A romantic comedy about a hooker, based on a bleak script, starring a relatively unknown actress and an over-the-hill leading man, 'Pretty Woman' should have flopped. (Today's New York Post has all the behind-the-scenes history of this unlikely film.) Instead, it was an enormous worldwide hit, launching Julia Roberts to megastardom, reviving Gere's career, providing a dignified swan song for Ralph Bellamy (a Hollywood mainstay for more than half a century, he made his final screen appearance as the shipping mogul who inspires Gere's corporate raider to stop being a parasite) and setting trends in Hollywood for decades to come. Even now, filmmakers are still taking its lessons to heart. Such as: Today marks the 20th birthday of 'Pretty Woman,' released in theaters on March 23, 1990.
Wow, 20 years ... that's old enough to drive a borrowed Lotus Esprit, but not to drink. It's also just a year younger than Julia Roberts was when she shot the movie alongside 40-year-old love interest Richard Gere.
A romantic comedy about a hooker, based on a bleak script, starring a relatively unknown actress and an over-the-hill leading man, 'Pretty Woman' should have flopped. (Today's New York Post has all the behind-the-scenes history of this unlikely film.) Instead, it was an enormous worldwide hit, launching Julia Roberts to megastardom, reviving Gere's career, providing a dignified swan song for Ralph Bellamy (a Hollywood mainstay for more than half a century, he made his final screen appearance as the shipping mogul who inspires Gere's corporate raider to stop being a parasite) and setting trends in Hollywood for decades to come. Even now, filmmakers are still taking its lessons to heart. Such as:
•There's no story so grim that Hollywood can't sugarcoat it. Screenwriter J.F. Lawton's original version, called '3,000' (after the fee Vivian charges Edward for a week of service) was a dark tale of a Hollywood Boulevard hooker who tastes the good life for a few days but can't kick drugs and ends up back on the street. Enter Disney and director Garry Marshall, who cut his teeth making sitcoms like 'Happy Days' and 'Laverne & Shirley.' They transformed Lawton's gritty drama into a 'My Fair Lady'-type romantic comedy, a Cinderella fantasy of a woman treated to a lavish lifestyle that was not only beyond a streetwalker's means, but beyond the means of most of the audience as well. 'Pretty Woman' succeeded as a tale of wish fulfillment, not about sex, but about shopping.
•It's all about chemistry. Today, of course, it's hard to imagine anyone but Roberts and Gere as Vivian and Edward. But the roles went to them only after lots of other actors had turned them down. Al Pacino, John Travolta and Christopher Reeve were among those who passed on Edward, while the role of Vivian almost went to Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder (who was rejected as too young at 17, but who played Gere's love interest a decade later in 'Autumn in New York'), Daryl Hannah (who thought the role demeaning to women) or Jennifer Jason Leigh (who thought the character was too naive and enthusiastic for her profession, only to go on and play a similarly chipper hooker that same year in 'Miami Blues').
Looking at 'Pretty Woman's' thin character motivations and often trite dialogue, there's no reason Gere and Roberts should have done better than any of the other short-listed actors at bringing the couple to life. But the two of them together had crackling timing and freshness that made their banter seem spontaneous and their mild wisecracks sound like the stuff of classic screwball comedy. Her bubbliness and his bemusement complemented each other perfectly. (A decade later, they proved their chemistry was no fluke when they reunited in Marshall's hit 'Runaway Bride.') As critics used to say of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, he gave her class, and she gave him sex.
•Sometimes it's better to be the john than the prostitute. A decade earlier, it was Gere who'd had a hit as a Los Angeles sex worker in 'American Gigolo.' After his 1982 smash 'An Officer and a Gentleman,' however, Gere went into a career slump for the rest of the '80s. With 'Pretty Woman,' however, he no longer had to be the fiery young Turk; paradoxically, playing a relaxed, passive second fiddle to Roberts made him more in demand for lead roles than ever.
•Let Julia be Julia. Hard to believe, but there was a time when Julia Roberts was best known as Eric's kid sister. She'd had modest successes playing willful characters in 'Mystic Pizza' and 'Steel Magnolias' (for which she earned her first Oscar nomination), but it wasn't until 'Pretty Woman' that she got to flash that enormous grin. Even before the film wrapped, it was clear that this was a star-making performance. It wasn't just a star that was born, but a persona: a spunky gal with can-do optimism and mile-long legs. Over the next two decades, as long as Roberts stuck to that formula, she was Hollywood's most bankable actress.
•Pick a familiar pop song title as your movie title. 'Pretty Woman' wasn't the first to try this technique; such John Hughes movies as '16 Candles,' 'Pretty in Pink,' and 'Some Kind of Wonderful' had gone there first. But 'Pretty Woman' perfected the notion of taking a nostalgic song that had nothing to do with the movie and capitalizing on its goodwill. (Certainly, the film wouldn't have been as popular if it had kept Lawson's cryptic title instead of the cheerier one from the Roy Orbison tune.) Recalled Disney exec David Kirkpatrick to the New York Times, "You were able to play the music on the radio, in cue spots, and it had a certain effect. It broadened the appeal and helped create word of mouth because of the level of identification with the song." Since then, movie titles inspired by jukebox selections have remained common, mostly in romantic comedies ('Love Potion No. 9,' 'Sweet Home Alabama,' 'Something's Gotta Give,' 'Just Like Heaven,' 'Love Don't Cost a Thing,' 'Something to Talk About,' 'The Thing Called Love,') but also in dramas ('Boyz 'N the Hood,' 'Murder by Numbers,' 'Angel Eyes,' 'Only the Lonely,' 'My Own Private Idaho,' 'Boys Don't Cry').
•A makeover montage is a must-have. Vivian's Rodeo Drive shopping spree, which sees her transformed from scruffy streetwalker to stylish socialite, is not only the heart of the film but also its most widely imitated sequence. Since 'Pretty Woman,' pretty much every romantic comedy has to have a makeover or buying binge in which the heroine finally lets down her hair and relishes the joys of princess-y primping.
Curiously, the sequence doesn't mean the same thing in today's movies that it did 20 years ago. In 'Pretty Woman,' the makeover montage signals Vivian's entrance into a world of privilege, a door unlocked by Edward's gold card. Yet she remains her irrepressible self, while it's Edward who loosens up and lets his hair down. In today's rom-coms, however, it's always the woman who's a successful but uptight careerist, and it's the man who's the free spirit who gets her to lighten up. The transformation of the makeover montage makes her acknowledge that she can't be superwoman and have it all, that she really wants the old-fashioned Cinderella fantasy (expressed through lavish consumer spending) of being a princess bride, swept up and rescued by a white knight.
At least in 'Pretty Woman's' Cinderella scenario, after Edward rescues Vivian, "she rescues him right back." Class and age differences aside, theirs turns out to be a match of equals. Hmm, maybe 'Pretty Woman' is more progressive than it's given credit for. Seems this frothy fantasy still has much to teach us.