Anticipating backlash for reviewing the 1990 monster rom-com hit, “Pretty Woman,” let me preface it by pointing out that “Pretty Woman” is a bona fide Cinderella archetype. This archetype resonates off the charts with the world’s women—more than 700 versions of the Cinderella story exist, spanning the globe. The first version of Cinderella was found in ninth-century China. It’s also the Pygmalion archetype.
Which is arguably why “Pretty Woman” is the fourth most profitable romantic comedy in film history. It has a worldwide box office gross of $463,406,268. Let me repeat—four hundred and sixty-three MILLION dollars. Any film making that much money warrants talking about, because by definition it means that just about everybody on the planet has watched it and fueled the fire.
“Pretty Woman” also famously features the mother of all makeover scenes. There are numerous TV shows dedicated exclusively to makeovers. People love them. Need them. No one is completely immune to the power of the makeover. It’s hard for people to resist the idea that changing your appearance can change your life.
So, yes, the lady is a tramp—but we can still talk about the cultural icon that is “Pretty Woman” and discuss what lessons it offers. And don’t worry; eventually I’ll say why “Pretty Woman”—an admittedly very fun movie—is a bad idea.
A Bit of Trivia
“Pretty Woman” was a dark-horse hit of Triple Crown magnitude back in 1990. It’s one of those lightning-in-a-bottle movies that defies remakes or imitation, catching the right two stars at the perfect point in their star trajectories.
Most people haven’t made the connection that “Pretty Woman” was prefaced, eight years prior, by “An Officer and a Gentleman,” which concluded with Richard Gere’s officer-gentleman arriving at a paper factory in his shiny white naval officer suit, literally sweeping the poor, working girl (Debra Winger) off her feet, and fulfilling the time-honored female fantasy of being rescued by a knight in shining armor. “Pretty Woman” concludes with Richard Gere arriving at the poor *ahem* working girl’s apartment via shiny white limousine and climbing up that modern Rapunzel equivalent (the fire escape) to rescue her.
One dusky LA evening, in a fairytale Hollywood replete with a homeless guy as Greek chorus (“Welcome to Hollywood! What’s yo’ dream?”), two individuals meet and make a “business deal.”
Vivian (Julia Roberts), a newbie call girl struggling to make a living, spies a hopelessly lost, stick-shift-clueless, immaculately dressed silver fox of a man in a Lotus Esprit driving by. He’s corporate shark billionaire Edward Lewis (Gere), the ultimate allergic-to-meaningful-relationships player.
For the price of (the delightfully haggled) $3,000, Vivian will play house in Edward’s penthouse suite at the prestigious Beverly Wilshire hotel for six days, while Edward oversees the acquisition (and selling-off for parts) of a shipyard owned by one James Morse (Ralph Bellamy). Vivian’s duties as Edward’s “employee” will require her to accompany him to various functions. It will enhance his status to show up with drop-dead-gorgeous arm candy.
The hawk-eyed, persnickety, male Mary Poppins manager of the hotel, Barnard Thompson (Hector Elizondo in a delighfully memorable role), spotting the still somewhat trampy-looking Vivian, is not even a little bit fooled by the euphemism of “niece” she uses to describe her relationship to Edward. In fact, it’s Barney’s idea that she describe herself thusly, Mr. Lewis being a treasured customer, and because “things that go on in other hotels don’t go on at the Beverly Wilshire.”
Edward’s business associates are also not fooled by the artifice, especially Edward’s lawyer Stuckey (Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld,” doing such an outstanding job of acting evil that I’ve hated him ever since), and also the exceedingly upper-class Mr. Morse and his grandson, David (Alex Hyde-White). They find absolutely adorable the fact that Vivian, dressed like a princess, is openly clueless about fine dining, and her attempt to eat escargot results in a slippery snail shell wanging across the dining room.
What might have started off as a business deal quickly reveals itself as powerful, undeniable chemistry, and Edward and “Miss Vivian” (as Barney comes to call her) find themselves falling in love.
Part of the reason this all works is because the elite, sophisticated, only-child Edward has obviously never had prior dealings with a street hooker, and isn’t altogether certain how to behave, ordering her up champagne and strawberries. Which is slightly adorable.
The second instance of adorableness arrives when Edward, seeing Vivian holding something behind her back, suspects drugs, is about to evict her, and then discovers that she’s holding a little container of dental floss. “I had all those strawberry seeds … and, and—you shouldn’t neglect your gums!”
Bird With a Broken Wing
At the core of the film is the piteous image of teary-eyed Vivian, in danger of being kicked out of the hotel, holding up the wads of cash that Edward gave her to go buy elegant clothing. She shows Barney the hotel manager that she’s tried very hard to buy clothes, but snooty, mean-girl, high-end saleswomen shamed her to the core and refused her service.
Who can resist that? Nobody can resist that. Everybody melts, including normally all-business Barney, who immediately comes to the rescue.
Barney is then followed up by Edward, who funds the ultimate, million-dollar female-fantasy shopping spree, and who falls easily into the role of the only thing possibly on par with the actual purchasing of clothes—the attentive boyfriend who helps pick out ensembles with great relish.
Ask any woman in the Western hemisphere what she remembers about “Pretty Woman,” and she’ll be able to list the black dinner gown, the brown-and-white polka-dotted polo-match outfit, the red opera gown, and the quarter-million-dollar necklace. And the improvised bit Gere came up with, to snap the blue velvet case shut on Roberts’s fingers when she tries to touch the necklace, eliciting Roberts’s effervescent, quarter-million-dollar laugh.
And, finally Vivian’s revealed via the makeover to be a stunning, dazzling princess (flooring Edward completely), and Edward literally rolls out the red carpet and showers her with the finer things of life: taking the limo to the G6 private luxury jet, to the opera, where Vivian’s virginal artistic senses get to enjoy “La Traviata” (conveniently the tale of a harlot who falls in love with a man of great wealth). The entire movie audience knows—watching experienced opera-buff Edward observing newly minted opera-enthusiast Vivian getting swept away and welling up with tears—that he’s a goner.
Implications and Ramifications
More than a modern Cinderella tale bisected by a major makeover montage, “Pretty Woman” contributes to society’s moral downslide by facilitating and encouraging traditionally taboo female (and in this day and age, that includes young girls) sexual fantasies. Some would argue that that is liberation and therefore good.
It’s safe to say that the same women who love “Pretty Woman” also go crazy for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” because both allow women to have socially approved outlets for fantasies that traditional societies considered deviant. Both depict soft-porn versions of deviance, minus the smut of the real-world alternatives.
Consider: In both cases, the male lead is a highly attractive, exceptionally wealthy, impeccably dressed control freak. It’s safe to say that this appeals to some women’s desire to be taken care of (among other things) in a safe setting. In reality, if Edward had had a taste for paid sex, he would never have played house and there would be none of the contrived innocence that’s foisted upon us by the movie.
This romanticizing of prostitution makes it actually look fun. We’re already way past that now; prostitutes have now been legitimized as “sex workers.” “Pretty Woman” whitewashes the inevitable drug addiction, bondage, and physical abuse that is par for the course for real prostitutes, thereby basically helping to morally legitimize the world’s oldest profession and expunge the shame of earlier societies. Shame for what? Taking money for having sex with married women’s husbands. Some say this is progress.
Moral Relativism Is Everywhere
What other characters can you think of involved in illegal professions who make it look fun? The high-school-teaching, meth-cooking wizard Walter White in “Breaking Bad”; the “principled” serial killer Dexter Morgan in “Dexter”; the suburban mom and marijuana entrepreneur Nancy Botwin in “Weeds”; and “The Sopranos” La Cosa Nostra boss-who-sees-a-therapist Tony Soprano. That’s a whole boatload of moral relativism floating around, dropping depth charges on formerly clear delineations of good and evil.
Simply put, “Pretty Woman” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” facilitate a socially acceptable indulgence of deviance, of living fantasies vicariously through the main characters, without being exposed to all the nastiness of the real-world sex trade—and real men. And if that’s what society wants, Hollywood will provide it.
But which came first, the chicken or the egg? People might want to put the brakes on all the rampant finger-pointing, denial, and shrill, hypocritical projecting. Sure, we can claim that Hollywood is to blame for all the evils of the West, because there’s a large degree of truth to that. But Hollywood is also show business, pure and simple, and the business of America is business, and business is supply and demand, and if we’d all spent more time in, say, church instead of spending four hundred and sixty-three million dollars watching “Pretty Woman,” we might not have slid down quite this far into our current moral morass. We might want to try owning that we all contribute to the world’s current state of debauchery.
Alright, that’s enough of the soapbox. “Pretty Woman” remains one of the most enjoyable rom-com movies ever made. It’s just sometimes good to examine what’s really going on with these things.
On a positive note, the reason we respond to the Cinderella archetype is that when societies are healthy and the polarities of male and female are equally balanced (and not in the middle of a identity crisis), then feminine and masculine look a lot like what these movies present. Traditionally, the man was a powerful warrior willing to lay down his life for his wife, and she in turn gave her life over to his protection.
“Pretty Woman” is a story of second chances and the grace of getting elevated from a life of depravity into a life of luxury and beauty—due, ultimately, to compassion. So even though this movie allows women to indulge themselves in ways that haven’t helped our culture, it also suggests that those who fall from grace can redeem their lives. As the Greek Chorus says, “Some dreams come true, some don’t; but keep on dreamin’ —this is Hollywood.”
Director: Garry Marshall
Starring: Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Laura San Giacamo, Hector Elizondo, Jason Alexander, Ralph Bellamy, Alex Hyde-White
Running Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: March 23, 1990
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars