Pretty Woman at 30: conservatism, materialism and glowing star power

There are a lot of fantasies at play in Pretty Woman, the hit romantic comedy that transformed Julia Roberts into one of the biggest stars in Hollywood virtually overnight 30 years ago. It’s a fantasy about a humble Georgia girl getting her fairytale ending. It’s a fantasy about upward mobility on the streets and salons of Beverly Hills. It’s a fantasy about turning Roberts herself into a modern-day Audrey Hepburn, prim and elegant and absolutely certain to know which type of fork is appropriate for each course. (Count the tines.)

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But the most unlikely fantasy of all is Roberts playing a Hollywood Boulevard streetwalker who really isn’t that kind of gal. Roberts plays Vivian Ward, an 11th-grade dropout who lives in a flophouse with Kit (Laura San Giacomo), her irreverent best friend and prostitution guru. The film makes it clear that she’s new to sex trade, that she doesn’t do drugs, that she doesn’t have a pimp and that she enjoys complete agency over the questions of “who”, “when” and “how much”. Late in the film, after Vivian has spent a week at the Beverly Wilshire with a rich client, Kit tells her: “You sure don’t fit in on the Boulevard lookin’ like you do. Not that you ever did.”

Like all the classic Old Hollywood romantic comedies, Pretty Woman is about a man and a woman who are locked into a flirty but contentious struggle to get on equal footing, with the woman usually at a disadvantage. Director Garry Marshall makes vintage entertainment an obsession for Vivian, who guffaws infectiously at old I Love Lucy episodes and falls asleep watching Hepburn and Cary Grant in Charade. Marshall and his screenwriter, JF Lawton, are preoccupied by turning Vivian into a picture of innocence – not a sex worker who hits the lottery, but a naif who discovers the proper lady she always was.

And it’s not like master-of-the-universe Edward Lewis was out looking for a call girl, either, even though he’s played by Richard Gere, who had a star-making turn himself as a gorgeous, narcissistic sex worker in American Gigolo. Edward is just an out-of-towner looking for directions, so his intentions are pure, too. So Vivian and Edward’s partnership starts with a more traditional romcom meet-cute and chemistry takes over from there. The two bond over their transactional natures: as someone who buys and butchers distressed companies for a living, Edward appreciates Vivian’s talent for hard-nosed negotiation. She gouges him for directions and gouges him again with rates for her hourly, overnight and weekly services.

Edward’s transactional nature so defines his life that he’s nearly incapable of taking pleasure in it. He was an only child who hated his father so much that crushing his business was an early priority. Vivian gives him the uncomplicated companionship he needs to get through a tough week of acquisition talks in Los Angeles — he seems pleased with himself to have discovered someone like her, who doesn’t seem to need him like his ex-wife or the girlfriend currently moving out of his apartment. He wants the best: the penthouse suite, the best booth at the opera, the escargot at a fancy restaurant. Pretty Woman is about getting him to care about something that doesn’t involve him reaching into his wallet.

But really, money is everything in Pretty Woman. The film may have come out in early 1990, but for anthropological purposes, it’s as 1980s as Donkey Kong, Bananarama and the Rubik’s Cube. The first utterances of the script reference a savings and loan officer, and Edward picks up Vivian in a 1989 silver Lotus Esprit that he can’t drive. The most famous sequences of the film are Vivian shopping on Rodeo Drive with Edward’s cash and credit card, the camera ogling brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and BMW. Aside from Edward’s sleazy lawyer Phillip (Jason Alexander), the biggest villains here are the shopkeepers who get one look at Vivian in her Hollywood Boulevard get-up and say, “I don’t think we have anything for you.”

Vivian’s rejection at this salon paves the way for a sweet comeuppance later on, when she takes her business elsewhere, but the film secretly sides with the snobs. It implies that she really isn’t a good enough person to deserve high-end service, so it’s up to the hotel manager, played by Marshall favorite Héctor Elizondo, to give her lessons in refinement. Pretty Woman wants the audience to see Elizondo as the ultimate gentleman – and the actor is charming enough to oblige – but in actuality, it’s an embarrassment to have her at his hotel. That she turns out to be a prize pupil surprises him, but he’s the gatekeeper to Edward’s world and she needs to learn how to be rich.

And yet for all its risible qualities, including a third-act sexual assault attempt, star power takes it much further than it has any right to go. Roberts makes a glamorous Cinderella, but she’s also blessedly unpretentious, given to little bursts of laughter and salty language even after she’s been through charm school. The bit where Edward surprises Vivian by snapping a necklace case on her fingers is an all-time movie moment for a reason: Roberts looks impossibly elegant in the shoulder-less red dress and white satin gloves, but she can’t suppress the yelping laugh that connects her to common folk. Gere’s tendency to underact, occasionally to the point to somnambulism, makes him the perfect counterpoint to the VistaVision bigness of Roberts’ charm, like a diamond that only pops when it’s offset by a much simpler setting.

There’s every reason to resist the gross materialism and conservative sexual politics of Pretty Woman, but Roberts makes Vivian’s ascendence to the upper crust a victory for the little guy. Being happy for her is as easy as being happy for a friend who hit the lottery.