americans’ deep-seated need to look down on someone who’s just trying to make a living.
Original airdate: November 11, 1979