- YEAR: 1990
- DIRECTOR: Garry Marshall
- KEY ACTORS: Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Laura San Giacomo
- CERTIFICATE: 15
- IMDB SCORE: 7.1
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 65%
SEX SCORE: 5/5
✔️ This passes the Bechdel Test easily, but there are really only two named female characters so it’s good that they talk about a lot!
✔️ And it is rewatchable. It’s a classic for a reason!
✔️ I also would fuck the cast. Both Gere and Roberts are at their hotness peaks and are stunningly beautiful!
✔️ It probably did inspire fantasies too. Sex without kissing, sex on a piano, being so overtly and overwhelming desired…
✔️ And I think it is sex positive! It’s not a straightforward decision – sex is tangled inextricably with love but it sends good safe sex messages, it understands consent, and it shows that sex is pretty joyful and therapeutic!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (free with subscription), Disney+, VirginGo, YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: abuse, anti-sex worker language]
One day I will write about Notting Hill – my favourite Richard Curtis movie – because I think it says a lot about Julia Roberts’s star power that, when thinking of her filmography and which movies best represent her movie star status for my series, I thought about one where she plays a literal movie star. She is a living definition of what it means to be a movie star – she looks like a million dollars and has a huge and characteristic presence on screen. Her smile, her laugh, her humour, often her big and beautiful hair; whatever part she is playing, we know what we’re getting with a Julia Roberts movie and we like it!
And Roberts has a fascinating filmography because she has been typecast but has somehow managed to maintain a career where her roles are defined by her independence and glamour, rather than by being a particular type of character. When writing about Meg Ryan, I talked about how she struggled to break away from being ‘America’s sweetheart’ and her career petered out when experiments with gritty, sexual roles were commercially unsuccessful but it could be argued that Roberts’s career has instead had two waves – the 80s/90s romcom sweetheart of Mystic Pizza, My Best Friend’s Wedding and Notting Hill, and the independent glamour icon of Charlie Wilson’s War, Mirror Mirror and Ticket to Paradise.
This second wind has been as successful as her younger career. Vulture ranked all 44 of her movies as of 2017, missing 2018’s Ben is Back and the recent Ticket to Paradise, and her top 20 were exactly divided into two sections – those in the 20 or so years before 2000 and her Oscar, arguably the peak of her career, and those in the 20 or so years afterward. And, for me at least, this second era has defined her more than her younger roles. When I think of her movie roles, I think of Roberts as the glamorous Tess in the Oceans movies or the sexy Anna in Closer, almost before I remember My Best Friend’s Wedding or Steel Magnolias.
But there is absolutely no doubt that Julia Roberts’s career has been defined by one movie: Pretty Woman. And so I was really happy and not at all surprised when that movie won the Julia Roberts poll, many many months ago in the spring of 2022 as I smoothly pretend the year when I didn’t blog at all didn’t really happen, because this is where it all began. Where she was introduced as a genuine Movie Star but also as one who didn’t necessarily follow the rules. Pretty Woman, after all, is a fairytale romcom but one that involves a sex worker, and yet Roberts still makes it feel relatable.
To paraphrase from The Rewatchables, Robert’s performance in Pretty Woman was one of the greatest breakthroughs of all time – she’d had a few good parts before then, including an Oscar nomination for 1989’s Steel Magnolias, but she still wasn’t that well known. She wasn’t yet a superstar so we all watched her become one on screen in real time. She may have had ‘better’ performances, winning an Oscar in 2001 for Erin Brockovich, and she may have been in ‘bigger’ movies, such as the Oceans movies and Notting Hill, but we all fell in love with her in Pretty Woman.
And it made her a genuine Movie Star; someone who can ensure a movie is a success simply because she is in it. As early as 1993, she was described as someone who could open movies, meaning that ‘no matter how bad the film may be, enough people will buy tickets in the first few days of its release to guarantee cost recovery’ – something definitely relevant when thinking of the quality of some of the movies she was making around that time. Topically for this feminist review, Roberts quickly realised how important her particular position was within the movie industry as it was, sadly, still unusual for a woman to be consistently considered a box office draw: ‘They say I can open movies, and that’s nice in that it puts it into people’s minds that women can do it…It’s not just Kevin Costner, not just Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not just the guys.’ Roberts went on to become the first female actor to be paid $20 million for a movie in 2000 – a barrier crossed by a male actor much earlier in 1996 when Jim Carrey played the eponymous Cable Guy. I’ll try not to read too much into the fact that a female actor earned her $20 million with an Oscar winning performance in Erin Brockovich and a male actor made…well…Cable Guy.
But Movie Stardom isn’t without its downsides, and typecasting is one of those risks. As I mentioned, Roberts is definitely defined as a romantic lead – I joked about the quality of her movies around 1993, post-Pretty Woman, and these were the roles that took her furthest from Vivian and that girl we loved, and were easily the least successful. Despite her strong start, it was her return to the romcom character type in My Best Friend’s Wedding that really solidified her success.
Another curse of Movie Stardom, Roberts’s life outside the screen has had an influence on how we saw her on screen. It is pretty telling that in two of her biggest successes (Oceans Twelve and Notting Hill), she is essentially playing herself. Roberts has been described as being ‘notorious for her celebrity romances, dating leading men like [Keifer] Sutherland, Dylan McDermott, Jason Patric, Liam Neeson and Matthew Perry,’ again merging her personal and professional lives. And I wonder if that’s why Pretty Woman was such a star-making role – she wasn’t yet burdened by the baggage of being Julia Roberts that would follow the rest of her career and so we could just watch her and love her.
Because, wow, I love this movie. I always knew that it had a special place in my heart but rewatching it for this review really brought that home. I actually watched it two nights in a row! It just makes me smile so much. It’s a 5/5 movie (the 10th!) and it’s perfect. It’s a perfect film!
One of the first modern romcoms, following When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman is the story of Vivian (Roberts), a sex worker who is picked up on Hollywood Boulevard by Edward Lewis (Gere), initially to give him directions as he’s lost and then because he is intrigued by her. Edward has an important week and, having just broken up with his girlfriend, decides to employ Vivian for the week, as a beautiful companion for business dinners and as commitment- and hassle-free sex, presumably as stress relief. She agrees, they fall in love, and have a fairytale happily ever after ending!
I cannot tell you how important this movie was to me as a teenager. From a sex perspective, I think Pretty Woman was the first time I understood sex work and it was definitely the first time I saw a condom (did I watch this movie too young? Did I have terrible sex ed? Who can tell!). Apart from that, the shopping montage was life-changing. I have literally spent my entire life since seeing this movie looking for a brown and cream polka dot dress that looks as good on me as the famous dress looks on her. And it was a rags-to-riches story that felt modern and relatable. I wanted to be Vivian! I wanted to be rescued and loved and dressed in beautiful clothes and taken to the opera.
Obviously, with hindsight, these aren’t great messages, and that’s not the only part of Pretty Woman that hasn’t aged especially well.
Because it’s all about money. Damn, this movie is all about money – about what money buys you, what doors it can open, and what you can get away with when you have money! Looking back in 2020 for the 30 year anniversary, Scott Tobias wrote that Pretty Woman ‘may have come out in early 1990, but for anthropological purposes, it’s as 1980s as Donkey Kong, Bananarama and the Rubik’s Cube.’ Edward has a lot of money so he can literally do what he wants! I didn’t really notice it before as I was so caught up in the romance and fairytale, but now I really hated how he behaves and what he gets away with because he’s a wealthy customer. Barney, the hotel manager, literally says that out loud! Edward swans around, making people treat him with deference that he’s only earned because he’s filthy rich rather than because he actually deserves it. He breaks the rules; he expects other hotel patrons to abide with his wishes, asking them to leave the hotel bar so he can fuck Vivian on the piano; and he is convinced he can buy anything or anyone…which he basically can as this is the 80s. And the capitalism lives on – you can stay in the same hotel in the same suite for a ‘Pretty Woman experience’ for upwards of $1500 a night and it truly is a testament to the lasting effect of this movie on me that I would love to stay there despite knowing that it is giving in to capitalism!
My favourite shopping montage is also more problematic than I’d like to admit. Pretty Woman was released in the same year as Naomi Wolf’s feminist masterpiece, The Beauty Myth, which described how women are under unrealistic pressures to meet patriarchal beauty standards in order to be accepted by society…which is exactly what happens to Vivian. She wasn’t deemed acceptable when she had big hair and revealing clothing, and needed to be ‘tamed’ into more conservative outfits so the people (men) that she meets will treat her properly. And, of course, this required her to spend a lot of money so it also feeds into the capitalist false promise that buying the right clothes will change your life. Urgh…
But, interestingly, the incredible Karina Longworth in her podcast, You Must Remember This, suggested a different perspective that has changed how I look at this transformation and the whole movie. She suggests that Pretty Woman isn’t really about Vivian – the protagonist, and the character who actually undergoes significant change as the plot progresses, is Edward. The reaction of the bitchy shop assistants to Vivian is designed to make us feel sorry for her; she is already worthy of our respect and sympathy before she is transformed. Her transformation is only superficial.
Edward, however, moves from a corporate shark who unfeelingly destroys every company he takes over to someone who wants to build something real. Vivian is the catalyst for this change, rather than the main character, helping Edward to work through his anger towards his father (I didn’t say it wasn’t a cliche!) and then work with the replacement father figure in Mr Morse, the CEO of the latest company he buys, so they can make battleships! Vivian is essentially the same at the end, just with nicer clothes, but Edward has changed his entire working practice and separated from his sexist, abusive bully of an attorney who seems to be the closest thing he had to a friend. He has changed!
I thought of this new perspective when reading a quote from Jo Weldon, talking to Bitch Media, about Edward’s famous line about how Vivian and he ‘both screw people for money’: ‘No, she brings pleasure, you bring pain…People consent to be[ing] screwed by her, and you screw people out of their businesses. You’re not ‘both screwing people for money.’ It’s not the same thing.’ Edward, perhaps, is the character who represents the immoral money-grabbing ‘whore’ and Vivian is the savvy business woman.
Because at the heart of it, Pretty Woman is a movie about sex work and isn’t a depiction that has aged well, but perhaps we are supposed to be on Vivian’s side the whole time, learning through Edward that sex workers are real people and are vulnerable to abuse, as handed out by that slimy attorney. That they’re worthy of our respect and empathy.
I’ll admit, it is a bit of a stretch. ‘A fluffy rescue rom-com in which a rich white guy seemingly saves a straight, white, conventionally attractive sex worker’ isn’t exactly an inclusive and realistic portrayal, but then neither is the dark and gritty other end of the scale with sex workers as desperate victims, which Pretty Woman almost became. The original plot, called 3000 for the amount of money Vivian makes during her week with Edward, had Vivian as a drug addict who dies of a drug overdose at the end!
Movie depictions of sex work have long struggled to find a correct balance between victimisation and glamorisation, failing to recognise that it is simply work that can be awful and great, just as any other job. And as much as I’d like to read it otherwise, the sex work in Pretty Woman is really just a meet-cute; a reason for the two protagonists to be thrown intimately together immediately despite not knowing each other. Like other ‘candy coated’ sex worker based movies from 1980s, like Risky Business, the true nature of sex work is lost behind the sweetness or comedy of the plot.
Vivian is also an example of a perfect victim – white, young, beautiful, and only recently started sex work. She doesn’t use drugs and she doesn’t have a pimp. She ‘really isn’t that kind of gal.’ To quote Scott Tobias in the Guardian again, ‘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.’ Vivian deserves to be rescued because she remains innocent – as does Edward who wasn’t looking for a sex worker when he found Vivian but simply needed directions (obvious metaphor claxon!). Nothing in Pretty Woman changes the general narrative on the dangers of sex work that anti-sex work groups want to project and instead enhances the idea that sex workers need rescuing. It’s hardly surprising that rescue narratives are a ‘sensitive topic,’ both because a lot of sex workers don’t want to be saved and because these ideas are ‘used as a justification for these violent police raids, for locking women up, for stealing their livelihood.’
So where does that leave Pretty Woman? For me, it’s a perfect light romcom that makes me happy and shouldn’t be thought about too deeply. Because it sadly doesn’t really stand up to that kind of scrutiny…
NEXT TIME…a movie about DANGEROUS WOMEN!
(In case Twitter fails and the embedded tweet goes awry, here is a link!)