Op-Ed: 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Pretty Woman’ (#21)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
Do people talk about Pretty Woman (1990) today? Yes. It’s probably one of the most widely seen and discussed films that I will review for this website. Everybody has heard of the concept, they all derisively snort at the idea of a hooker with a heart of gold and they all fall over themselves to talk about how debonair Richard Gere is here. 31 years later, it retains its cultural cache and it has entered into the ranks of iconic romantic comedies that non-cinephiles gladly sit through. I’m one of those oddballs who has never been a fan of it. As part of this project, I had hoped that I would be able to gain a new appreciation for it. That didn’t exactly work out.
It concerns prostitute Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) who helps corporate raider Edward Lewis (Richard Gere), drive his manual transmission car from Hollywood Boulevard to his upmarket hotel. He ends up agreeing to employ her as a prostitute for one week. She is paid $3000 and he gives her money to purchase an expensive new wardrobe so that she will be able to impress his clients. The two begin to fall in love, much to his chagrin, and she softens him as he struggles to dismantle the company of a man who wants to continue operating it. With her new outfits and relationship with Lewis, Ward begins to gain confidence. She is also able to charm Lewis’s associates with her straightforward style of speaking and beauty. They face challenges when Lewis is forced to reveal to others that Ward is a prostitute and they begin to question the nature of their relationship. After Ward departs for fear of simply being an object to Lewis, he realises that he loves her. He wins her back when he performs a routine in which he acts like one of the ‘knights in shining armor’ that she had dreamt of as a child.
Whenever you talk about star making roles, you inevitably end up talking about Julia Roberts in this film. The smile, the blend of blue collar charm and regal sophistication and the cute little eyebrow raises, are all referenced. She became America’s Sweetheart as a result of her appearance in this film and it remains a career defining role for her. As much as she won an Academy Award for Erin Brockovich (2000), she is still the ultimate hooker with a heart of gold in the minds of many. This film is most remembered for turning her into a star and, paradoxically, her performance is one of my biggest issues with the film.
This is a tale as old as time and the trope of the fallen woman who regains her dignity by falling in love with a respectable man can be seen in countless films. This is why it is essential that Roberts puts a new spin on the role. She has to make us forget about the memories of Shirley MacLaine, Greta Garbo, and Janet Gaynor; all of whom played similar roles. She is meant to swing between carefree sensuality and occasional touches of melancholy that attempt to add depth to her thinly written role. On the page, Ward feels like every other fallen woman that we’ve ever seen. She didn’t want to go into her profession but difficult circumstances forced her into it. She hasn’t become particularly tough and hardened because of the life that she has spent on the streets and she retains a childlike innocence. This means that she can magically re-introduce joy and happiness into the life of the depressed but wealthy and powerful man who falls in love with her. She does this by being whimsical and uncouth in social situations where other snooty women lack her free spirited air. I know that the term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ is overused but it definitely applies to Ward.
Roberts has to deal with all of the different contradictions that come with this character type and she fails to bring out the more disturbing undercurrents that lie beneath the irritating grin. She, and the script, fall back on the idea that Ward is all sunshine and rainbows. Most of the time, she’s just a small town girl who is dazzled by the opulent life that her new employer lives. We never skirt too close to considering whether she is attracted to Lewis because he can offer her a stable financial position rather than simply offering her love. There is also the rather offensive suggestion that Ward is ‘not like most prostitutes’ and they deserve to suffer in the streets and face abuse from clients while she spends the money of an immoral businessman. Her beauty and her cutesy behaviour are meant to serve as substitutes for a well developed personality and real character development.
She is adorable and quirky from the moment we meet her and regales our hero with stories of growing up in the Southern United States and having extensive knowledge of cars. This satisfies the fantasy that a lot of women seem to have about being seen as “Just one of the guys.” Ward is sexy, pretty, and traditionally feminine; but she’s also cooler than other chicks. Her exuberance as she exclaims “It corners like it’s on rails” is supposed to turn her into a touchingly naive figure. Unlike your average prostitute, she has time to chat to her client and isn’t solely focused on earning her living. It’s hard to say that she changes that much in the following 110 minutes. She retains all of the same Roberts-y tics and there are so many scenes in which Garry Marshall lovingly photographs her as she sticks her hand into a jewelry box or is visibly moved by the opera. Most of her transformation is superficial and she offers Lewis the sort of motivational proverbs that one would find in a greeting card.
We are assured that she has done something extraordinary for Lewis by having sex with him, acting like a five year old, and lecturing him for engaging in practices that are common for most businessmen. The film wants us to ignore the fact that she is using all of the money that he has earned from destroying businesses in the past to pay for her new wardrobe. She’s hardly stealing from the rich in order to help the poor. She spends money recklessly and becomes excessively materialistic but all of this is seen as empowering. When she hands over chunks of Lewis’s cash to the owners of stores on Rodeo Drive, we’re supposed to view this as a victory over snobbery. This is because she has embarrassed the shop assistants who could have worked with her, but she’s still buying into a system that disadvantages poor, uneducated people like her. This really is a Capitalist romance as two people fall in love because of their financial arrangement and it operates on the myth that some people are just more deserving of being wealthy.
The ‘bad’ prostitute that we are presented with, is Kit De Luca (Laura San Giacomo). She’s a drug addict and she’s less conventionally attractive than Roberts which naturally means that she deserves to fail in life. The virtuous Ward leaves her rent money, but De Luca spends it on drugs and attracts Ward’s ire. I was angered by the fact that De Luca, who displays some signs of being traumatized by the horrible treatment that she might have faced in her profession, is seen as trash for possessing more humanity than Ward. Our female lead is so unrealistically pure that she uses dental floss instead of taking drugs and is cultured enough to take an interest in opera. It seems like De Luca exists to bolster Ward’s image as the ideal hooker, who deserves to be saved from a difficult life. This only furthers the extremely conservative message that the film tries to send. Only a few people deserve to make it to the top and those who are weak and vulnerable don’t deserve any additional support if they make a few mistakes. They deserve to get screwed over by a system which benefits people like Lewis.
Speaking of Lewis, his character arc also seems strange. He’s written as an emotionally cold, ruthless businessman whose father issues have driven him to serve as a corporate raider. According to the screenwriter, corporate raiders are all immoral and we are meant to pity some elderly businessman when he learns that his business will be broken up. It is telling that more sympathy is offered to the privileged, elderly WASP who has lived a life of comfort, as opposed to the disadvantaged prostitute who is struggling with addiction. Ward’s great contribution to his life is convincing him to form a partnership with the old man so that he will be allowed to have some control over his business. None of the details in this exchange of power are ever very specific and, if Lewis can make the same amount of money by being less aggressive, why does he use aggressive tactics in the first place? The world of business in this film, is one in which there are clear divisions between what is good and what is bad. Businessmen are evil for no reason and could very easily adopt practices that make them more ethical without cutting down the amount of money that they have to spend on their mistresses. I wonder how she would react if he told her that she had to return all of those pretty dresses that he bought her?
Lewis is also painted as a knight in shining armor when he saves Ward from being sexually assaulted before choosing to have sex with her minutes later. Sexual assault is used purely as a plot device to make Lewis look heroic. It is supposed to establish the fact that, while he is paying Ward to have sex with him, he is chivalrous in the way he treats her. My disgust only increased when they decide to have sex in a semi-public area and shoo away employees who clearly know what’s about to happen. Maybe some interpreted this as a fun of example of the two of them having an exhibitionist streak? I found it difficult to enjoy this moment of intimacy because it followed so closely after a moment in which there was the potential for Ward to be seriously hurt. It also felt terribly contrived and I just couldn’t forgive the clumsy emotional manipulation that Marshall was trying to pull off.
All of this completely turned me against Pretty Woman and everybody involved in its production. The cheesy, unimaginative finale was salt in the wound as it only made a lot of the tropes seem more toxic. They finally agree to get together after a silly, improbable breakup in which she decides to leave him because she wants to live in a fairy tale. She reemphasizes the fact that she is a hypocrite because she has already happily accepted payment for serving as an escort and a sex partner. It seems a bit rich for her to turn around and act holier than thou about the concept of serving as Lewis’s permanent mistress. If the film had treated this like a business move and presented Ward as a shrewd negotiator, I might have been more engaged. Instead of taking a cynical angle on her decision, it acts as though she is a youthful, inexperienced ingenue who still has the naïveté to entertain frivolous romantic notions.
His grand romantic gesture to get her back ends up seeming pathetic and you despise these two fools for being so self satisfied. He asks her “So what happens after he climbs and rescues her?” and she smugly responds with “She rescues him right back.” Firstly, this feels like the filmmakers trying to cover their bases by arguing that they have put a feminist spin on the traditional Cinderella story. Even though Ward is bought by Lewis and does almost nothing beyond having sex with him and buying fancy clothes, she briefly claims that she has played an equal role in supporting him and changing his life. They don’t bother to show her actually doing anything of importance for him and that had me throwing my hands up in the air. It also feels like an attempt to make the ladies in the audience believe that it is enough to be attractive. You don’t have to contribute anything to a relationship and your partner will lavish money, gifts, and affection on you for doing almost nothing. This isn’t true and it tells women that men have no interest in them beyond the way that they look.
I also bristle against the idea that this is a comedy because it didn’t elicit any laughs. Most of the humour is meant to come from Roberts raising her eyebrows in an exaggerated manner. We’re supposed to laugh as she shocks high society with her gaucheness and disregard for manners, but it all feels like a retread of Pygmalion (1938). That was a biting satire about how ridiculous the class structure is and how pompous and hypocritical members of the upper class can be. This wants to have it both ways as we are meant to look down our noses at the elderly women who sneer at Ward but also fetishise the idea of powerful Daddy Warbucks figure who can make all of her problems go away with money. None of the jokes are sophisticated deconstructions of societal norms and it isn’t enough to have Roberts nervously glancing at rich people in order to make some larger point about this issue. It backs away from saying anything that could be interpreted as controversial and I can just imagine George Bernard Shaw rolling in his grave.
For all of these reasons, it should not have been on this list. It fits into the romance genre but it has some disgusting ideas to impart about what you can get out of a relationship and how men and women view each other. It’s misogynistic in its treatment of female characters who are not Ward and I can’t believe that it has been embraced as a classic by so many young women. It made it onto the list because of people like that, those who were willing to look past the horrible values that the makers of the film were espousing. In their minds this was just an opportunity to see Roberts at the height of their beauty. I assume this was a film that some of them had actually seen. I’m not surprised by its placement on the list as it is not seen as a respectable piece of cinema. They sheepishly placed it at 21 and hoped that the populists would cheer them on for picking something accessible while the true cinephiles wouldn’t get too incensed over it making the list. Their attention would be diverted by the presence of a sapfest like Ghost (1990). Personally, I am turned off by the fact that it made this list and I question the sanity of the people who voted for it.