Pretty Woman is without a doubt one of the most revolutionary, iconic rom-coms in the genre. It was released in 1990 to some pretty harsh reviews and currently holds a 62% on Rotten Tomatoes (if you care about that kind of thing). Despite the criticism (some valid, some vapid), Pretty Woman went on to gross over a half-billion dollars worldwide. It also helped propel Julia Roberts onto the Hollywood A-list.
I can acknowledge that for this review I watched Pretty Woman with new, more mature eyes, as I try to do with every rom-com I loved in the ’90s. Did I find aspects of it problematic? Yes, of course I did. I’m not entirely sure this movie would fly with audiences today – the hooker with a heart of gold, needing and wanting to be saved from her lowly status by the wealthy, emotionally unavailable prince. I would like to think that modern views on sex work have evolved since 1990, and no one would use the term “hooker” in 2019 (though sadly, I’m sure plenty of people still do), but I also found that there are some aspects of Pretty Woman that felt fairly progressive.
Vivian Ward (Roberts) realizes her job is not ideal, but she makes the rules. She says who, when and where… and how much. She gets tested, she insists on condoms… she even flosses after strawberries and champagne, because you know, gum health is super important. There are moments in this movie that still feel uncomfortably relevant – the belief that sex workers are not people, that they’re essentially open and available for anyone, whether they want it or not. Pretty Woman occasionally touches on these issues, but ultimately the darker aspects of sex work remain glossed over, probably because this is still a Garry Marshall directed rom-com.
When Edward Lewis (Richard Gere), a corporate raider on business in L.A., gets lost on his way to Beverly Hills, he is approached by a prostitute named Vivian, who is willing to give him directions to his hotel in exchange for cash. Edward agrees, and by the time they’ve’ reached Edward’s hotel the two of them have bonded enough for Edward to invite her upstairs to his room – the penthouse. After a night of champagne, revealing phobias, I Love Lucy and, of course, sex, Edward propositions Vivian. Spend the week with him as his employee/date, and she’ll walk away with $3000 (the original title of the film when it was more of a gritty, dark drama). Vivian agrees with gusto and the journey to love begins. Through Edward, Vivian realizes her potential, and through Vivian, Edward finds his conscience. The movie is sure to remind us as to just how similar Edward and Vivian really are (“We both screw people for money.”).
Pretty Woman is formulaic and overrun with rom-com tropes… though it’s possible a few of those tropes originated in this film. But it’s also propelled by Julia Roberts’s performance. She’s the Cool Girl, adorably quirky and smart, despite some of her naivety in terms of social status and class. Vivian comes across as calm and confident, but her uncertainties are evident in her constant fidgeting. Roberts is energetic and charming in the role, whereas Gere is appealing but subdued as Edward. He simply seems tired of his path in life, despite having essentially everything he could possibly want. Gere and Roberts play well off of each other. Their chemistry is palpable and fuels the movie, making it easier to believe in the Cinderella fantasy.
While the chemistry between the two leads is essential to any rom-com, the supporting cast is just as important to keep it from feeling bland or one-dimensional. Thankfully the cast of Pretty Woman is just as fun to watch as Gere and Roberts. There is a subtle, but wonderful, performance by Héctor Elizondo as Barney Thompson, the hotel manager and Vivian’s “fairy godmother” and Laura San Giacomo is extremely funny as Kit, Vivian’s loving, wisecracking roommate and friend. Every fairytale also needs a villain, and that’s where Jason Alexander comes in, skeeving up the screen as Edward’s shady lawyer, Philip Stuckey. Keep an eye out for a quick appearance by Hank Azaria as well!
There is nothing realistic about Pretty Woman. It’s a fairytale through and through, and if you can overlook some of its glaring issues, it’s something of an endearing romance. If nothing else, it’s had an incredible impact on pop culture, from Roberts’s shopping spree and subsequent takedown of some snotty saleswomen (“You work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. Huge!”), to her iconic red evening dress. The movie has been referenced, parodied and paid homage to more times than I can count. Even 2019’s wonderful rom-com, Long Shot, borrows quite a bit from the Pretty Woman experience.
Honestly, sometimes it’s nice to just turn off your brain and get lost in a mindless fantasy, and that’s what Pretty Woman is.