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Pretty Woman Is 30 But It's An Ugly Film

Don’t dare diss a “classic”, especially if you call yourself a movie lover. Big mistake. Big. Huge.

I’m sorry, but I don’t think all “classics” deserve the title. And what makes a movie a classic anyhow? Critical acclaim? Popular appeal? Box office gold? Awards glory?

On the face of it, the Pygmalion-reimagining Pretty Woman ticks most of the boxes. Not all the critics loved it but a recurring theme for those that did was that any faults the rom-com had were overcome by the charisma of Julia Roberts and the movie’s slick packaging.

Three decades on, it remains a beloved rom-com with its oft-copycatted memorable moments (who could forget that unscripted jewellery box snap-and-giggle), highly quotable lines, and catchy soundtrack cemented in pop culture. 

The box office spoke for itself: made for just $US 14 million, Pretty Woman went on to gross $US 463.4 million worldwide. It garnered Roberts an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for her role as “hooker with a heart of gold” Vivian Ward, and a Golden Globe nomination for Richard Gere as Edward Lewis, the suave corporate raider she falls for. The movie made Roberts a huge star -- a rom-com queen.

I can see the appeal, but that doesn’t mean a movie is necessarily good. Watching it again after all these years, I was surprised how unsexy Pretty Woman is, given its subject. The sex is sanitised almost to the point of oblivion. About as sexy as it gets is Vivian sponging Edward down in the bath -- that is, if you find the image of Roberts positioned like she’s just given birth to a grown man sexy. 

Sexy? (Image: Touchstone Pictures)

And there really are some God-awful lines too. (Edward to Vivian: “If you ever need anything, dental floss, whatever, you give me a call.”) And it’s sappy and cheesy, and I can’t for the life of me understand what Vivian would see in an arrogant wet blanket like Edward. 

I’m a fan of Roberts, but not even her sass-meets-sunshine performance could get me over the line this time. Pretty Woman feels mediocre. Not terrible, just terribly overrated. There, I said it. 

The 1990 blockbuster has been credited, along with When Harry Met Sally the year before it, with defibrillating the rom-com. Sure, there’s truth to that but it’s not as if the 1980s didn’t have its own witty, crowd-pleasing rom-coms, though none would come remotely close to Pretty Woman’s box office haul. 

And it was praised for subverting the fairytale with a “modern twist”. Never mind that for the majority of its running time it’s about a rich man “rescuing” a poor woman. Edward has Vivian dolled up and schooled in high society etiquette and culture to transform her into a respectable “lady”. But it’s only in the final 20 minutes of Pretty Woman that Edward miraculously grows a conscience, transforming from ruthless to kind-hearted businessman all thanks to Vivian’s grounding influence.

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It’s telling that executive producer Laura Ziskin had to insist the heroine’s final line would be, “She rescued him right back”, just in case we thought it was all about the knight on a white horse (er… white limo) finally fulfilling the fantasy Vivian had had since childhood of being rescued.

Let’s not pretend that Pretty Woman is anything other than a typically reductive Hollywood fairytale, or a “combination of fairytales,” as director Gary Marshall described it. “Julia was Rapunzel, Richard was Prince Charming, and Hector [Elizondo as hotel manager Barney Thompson] was the fairy godmother,” he said, admitting he was “from the school of happy endings”. (I hear you sniggering, grow up!)

But the original script was no fairytale. Titled $3,000 (the cost of Vivian’s services for a week), screenwriter JF Lawton had penned a dark drama about the corrosive force of money and the intersection of class. Vivian was addicted to crack, and she and Edward didn’t get their happy ending. (What? Again with the sniggering?)

Instead, in the final scene -- not a little reminiscent of an actual classic, Midnight Cowboy -- a devastated and disheveled Vivian “stares emptily ahead,” riding a bus with best pal Kit De Luca (played by Laura San Giacomo in the movie) to Disneyland.

Ironically, the screenplay was literally Disneyfied -- the shingle behind the film, Touchstone Pictures, is owned by Disney. But I would have loved to have seen something more akin to the original: more grit, less treacle. But you won’t find popularity in critiquing the popular. And your movie-loving cred could be seriously questioned. 

Rest assured though, I do love countless classics (and yes, that includes The Godfather). It’s just that, I believe you like what you like. I’ve got a soft spot for Hudson Hawk for God’s sake, one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.  

And I refuse to be a cinema sheep. I refuse to pay deference to a movie just because it’s deemed a “classic”. In the words of the Pretty Woman herself,  “I can do anything I want to, baby”.