Vivian Ward is the one Disney princess you won’t find roaming the grounds of the Magic Kingdom or Epcot; the prince with whom she rode off into the sunset saved her from a life of servitude far more salacious than anything her fellow princesses endured. Ward is the heroine of Pretty Woman, the 1990 film whose $463 million box-office take made it the most successful romantic comedy of all time. She made more money than all her cartoon counterparts, and earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayer, Julia Roberts, yet Vivian Ward can’t even stand on a corner of the Happiest Place on Earth’s Main Street USA. In honor of the 25th anniversary of Pretty Woman, Disney should rectify this immediately.
My untenable demand approaches Pretty Woman with the same sneaky facetiousness Disney’s Touchstone Pictures distributing arm did back in 1990. The film’s promotional featurette makes absolutely no mention that its princess is actually a prostitute whose chance meeting with a lost billionaire leads to a fairy-tale ending complete with roses and a white knight in shining limousine armor. The billionaire, played by a too-gorgeous-to-be-real Richard Gere, has a Henry Higgins-like effect on the prostitute, exchanging her Hollywood Boulevard sleaze factor for Rodeo Drive fierceness. The prostitute in turn melts his heart of ice and teaches him how to love again. It’s as if George Bernard Shaw dropped acid and decided to merge Mrs. Warren’s Profession with Pygmalion.
Actually, a better description would be a mash-up between Pygmalion’s musical incarnation My Fair Lady and Cinderella, or “Cinder-fuckin’-ella” as Ward’s buddy and fellow hooker Kit (Laura San Giacomo) calls it. San Giacomo is far more convincing as a lady of the night than Roberts is, and her tough-talking, gum-chewing, drug-taking BFF hints at the darker tone J.F. Lawton’s script originally had. But Roberts is far more credible at displaying the requisite heart of gold all stereotypical Hollywood Happy Hookers have. There are moments where she positively glows onscreen (after all, gold is shiny), and despite the seen-it-all cynicism that should come hardwired into her profession, Vivian Ward still conveys an innocent sense of wonder and surprise that’s truly charming. Not for nothing did Pretty Woman cement Roberts’s reputation as “America’s Sweetheart.”
Revisiting Pretty Woman for its 25th anniversary, I was met with the same question I had when I first saw it in 1990: Why was this film as successful as it was? It’s not a bad movie by any means, and I risk the critical backlash I could barely give a shit about by admitting I enjoyed it. But the question still nagged at me, a by-product of anything that manages to unexpectedly capture the zeitgeist. Though it placed fourth at the 1990 American box office—behind Kevin Costner’s ego (Dances With Wolves), Patrick Swayze’s Claymation adventure (Ghost) and a sadistic kid beating up Joe Pesci (Home Alone), it made nearly twice as much at the international box office. Such overseas numbers are better reserved for Marvel movies or the robotic travesties of Michael Bay.
At the time of Pretty Woman’s release, romantic comedies were still in the infancy of a revitalization triggered by the success of When Harry Met Sally… a year earlier. Julia Roberts was fresh off her Oscar-nominated supporting turn in the weepy yet effective Steel Magnolias, and Richard Gere had just given one of his best performances in Internal Affairs. None of these movies indicated nor predicted the runaway success of Pretty Woman—thus forcing me to examine the film itself for the secret to its success.
The answer may reside in the film’s uncanny ability to sell both men and women on the fantasies that pop culture and Hollywood have been brainwashing each gender with for decades. For women, there’s the Prince Charming fairy tale of a rich, sexy man who not only ushers in a happily ever after filled with enviable material things like expensive clothes, but also allows himself to be changed and recast in the image the woman desires. One need only look at Fifty Shades of Grey to see this same fairy-tale bullshit aimed at women today.
For men, there’s the pleasure of guilt-free sex with a hot woman who technically is at the beck and call of your loins. You also get to protect her, provide for her and essentially save her from some form of dangerous world. One need only look at practically every male-centric movie made since Thomas Edison invented the movies to find some aspect of this nonsense. Only Titanic is better at more-craftily stitching together what Hollywood stereotypically convinces men and women they want in a movie, and you know how much money that made.
(Of course, this theory skews in a heterosexual direction, which makes sense considering Hollywood movies rarely consider an LGBT viewpoint or a fantasy. In 1990, studios would have run away from anything not heteronormative—as would most audiences.)
Additionally, Pretty Woman has at its helm Garry Marshall, a veteran television-sitcom producer and director who, for better and worse, is skilled at buffing off the rough edges of unsavory material, recasting it as far more harmless than it normally is. On the big screen, Marshall’s Young Doctors in Love (1982) diluted its goofy filth with appearances by a parade of ABC soap-opera stars. On TV, “Happy Days” really underplayed the fact that the Fonz was a huge whore who went through women like a chronic masturbator plows through Kleenex. In Pretty Woman, he effectively generates romance while never letting us forget that his fairy-tale princess was paid $3,300 by her Prince Charming, a man who initially bought her for sex.
Marshall was so good at declawing this plot element that Pretty Woman, an R-rated movie, managed to win Best Actress at the Kids’ Choice Awards, which, as the name would indicate, is an award voted on by kids. I’m assuming that, unlike the Oscars, the kids who voted actually saw the movies they picked. I submit this tidbit as an addendum to my petition to get Vivian Ward into Disney World. Kids love her!
But I digress. Credit must also be due to the actors. Richard Gere and Julia Roberts have an incontrovertible chemistry, and they are ably supported by the aforementioned San Giacomo, Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander (as an attempted rapist!) and Hector Elizondo, who is fantastic in a very small role.
Elizondo’s appearance in particular serves as a tie to a movie one might not think of when considering Pretty Woman, but whose similarities warrant a passing mention in this discussion. In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere makes an excellent billionaire who shares the same former profession as Mitt Romney. In American Gigolo—which is also celebrating an anniversary this year (it turns 35)—Gere is even better as a male Vivian Ward: His Julian Kay is a high-priced escort working a higher-class clientele in the same L.A. area. Elizondo plays a cop who holds a similar disdain for Kay as his hotel manager initially holds for Ward in Pretty Woman.
Kay’s curve of elegance goes the opposite direction as Ward’s—he starts out in fancy clothes and becomes more raggedy as the film progresses—and cinematographer John Bailey objectifies Gere in ways Marshall’s camera wouldn’t dare do to Roberts (just try to find another Hollywood movie so in horny lust for its male actor’s physicality). But like Ward, Kay has an unlikely savior in a pretty john played by Lauren Hutton, and his creator, writer-director Paul Schrader, ekes out an oddly convincing sense of romance between them that’s as implausible as the romance in Pretty Woman. In fact, Gere’s haunting last shot in American Gigolo visually mirrors Roberts’s stunned reaction to seeing Verdi’s opera La traviata live: They both look overcome by the emotion of realizing they may love their co-stars.
American Gigolo made 10-year-old me want to be a whore, a dream I achieved when I started pimping out my brain to the highest bidder as a computer programmer for hire. Pretty Woman reminded current-era me that all one needs for a successful romantic comedy is two people the audience wants to see fall in love, and an easy path for that to transpire. All the iffy plot details in the world can’t defeat those two simple ingredients. It’s too bad the current purveyors of romantic comedy keeps forgetting that. Until they remember, Pretty Woman will remain the genre’s most successful contribution.