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.