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Pretty Woman

****
1990

‘…steps away from all slapstick potential, and serves up a story that’s finely balanced between male and female fantasy…’

An unheralded hit of nuclear proportions back in 1990, Pretty Woman is one of these lightning-in-a-bottle films that defies remakes or imitation; I did read the proposed script for Pretty Woman 2, and it wasn’t pretty at all. Catching the right two stars at just the right point, it’s a rom-com where the com is surprisingly sophisticated, and the rom is remarkably woke. Those seeking a hard-hitting expose of the business of prostitution should look elsewhere, but Gary Marshall’s celebrated film is a perfect film for Valentine’s Day, served up on Amazon Prime in the UK.

In a constantly sunny Hollywood several degress from reality, two people make a business arrangement. Vivian (Julia Roberts) is a call-girl of little experience, dragged into the profession by her garrulous friend Kit (Laura San Giacomo). A chance meeting brings her into the orbit of corporate asset stripper Edward (Richard Gere) as he struggles to master a stick-shift sports car on a dusky LA evening; they agree that Vivian will keep him company over the next week while Edward masterminds the destruction of a munitions firm owned by James Morse (Ralph Bellamy). The deception does not fool the manager of the hotel Edward is staying in, played by Hector Elizondo, nor Edward’s business associates, namely the crude Stuckey (Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander). But this temporary marriage of convenience does work for those who contrived it, namely Vivian and Edward who find themselves falling in love.

Modern blockbusters are all star, fabricated franchise tentpoles; by comparison, Pretty Woman seems as natural and spontaneous as a school play. Roberts was an unfamiliar presence, and her naturalness works wonders for Vivian; together with Kat, they strikes a blow for sex-workers by constantly exposing the hypocrisy of those around them in a defiant, rebellious way. It’s only the minor characters like Stuckey who sit in judgement; Barnard Thompson, the hotel’s manager, quickly sees the truth in what’s going on. Marshall steps away from all slapstick potential, and serves up a story that’s finely balanced between male and female fantasy. Though Vivian, Edward learns to act with kindness and mercy, and to experience the world around him. Edward’s twit-wealth allows Vivian the fantasy of unlimited shopping power, but the experience is not fulfilling; when he self-righteously claims that he’s never treated her as a prostitute, she tartly responds that he just did. Perhaps in the version mooted with Albert Brooks and Diane Lane, directed by Werner Herzog, that might have been where the story ended, but not here.

“What happens when the prince rescues the princess?’ asks Edward as he climbs Vivian’s fire-escape in a finale lightly drizzled with Roxette. ‘She rescues him right back.’ is her snappy answer. For thirty years since, almost all rom-coms have considered the issue of male-fear-of-commitment as the key thing to be overcome in relationships, but Pretty Woman resolves it by equating it with vertigo; reducing male fears to something to get over with a little female help. And while this may be a shallow film in terms of considering serious issues in a lighthearted way;  with Erin Brokovich and Time Out of Mind, both stars have ably demonstrated since that they can get serious about real-life social issues when required. For those keen to avoid the racist interludes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Pretty Woman offers a similarly deft alternative, packing off the seedy side of life for discussion another day and coming up with something fresh, vital and ridiculously wholesome instead.

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  1. Reporting for duty, sir’s & ma’am!

    I regret to inform all interested that the Space Time Continuum here at Ol’10’s blog is permanently broken. Even taking the drastic step of pouring half a can of rockstar energy drink into the flux capacitor wasn’t enough to warp up the positron levels. We’re dead in the water.

    I called a specialist I know, a little guy named Lucky and he said even Warwick couldn’t fix a blog that reviews both Lepreconn & Pretty Woman. Something about unknown power of the stars being greater than reality? Anyway, I tried.

    I suspect this means that our plans to impeach Ol’10 are now stymied. I’m going to blame it all on his warlock powers that he learned from Crowley when raising Nessie from the hellgate in the house next to his.

  2. I always avoided this film, in part, I suspect, because of the twit-wealth involved, but because I felt like I’d seen it . . . Barbara played the kooky hustler role a couple of times (though with far less seriousness) and there was that old french variation with young Shirley McClaine and Jack Lemon – title of which I can’t be bothered to look up at the moment, but this one looks like it was more sincere. Maybe I’ve been unfair. I wouldn’t be the first time.

    • I’m not sure that many prostitution comedies hit the mark for me; Irma La Douce I think is the one you mean. I think Disney’s involvement here with what was originally a dark script is the key; like Top Gun, the result is very different from the original intentions, but simplifies a bitter sweet story to such an extend that it’s charming. Give it a go!

      • YES that’s it, Irma La Douce — I wonder if prostitution (benign and otherwise) feels pretty much familiar ground for probably any but the most successful of actors.

  3. I love this film. You could guess I would love this film. I love this review, as well–it captures what is great about Pretty Woman, and why it’s a step above other rom-coms, and why it holds up so well.

    My favorite line:

    “Modern blockbusters are all star, fabricated franchise tentpoles; by comparison, Pretty Woman seems as natural and spontaneous as a school play.”

    This is a film we’ll be watching and writing about 100 years from now.

    Well done.

    • Thank you! I think this is a classic, and was surprised how gentle and refined it was. It’s warm and fuzzy, and not as problematic as I expected. Felt good at the time, but to revamp an old cliche, they simply do not make them like this any more. And yes, I think people will still dig this long after we’re all gone…

  4. So obviously I just replied to Alex’s comment unaware that you were talking amongst yourselves. It did concern me yesterday that my generous offer to smash Bookstooge face in might accidentally get attached to the wrong commenter…will need to tread carefully!

  5. Is this going to be romcom week?

    I have to confess, this is one megahit from the period that I never saw at the time, or later. A big gap for me. I’ve been curious about seeing it at some point. Maybe I’ll get around to it as you say it hasn’t dated that badly.

  6. An excellent review (how amazing!) Phil took me to the cinema in Milton Keynes when it came out, I lost a contact lens crying at the end and he bought me the bluray a couple of Valentine’s days ago. Huge Yep from me.

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