starring Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Ralph Bellamy, Hector Elizondo
screenplay by J.F. Lawton
directed by Garry Marshall
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Well, I'm willing to admit this much: Pretty Woman has a ridiculous premise. Corporate raider Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) buys up struggling companies and liquidates their assets. While in Los Angeles planning the purchase of ship manufacturer Morse Industries, he gets lost on the way back to his Beverly Hills hotel and stops on Hollywood Blvd. to ask for directions. This is where he meets Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts), a hooker desperate to pay off a few debts. She subsequently drives him to his hotel; as Edward recently broke up with his girlfriend in New York and feels bad about making Vivian take the bus home, he invites her to spend the night. They bargain over her price, arrive at the figure of three-hundred dollars, and sleep together. In the morning, Edward has a phone conversation with his lawyer, Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), who suggests he have dinner with James Morse, the owner and founder of Morse Industries, and that he bring a date to keep things social. Still on the phone, Edward walks in on Vivian singing along to Prince in the bathtub and offers to pay her for the entire week to be at his "beck-and-call."
Vivian is baffled. "You're a rich, good-looking guy, you could get a million girls for free," she says. "I want a professional," he replies, "I don't need any romantic hassles this week." That second part makes a certain amount sense, I guess, but if he really wanted a "professional," shouldn't he have set his sights a little higher than Vivian? When they dine together at a fancy French restaurant, not only does she not know which fork to use, she accidentally shoots her escargot across the room (one of the many moments from the film that became instantly iconic thanks to media saturation). Vivian does an Arsenio Hall hoot at a polo match and at the opera she tells an elderly patron "it was so good [she] almost peed [her] pants." These moments have a crude appeal, of course, but you'd think that Vivian's severe ineptness at manoeuvring through high society would cause Edward no shortage of embarrassment and defeat the purpose of obtaining her escort services.
There are a couple of justifications for Edward's apparently faulty logic, however. Morse (Ralph Bellamy) and his grandson, whom Morse has been grooming to take over the family business, are suitably charmed by Vivian. After she shows some confusion about the proper fork to use, Morse breaks the ice by saying he never could figure out which utensil goes with what. Perhaps Edward predicted beforehand that the relatively 'New Money' Morses would recognize themselves in Vivian and thus view him as less threatening by proxy. Alas, Edward hardly seems that Machiavellian. Better but still inadequate is the notion that Edward despises his friends and lifestyle and Vivian is his subtle way of demonstrating that contempt. Indeed, he doesn't have much respect for Philip. At the beginning of the film, he more or less steals Philip's Lotus Espirit and nearly destroys the transmission in the process. And, tellingly, it's while he's on the phone with him that Edward decides to hire Vivian. Also, he clearly takes some pleasure in the way she wilfully or accidentally subverts social etiquette, though again, the character simply doesn't come across as dark or diabolical enough to have planned on her lack of social graces. We don't have any real indication that he objectifies Vivian to such an extent--and this in fact creates problems later on. His arc becomes less dramatic. It's not that satisfying to see him change because he essentially started out rejecting any attitudes which would have made him unsympathetic in the first place.
If you want to hate Pretty Woman, I believe the ridiculousness of its premise is the best reason to do it. I'm sympathetic to many of the other complaints--that it sanitizes prostitution, that it's misogynistic in design, and that its attitude towards materialism is rather confused--but they don't much bother me. I will also concede that the film strikes a couple of bum notes in the homestretch. Edward asks the hotel manager (Hector Elizondo) to return an expensive necklace for him and the manager responds that it must be difficult to let go of something so beautiful--meaning Vivian, of course. This is counter-productive: just minutes earlier, Edward correctly claimed that he never treated Vivian like a prostitute and now the film explicitly objectifies her through a jewelled necklace. Furthermore, let us not forget that the very last shot of Pretty Woman is a Magical Negro walking across the street, asking nobody in particular, "What's your dream? This is Hollywood! Everybody's got a dream!" It's a fairytale ending by way of racial caricature and I'm embarrassed that my sense of social enlightenment isn't strong enough to resist it.
In researching this review, I made the mistake of reading the draft of J.F. Lawton's screenplay that sold to the studio, titled $3000. It, too, missteps late in the game by unsuccessfully cribbing the finale of Midnight Cowboy. But it cannily eliminates virtually all the major problems you could possibly have with Pretty Woman. You may have heard that Vivian was conceived as a crack addict and indeed she is more likable in the finished film. Moreover, Lawton turns Edward into a real reptile. He hasn't broken up with his girlfriend and picks up Vivian without pretense. He's looking for sex. As in the film, he contracts her for a week, but it's first and foremost as a fuck-buddy--the dinner and socializing are secondary, and if she isn't as good at that sort of thing as most of the girls he "hires," he figures he's getting her at a fraction of their asking price, anyway. Plus, like the Pretty Woman Edward, he sees Vivian as free of romantic entanglements. This is nevertheless mainly beside the point: What he wants is some action and companionship before heading back to his girlfriend in New York.
Although he's an asshole to her, she lives in luxury and more importantly she's vulnerable: she doesn't know what it's like to fall in love and wants to find out. There's a very haunting scene in the script where she says "I love you" to his hand while he's asleep and Lawton writes that she wouldn't dare say it to his face. She's just trying out the phrase. Edward doesn't love her, but it's important to him that he has access to something other than her body. He truly does want companionship in addition to sex and we soon realize that he has compartmentalized human intimacy as a kind of drug he needs to survive the week. Edward forbids Vivian to smoke crack during her time with him, and in her jonesing for a fix we're implicitly getting a glimpse of how Edward would behave without a woman to wake up to in the morning. It's eerie. The character is like a vampire who needs the blood of the living to sustain his existence. Lawton gives him a great line of Objectivist dialogue to rationalize his treatment of Vivian and we realize that to do his job he must adopt a set of values that can only be described as anti-human. Even so, he has the same genetic material as the rest of us and the same emotional needs.
That's merely a taste of what $3000 manages to say about class and the dynamics of power in capitalism and sex. This is a terrific piece of writing. It shakes you up and gets your juices flowing. It'll keep you up at night. I'm curious to know whether anybody would have fallen for something like In the Company of Men had this script been filmed faithfully. Which, I gotta say, is a pretty frustrating conclusion for me to reach as a fan and admirer of Pretty Woman. Seeing firsthand how Lawton's edgy screenplay was corrupted by the powers that be makes the blood boil. I want to jump on the "Fuck Hollywood" bandwagon in protest. Because of Pretty Woman, we aren't ever going to actually see $3000, robbing us of a potential masterpiece.
If Pretty Woman improves on $3000 in any way, it may be in how it renders Edward palatable. The film is more or less equally divided between him and Vivian and it explicitly equates their lines of work. Edward explains to Vivian that he never lets himself become emotionally involved and she picks it up and runs with it, boasting that when she's with a guy she's like a machine. Edward is bemused and pleasantly surprised to have found a common ground: "You and I are such similar creatures, Vivian. We screw people for money." They do it for similar reasons, too. Edward's wealthy father cheated on his music-teacher mother, left her, and took his money with him. She died shortly thereafter. In response, his father's company became the third one Edward took over. He bought it, broke it up, and sold off the pieces. Vivian's childhood is a bit more vague. She mentions that she was a "bum magnet" (her mother's words) and came to Los Angeles by following a bum there. As she couldn't pay the rent and was too proud to go home, she fell into prostitution. Vivian reveals that whenever she was bad (which was often), her mother would lock her in the attic and she would dream that a knight would save her. We get the impression that she went through her life feeling distinctly unloved and unworthy of love.
The film does get a bit too "dollar-book Freud," as Orson Welles would say, in Edward's relationship with Morse. He's a surrogate father figure, like they all are we presume, and when Edward announces that he wants to join in a partnership instead of killing off the company, Morse says that he's proud of him. It's decidedly on-the-nose. That said, I love the way Pretty Woman presents corporate raiding and prostitution as functions of the same impulse. Neither Edward nor Vivian does it for the money--they do it to maintain an emotional distance. To be emotionally uninvolved is to be invulnerable to hurt. The film shows that unhappiness crosses class lines and it's all basically the same unhappiness.
We might accurately describe Pretty Woman as a criss-cross of Bringing Up Baby and "Pygmalion". She loosens him up and introduces a little chaos into his miserable existence; he gives her the paradigm by which she can become a lady. And in the process, they mutually forget how to stay emotionally uninvolved. The re-development of Vivian's self-esteem through shopping sprees on Rodeo Drive is easily misconstrued. It's a transitional step. Yes, her sense of worth continues to be defined through monetary terms and this means she is still a prostitute. Yet as Edward spends more and more money on her, her stock goes up, and eventually he will be forced to spend everything he has to keep her. At which point she can no longer be bought. The film realizes this: Near the end, she explicitly equates being a kept woman with being a prostitute and announces that Edward has made her feel too good to whore herself out anymore.
Far from exploitive, I see the power differential in their relationship as constantly fluctuating. Initially, Edward is in control. He teaches Vivian about the opera and acts as her protector when Philip the lawyer tries to rape her. Yes, he's paying for the week and she is his "employee," but then she begins to loosen him up. She convinces him to take a day off, something he never thought to do before, and they spend it in the park reading and horseback riding. Later that night, she looks at him in bed and says to herself, "And he sleeps." Then she goes and breaks her rule against never kissing on the mouth. She loves him in a warm, distinctly maternal way. Leading up to Philip's rape attempt is his exasperation with Edward for blowing off their billion-dollar deal. He's correct in assigning blame on Vivian: She was the catalyst for Edward's transformation and wields an incredible amount of influence in his life. The power Vivian has over Edward is an integral factor in her evolution from prostitute to human being--much more so than her Rodeo Drive wardrobe.
When one partner has all the power in a romantic relationship, the relationship is dysfunctional. When power is held equally, it's not a romantic relationship, period. The ideal romantic relationship is one of mutual ownership: to own and to be owned. Or, to put it in less threatening and more specific terms, to hold and to be held. I believe that if a romantic relationship is to function and survive, both partners must be vulnerable enough to let their partner take care of them and they must possess the strength to take care of their partner. The prostitute is a fascinating archetype in that she embodies not only female empowerment, but also vulnerability. She's a self-sufficient damsel-in-distress. At the end of the film, Edward assumes the role of the knight from Vivian's fantasies and climbs her fire escape. He asks her what happened after the knight rescued her. She replies, "She rescued him right back." Pretty Woman doesn't simply dress up Cinderella in feminist drag for the '80s and '90s--it successfully and legitimately integrates the two. Vivian's fantasy isn't only to be saved, it's having somebody she can save in return.
In one of Dennis Cozzalio's polls for SERGIO LEONE AND THE INFIELD FLY RULE, readers were asked to name a great movie from a bad director. My answer was Pretty Woman, natch. How could a director who was capable of conceptualizing that wonderful overhead shot of Edward and Vivian lying in bed telling each other secrets, or that sequence where Vivian coldly negotiates the terms of the sex while being distracted by "I Love Lucy"--how could he make something as incompetent as The Princess Diaries?
Be forewarned that there's a 15th Anniversary Edition of Pretty Woman floating around out there containing only a six-minutes-longer "director's cut." Said director is not the Garry Marshall of 1990, but the Garry Marshall of recent years. The Pretty Woman Director's Cut is the chick-flick equivalent of Star Wars: The Special Edition; most of the additions are at best distracting and at worst actively incompetent. Marshall suddenly deems it necessary to have drug dealers chase after Vivian as she drives off with Edward at the beginning of the film. He also inserts a completely new scene where Vivian returns to her apartment and said dealers accost Edward. His driver brandishes a gun, scaring them off. (What the fuck is with the drug dealers?) This particular reinstatement immediately follows the romantic montage in the park and immediately precedes Vivian kissing Edward. He's in her control at that point and this puts the ball back in his court at precisely the wrong moment. Besides, we've already moved beyond Vivian's old neighbourhood and no longer see her as belonging there. Marshall was right to get rid of it in the first place. What could he be thinking?! Anyway, there is absolutely no contest: The original is better, and it's the version preserved on Blu-ray.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Touchstone brings the theatrical cut of Pretty Woman to Blu-ray in an OK 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. Grain comes and goes thanks to the spotty application of DVNR, and even when it's there it's so ground in that the image looks sort of grubby. There isn't a lot of nuance to the contrast, either, with bold colours and blacks tending to blot together. In short, I expected more from this presentation, given the title's perennial status. (Also, as bad as the Director's Cut is, how about including it as a branching option for completist's sake? Or do they want an excuse to double-dip down the road?) Though I couldn't access the film's 24-bit PCM uncompressed audio, simply because of the nature of the piece I can't imagine it sounding all that much better than the sufficiently-robust DD 5.1 alternative. On another track, find a feature-length commentary from Garry Marshall, Hollywood's dotty uncle. How to reconcile these two conflicting statements? 1. "We changed a line here, a line there, we improvised, but it was J.F. Lawton's screenplay." 2. "One of the rewrite people who helped us was Barbara Benedek...who came up with the idea that [Edward] was afraid of heights." For that matter, how to reconcile the director's occasional "Chekhov always said," or "'New eyes, new eyes,' as Proust said" with his otherwise-constant playing-dumb? As always, Marshall will strike listeners as endearing or obnoxious, depending on their mood, but he's simply embarrassing when he decides to ride a wave of righteousness in recounting a letter from some hag in Florida, who wrote him to express her gratitude for a lack of "sweating" in Pretty Woman's love scenes.
Marshall returns to voice "L.A.: The Pretty Woman Tour." Running nine minutes and comprised of eight 480i video segments, this interactive map of Beverly Hills is fairly useful if for no other reason than that Marshall has been handed a list of illuminating factoids on a piece of paper. (He says as much.) You know that scene where Julia Roberts and Laura San Giacomo gossip out by the pool? It was shot at the luxurious W. Hotel, which used to be an upscale dormitory for UCLA students, of all things. (Cue John McClane: "Fuckin' California.") Capping things off: a "Blooper Reel" (3 mins.); a "Live from the Wrap Party" (4 mins.) performance of "Don't Want to Be Misunderstood" featuring Richard Gere on piano, Marshall on drums, Roberts on vocals, and plugs in my ears; the video for Natalie Cole's "Wild Women Do"; and a "1990 Production Featurette" (4 mins.) that, in giving a précis on Roberts's character, leaves out the not-insignificant detail that she's a prostitute! (It's a genuinely fascinating exercise in doublespeak.) Sneak peeks at Earth, Blindness, Miracle at St. Anna, and "Lost" Season 4 round out the disc, the first three cuing up on startup along with Buena Vista's Blu-ray promo reel. I kinda dig that the menus make use of design sketches for Vivian's outfits. Originally published: March 2, 2009.