Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Pretty Woman is a romantic comedy film released in 1990, and it was directed by Garry Marshall. Written by J.F. Lawton, the film depicts an initial business partnership between a sex worker in Beverly Hills and her corporate client who hires her to accompany him for the week to various social functions. The film stars Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Ralph Bellamy in his final film appearance, Jason Alexander and Hector Elizondo. The film's title is based on the song 'Oh, Pretty Woman' by Roy Orbison. Originally conceived as a much darker drama, the film was rewritten as a romantic comedy after it was picked up by Touchstone Pictures, which was a subsidiary of Disney. The film is also well known for its soundtrack with a number of hit singles featured in the movie. Despite pretty mixed reviews when it was first released, the film was a huge hit with audiences with global takings in excess of $463 million. It even earned Roberts a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars. Today, the film is considered a cultural milestone with a Broadway adaptation opening in 2018. Along with When Harry Met Sally, the film is considered the start of the explosion in popularity for rom-coms in the nineties.
What's It About?
Edward Lewis is a corporate businessman from New York, specialising in buying companies before dismantling them and selling off the assets. He has travelled to Los Angeles to work on his latest project but has journeyed on his own after his girlfriend leaves him. Leaving a glitzy party early in his lawyer's Lotus, Edward somehow finds himself lost on Hollywood Boulevard despite struggling to drive the manual car. Desperate for directions, he pulls over in the red light district and asks a prostitute, Vivian Ward, for directions to his hotel. She agrees to drive him there (for a fee, naturally) and Edward impulsively hires her for the night.
The next morning, Edward approaches Vivian with a proposal - he asks her to pose as his girlfriend at a series of social events while he is in town conducting business in exchange for $3000 and a new wardrobe. Vivian jumps at the chance but soon discovers that it may be a little trickier than she first thought after quickly realising how she is perceived by others, especially by Edward's sleazy lawyer Phillip Stuckey. Can she discover the inner 'lady' within herself as well as keep her relationship with Edward strictly professional?
What's to Like?
Let's cut to the chase here - this film is essentially My Fair Lady dripping in that late-Eighties finesse and there is little disguising this fact. But that doesn't mean you should dismiss it out of hand. Far from it, in fact - the film benefits from wonderful performances from both Roberts and Gere who generate a palpable chemistry on screen. Roberts delivers one of the performances of her career, playing outside her good-girl image to portray a sassy street worker with attitude for days - not entirely unlike her Oscar-winning performance as Erin Brockovich. Crucially, she wins you over so you end up rooting for her as she clashes head-on with Edward's snobbish companions and colleagues. Gere may have less to do as the stone-hearted executive slowly melting for this woman but he still does well as a prototypical Christian Grey-type character. Except without all the bondage gear, obviously.
While the two leads may steal all the plaudits, their supporting cast deserve some acknowledgement as well. Elizondo briefly appears as a kind-hearted hotel manager giving Vivian some pointers while Jason Alexander is frighteningly effective as Edward's friend and lawyer Philip, displaying a nasty streak that quickly turns the primarily comic actor into a truly despicable piece of work. The soundtrack also has the same Eighties gloss that the film itself has and while the film might struggle at times to fulfil its comedic side of the rom-com equation, the film's narrative and pace sweep you up into this fluffiest of parables. It's an easy film to watch with little in the way of complications or subplots and sometimes, you need that in a film.
- Gere was one of many actors approached for the role and despite screen testing with Roberts, was ready to turn the part down. However, Roberts handed him a note that read "please say yes" and he then immediately accepted the role. Gere also tried to inject some of his ideas about the character into the film but director Marshall pulled him to one side and said "In this movie, one of you moves and one of you does not. Guess which one you are?"
- The necklace that Vivian wears in the opera scene legitimately cost $250'000 and required an armed security guard on set stood next to the director during the shoot. Incidentally, the moment when Edward snaps the box shut was improvised by Gere and Roberts' reaction was genuine.
- The film's script was originally much darker in tone with Vivian addicted to cocaine and later discovering her room-mate Kit dead from an overdose. Then-president of Disney Jeffrey Katzenberg later ordered the film to be re-written as a romantic comedy and the working title 3000 (based on the amount Edward hires Vivian for) to be changed to Pretty Woman after the Roy Orbison song featured on the soundtrack.
What's Not to Like?
My biggest problem with Pretty Woman is that I never really bought what it was selling me. I get that we are rooting for Vivian to overcome the odds and get her man but it just didn't feel genuine to me, despite the chemistry between them. I never understood what Vivian saw in Edward who, if we're honest here, is a fairly unlikeable character that happily treats women as a commodity or fashion accessory to be seen with. Of course, he doesn't stay that way but for his part, I couldn't see what drew Edward to Vivian - an acid-tongued hooker with an obvious contempt for the conventions and people within his social bubble. I needed something more believable than just the attractiveness of the two stars to make me fall for the film's central romance.
I also didn't find the film hugely amusing - it has its moments but it lacks the comedic punch of a true rom-com like Notting Hill or There's Something About Mary. Put simply, it didn't make me laugh. I felt it worked best as a straight-forward romance, even if the story is one we are overly familiar with. Perhaps the most important thing about the film is that unlike so many so-called 'feel-good' films, the movie does inspire a genuine sense of optimism. The film is rooted in the fact that the story feels like a fairy-tale and ties it in with that often-baseless hope that so many people in Hollywood have of being discovered and turned into a star against all the odds. It just about works thanks mainly to Gere and Roberts' chemistry but without such stellar quality leading the film, I'm not sure this film would have stood the test of time this well.
Should I Watch It?
It may be Pygmalion in a push-up bra but Pretty Woman still works as a feel-good romance due to the electric central performances by Roberts and Gere. What it lacks in humour, it more than makes up for in heart and fantasy and it wins you over with its tale of two improbable lovers somehow meeting in the middle. It's also easy to understand how this film sparked a boom period for rom-coms over the next decade, catering more towards a female audience largely ignored by many of its competitors.
Great For: female viewers, rom-com fans, Julia Roberts, revelling in Eighties excess
Not So Great For: actual prostitutes, anyone looking for a comedy, residents and workers in Beverly Hills
What Else Should I Watch?
Roberts has had a string of rom-coms to her name including the aforementioned Notting Hill, My Best Friend's Wedding and Runaway Bride which reunited her with Gere with more muted success the second time around. Of course, Gere is no stranger to starring in romantic roles with films such as American Gigolo already under his belt by the time this film came along as well as subsequent appearances in the period fantasy First Knight and musical Shall We Dance. But both actors are capable of much more and are happy to branch out into other genres - Gere found enormous success tapping his toes in the musical movie Chicago while Roberts finally won her deserved Oscar as Erin Brockovich.
Rom-coms today are often seen as lesser films and the hype that accompanied such releases has long since died down. But in the Nineties and Noughties, we were flooded with them with classics like Four Weddings And A Funeral and Love, Actually to more serious affairs like Sleepless In Seattle to utter dreck like The Accidental Husband. Fans might also want to consider the likes of Silver Linings Playbook which is as accurate a portrayal of grief and mental health issues as I think I've ever seen or for something romantic with a real weepie element, try PS, I Love You which reduced my Better Half to a blubbing wreck.
Laura San Giacomo
Kit De Luca
Release Date (UK)
1st June, 1990
Academy Award Nominee
Best Leading Actress (Roberts)
© 2021 Benjamin Cox