Directed by Garry Marshall. Screenplay by J.F. Lawton. Cinematography
by Charles Minsky. Music by James Newton Howard.
Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Hector Elizondo, Laura San Giacomo, Ralph Bellamy, Jason
Rated: R -- language, sex, glorification of prostitution.
The Big Lie
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By Jim Emerson
Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) is a whore. So is Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts). Only she works on Hollywood
Boulevard and he stays at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
"You and I are both such similar people," says
the Wall Street corporate raider to the streetwalker. "We both screw people for
money." Pretty Woman sells itself as a contemporary Hollywood fairy tale -- Pygmalion
Meets Cinderella in Beverly Hills -- about two floozies, a corporation man and an
"indieprod" hooker (she keeps her rates low in the free marketplace by choosing
to work without a pimp), who (supposedly) find redemption, or at least financial security,
in each other's lovin' arms.
The fairy tale aspect of the picture almost works like a charm, thanks to some
adroit and appealing comic performances (including Laura San Giacomo as Vivian's hussy
roommate and Hector Elizondo as the prim hotel manager) a few snappy one-liners, and Garry
Marshall's sitcom-bright direction, which tries -- but finally fails -- to bleach out the
movie's darker, scuzzier implications about what money can and cannot buy in America's
culture of greed.
Edward has bought and paid for virtually every relationship in his adult life; he treats everyone
around him like an employee. While in LA for a week, he hires Vivian (originally in blonde
wig, looking like a skinny, slatternly Angie Dickinson) to be his "date" for a
series of business functions, including a fancy dinner and a polo match. Out of the
bargain, she gets $3000 cash, a makeover, new clothes and a crash course in what fork to
use. Unavoidably, they both get more than they bargained for because -- surprise! -- they
fall in love. And that changes everything.
Of course, Cyndi Lauper sang that "Money Changes Everything." And in its
original, darkly cynical incarnation, the script for Pretty Woman (which could've
been called Working Girl ) was called 3000, because it was about the money
that makes men and women unequal. But even in this heavily processed and polished Disney
product, it's not clear what has actually made the (unconvincing) difference in these
characters' lives: the love or the money?
Finally, all the movie says is that you can be a harlot -- in executive offices or on
the streets -- but if you look like you live in Beverly Hills, then people will suck up to
you and it won't matter who you are or what you do to acquire your money, just as long as
you spend lots of it. Of course, it is beyond the scope (or intention) Pretty Woman
to sharpen this into an ironic or satirical point. The bleak notion is just there on the
screen, acknowledged and reinforced, but never questioned.
Vivian (the designated moral superior) compares what Edward does -- buying companies,
dismantling them, and then selling the pieces for profit -- to stealing cars and selling
the parts. Edward (the designated economic superior) argues that what he does is perfectly
legal. It just doesn't occur to him (yet) that it's also parasitical and ethically
deplorable. This same lesson appears to have been lost on the makers of Pretty Woman.
The movie itself is like a stolen car that's been given a spotty paint job in an attempt
to conceal the true nature of the vehicle underneath.
Scratch this movie's polished coat ever so slightly and you'll see that Pretty Woman is a
conflicted tale about prostitution and dreams: how we prostitute ourselves to achieve our
dreams, and how those dreams are defiled and compromised by our prostitution.
For commercial reasons, the picture desperately tries to skirt or downplay its own
underlying themes. Significantly, the crucial, ambivalent lines from Roy Orbison's title
song are buried somewhere in the middle of the movie's upbeat music mix: "I don't
believe you/You're not the truth/No one can look as good as you."
Orbison, at least, knew that enticing appearances could be deceiving. Pretty Woman
(the motion picture) does not. In this movie, the clothes make the man (or woman) and if
you cry at the opera, it proves you've got a cultured soul.
Pretty Woman brackets its urban fable with appearances by a black street
hustler/panhandler/chorus, who strides through the picture hollering stuff like:
"This is Hollywood where people come to fulfill their dreams! Some dreams come true
and some don't! Believe in your dreams!" The first time this chipper fellow shows up,
his comments are juxtaposed with sleazy slices of life on Hollywood Boulevard (crack
dealers, pimps, a murdered whore stuffed in a dumpster). His exclamations serve as an
ironic (and chilling) comment on what tourists find when they actually travel to the heart
of Hollywood: The mythologized home of America's movie dream factory has fallen into decay
And yet, when the chorus figure reappears at the film's Happy Ending, his spiel is
suddenly meant to be taken at face value -- which, I guess, demonstrates just how
corrupted the dream factory has become. So, what are this guy's dreams? To prowl
the streets of Hollywood day and night shouting at people? Pretty Woman doesn't
It would have taken the mordant wit and satirical sharpness of a Billy Wilder or a
Preston Sturges to get you to appreciate both the emotional surface lie and the
deeper moral truth inherent in a story like this -- and to fully explore the ironic
contrasts between the two. But Pretty Woman isn't black comedy or satire. It's
tepid, force-fed pabulum, with a few cold and bitter lumps that have slipped through the
studio strainer which make it very hard for all but the most inattentive viewers to
Pretty Woman can't handle the contradictions
it raises. It's simply schizoid -- probably because the
aforementioned screenplay has been subjected to major Disnification in the development
process, tarted up with an imperative feel-good ending that negates every valid
observation that has preceded it.
At one point, Vivian speaks for Disney (and audiences) when tells Edward, flat-out:
"I want the fairy tale." Inevitably, she gets it -- thus violating all narrative
and character logic. She knows it's not true, and so do we, but we'll take the Disney
version so we don't have to think about it. Apparently, test audiences wanted to buy into
the fantasy, too -- integrity and verisimilitude be damned. And so, a form of moral nausea
creeps up on you as you watch "Pretty Woman," growing from the realization that
the unequal economic/power basis of this relationship isn't going to change, Happy Ending
or not. Vivian herself recognizes as much.
Nevertheless, all your (and, it seems, Vivian's) movie-conditioned reflexes make you
hope-against-hope that these two will stay together. You want the Hooker with the Heart of
Gold to make Edward see how degenerate his social and business practices are. You want him
to play White Knight and rescue Vivian from the streets, carrying her off to his penthouse
castle. You want those Pavlovian wedding bells to ring so that you can salivate. Then you
recall the real world, and people like Ivan Boesky or Michael Milken, and you want to puke
Edward becomes the movie's hero when he prevents an associate from raping Vivian and
decides not to commit a comparably despicable business transaction at work. During the
Reagan '80s, moral decisions we used to regard as minimum requirements for anyone with a
conscience have somehow become grounds for sainthood in the movies. Maybe Pretty Woman
isn't really a tainted romantic comedy after all, but a sort of latent horror film about
the ethical/economic decay of America. Sounds like a hit!
The Big Lie
Back to screening room