Male prostitutes, like their female counterparts, aren’t ones to spend time; they mean to sell it. They work the corners kicking around passing time to the naked eye, but those exposed to prostitution in their neighborhoods would know a loiterer from a prostitute if they saw one. The 1996 feature length from director Scott Silver, johns, sheds a romanticized light on the life of a male prostitute living in Los Angeles. Arriving at a time when male sex workers were virtually taboo, johns plays a role in the conversation surrounding the contemporary Midnight Cowboy.
While not much different or any less unfortunate than Rizzo and Joe Buck, johns does its job of providing a very 90’s-ish investigation into the lives of the men from which the title borrows its name. “Johns” is slang for male prostitutes, but it also happens to be the names of about 80% of the characters in the film. This dour joke represents the kind of “ha ha… yeesh” uneasiness that hangs in the air throughout the film’s contained journey. Johns plays its cards relatively straight, not shying away from the established stereotypes of male sex workers. The most common stereotype of the hustler is as a sexy but tragic figure. This stereotype reveals both a fascination with the hustler as a sexual object and sadness or disdain with his situation and life style. In johns, these stereotypes avoid the hetero “tragic stud” in favor for casual, sex slinging homosexuals. The results are still predictably downtrodden, yet unpredictably executed.
While prostitution is becoming increasingly legal (albeit very gradually) in the United States nowadays, its tricks and trades remain as ageless and unchanged as the profession itself. Male prostitutes are often beaten, verbally abused, cheated out of cash, and left without a sense of home or family. Working with stories he got from real life, Silver draws an immediate and close circle of johns from which his narrative operates. In a world where these co-workers of the street spend hours on end with each other, its just as likely that they’d disappear from each other for weeks at a time. In this same world, johns tries to tell a story of honest friendship between young Donner (Lukas Haas) and the bastardly John (David Arquette). Can two homosexual prostitutes just be friends?
For the film, which romanticizes this intense lifestyle to a certain extent, the answer is a difficult yes. While decidedly less competitive than the female prostitutes portrayed, the johns in johns come off as schoolyard boys; they tease each other and they pal around, but they’re aware of the gridiron they’re all stuck on. The customers are off-putting yet inoffensive. Nobody seems any less pathetic than the last guy, despite the size of their wallet. Compared to clientele of heterosexual sex workers, the results are realistically less dramatic and even less intimate. Johns captures this essence without romanticism for the better.
Its no American Gigolo and its no Hung either, which is an admirable strength for a movie like johns. It gets its message across as uncomfortably comfortable as it likes. Midnight Cowboy being its not-so-distant grandfather, Scott Silver takes the street spirit of “it’ll get better” and grinds it down to the pavement from which that hope comes. There’s heart everywhere, even in the dead ends of America, and johns does a respectable job of proving that.