Directed by Garry Marshall
Written by J.F. Lawton
There are no shortage of angles from which to approach Disney's 1990 hit, Pretty Woman, but it seems like the most obvious is also unavoidable: Pretty Woman, briefly reigning as the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time—I probably don't need to belabor it, but in case it's unfamiliar, it's the romantic comedy about the guy who hires a prostitute for a very extended girlfriend experience—was, once upon a time, the kind of movie that Disney was capable of making. This was Ron Miller's legacy, for Miller had hoped (not uncontroversially, within the company) that Disney's live-action filmmaking could expand its horizons, beyond the matinees that had been its bread-and-butter for decades. He was an executive in the 1970s, and he undoubtedly saw what was making money (and, in case we think even someone like Miller had no soul, what was good), and that was movies for adolescents and for adults. So on one hand, Disney's live-action division was set to chasing Star Wars, with stuff like The Black Hole and TRON. On the other, the company started funding product aimed at adults, starting with Disney's first ever R-rated film, Down and Out In Beverly Hills, in 1986. Of course, the family-friendly Disney brand had to be protected. The solution was Touchstone Pictures, a beard for the somewhat-edgier fare that Miller wanted to make.
Somewhat-edgier—it's also not like Disney suddenly started doing slashers and pornos. They were simply more in line with mainstream studio movies in ways, e.g., Pete's Dragon was not, and when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg arrived, they used Touchstone to beef up Disney's film output, an important (if abortive) step on the way to Disney's dominance over American cinema as a whole. Eisner was enthusiastic enough about it that he created a second subsidiary, Hollywood Pictures, tasked with doing pretty much exactly the same thing with exactly the same staff. Hollywood never made much money (it was eventually closed in 2001), and while Touchstone had a significantly better track record before being (effectively) reduced to a logo, as soon as the early 1990s, Disney live-action had been eclipsed almost totally by the roaring success of Walt Disney Feature Animation. This may explain, along with other cultural and industrial shifts (which, of course, Disney helped usher in), why the comparatively diverse Disney of the 80s and 90s gave way to the homogenous empire of nerd shit for the whole family that constitutes the majority of the company's output today.*
Indeed, 1990 is where that process started in earnest. In a reductive way, the internal contradictions that would reorient Disney into the 21st century can be seen reflected in their two big live-action movies of 1990. (Far moreso than in their big animated movie from 1990, the Renaissance's lost treasure and technological milestone, The Rescuers Down Under.) The shortest version is that Eisner had grave concerns about Pretty Woman, as well he might—originally titled 3000, referring to how many dollars a sex worker played by Julia Roberts earns for spending a week with a capitalist with a heart of gold played by Richard Gere (which feels low, but I was not in a position to price prostitutes in 1990), it was apparently a darker tale than what we wound up with. Reportedly, Eisner hated things about it that don't even make sense, notably Gere, because King David had been a flop a few years earlier, which Eisner blamed on Gere wearing "skirts" (that is, the attire of a second millennium B.C. Hebrew monarch), a story I take with a grain or two of salt given that it's the kind of secondhand factoid that seems consciously-designed to maintain Eisner's reputation as an insane idiot. But Katzenberg championed it, later describing it as an exemplar of (his version of) Eisner's own philosophy, a "singles and doubles" kind of movie with an easily-marketable hook made for a low eight-figure budget, with a cast and crew of pros who nevertheless did not demand a premium (though they'd sought Michelle Pfeffer, Karen Allen, and Diane Lane, amongst many others, before settling on Roberts, known in 1990 only for Mystic Pizza, i.e., not known). Eisner, meanwhile, was much more into Dick Tracy, a film that basically flew in the face of all responsible studio proprietorship and became Katzenberg's constant headache, and is also arguably sleazier than the hooker movie, offscreen definitely, though you can make a case for what's on it, too.
These films' divergent box office fates would become a weapon in Katzenberg's hands as his partnership with Eisner turned to enmity—it's imaginable that, equipped with just the successes of WDFA and not a box office-busting megahit like Pretty Woman, maybe Katzenberg doesn't develop the crazed sense of entitlement that leads to their relationship's dissolution, and maybe he even allows the dislike of almost literally everyone he worked with to sand down the sharper edges of his personality; it's equally imaginable that, without Dick Tracy, Eisner's pride isn't wounded enough for criticism to hurt. Without Pretty Woman, does DreamWorks exist? Well, Katzenberg obviously felt more-or-less the same way as Eisner about 3000 itself, a sentiment shared by Touchstone producer Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman being as much of a jumpstart for Ziskin's impressive career as it was for Roberts). At their behest, the film was massaged into the shape of a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy rather than whatever it was before, with its drugs and depravity and, hell, the way people talk about it being so much darker, I assume Gere's character murders her at the end.
Because that's the weird, wild thing about Pretty Woman: yes, it's a fairy tale, and a Disney fairy tale at that—it is explicit about this in ways that are cool (the opening and closing Greek chorus of a guy talking about a place where dreams come true as he attempts to hawk maps of the stars) alongside ways that are eye-rolling and irritating (did you realize that this movie was like Cinderella? if not, somebody will fucking say so, out loud, before it's over)—but very much for adults, starting with the introduction to our heroine by way of a close-up of Roberts's ass, which only stops being a close-up of Roberts's ass (and only after you've had an opportunity to come to a considered opinion on how you feel about Roberts's ass) when she rolls over. Which makes it a close-up of Roberts's crotch. Eventually the camera moves to Roberts's face. Maybe the original screenplay called for her not to be wearing panties, and this was the "compromise." It's actually one of the count-them-on-one-hand moments that director Garry Marshall—this film was perhaps more important for his career than anybody's—announces himself as a human being. I'm not saying that he's a computer. The technology of 1990 could not have created an algorithm capable of selecting the shots for Pretty Woman and editing them together. I'm only saying that it is genuinely possible that the technology of 2021 could.
It is, regardless, absolutely something that could have captured the imagination of the same producer who'd recently guided Disney animation's own groundbreaking transformative romantic fantasy, The Little Mermaid, though thanks to Pretty Woman's instantly-formed reputation as a whitewashed Cinderella story for weenies, thirty years later it's been armed with the power to be slightly shocking. It's a film that starts with a drug overdose (not the heroine's) and climaxes with a rape attempt (not undertaken by the hero), and the "not the ____" part is, I suppose, where the film's soft-edged reputation comes from. This is where I admit I'd never seen it; I was, regrettably, not in its demographic in the early 1990s, and never caught up with a movie that, by the time I could've been interested in it, had deteriorated in reputation along the lines I mentioned. With that reputation, anyway, it's possible to think that this was the movie about a sex worker and her client where they never fucked.
This isn't remotely true, of course. Their meet-cute ends in the blowjob phase of the half-and-half he's paid for (elided in a cut, but it's pretty unmistakable). It's another one of those four or five moments where it feels like a human person made meaningful aesthetic choices while making the movie: the lead-up's played against the soft glow of a TV with cutaways to the episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy gets splatted on the face with grapes at a Roman winery, and presumably only not the funnier episode where the Ricardos and Mertzes buy a restaurant and pie each other for three straight minutes because someone prevailed on Marshall to not be that direct. What I'm getting at is that this is a frankly sexual movie; it maybe doesn't quite earn its R rating besides a glimpsed nipple (or, given the MPAA, because the implied blowjob is reciprocated later with some implied cunnilingus), but it goes further on that count than most romantic comedies, and this also has the radical benefit of getting the sex out of the way of a story that's about love and money, maybe not in that order, without it ever feeling like the awesome sex (which they're definitely having) doesn't matter.
That story, anyway, is simple enough that everything you could need to know about Pretty Woman I've alluded to already: Edward Lewis (Gere) is a wealthy man who's made his fortune as a corporate raider, finding distressed companies that can be carved up and sold for scrap, thereby doing his part for the hollowing of the American economy. One night, for no reason he can name, he borrows his lawyer's (Jason Alexander's) Lotus and rides aimlessly around LA until he finds himself on Hollywood Blvd., where he engages the services of street prostitute Vivian Ward (Roberts), but only as a co-pilot to get himself back to his hotel. She winds up driving, because he's so out-of-touch with real life that he can't drive stick; needless to say, driving stick is no problem for Vivian. (The screenplay is not above crude wordplay but somehow avoids this particular vector.) On a whim, Edward decides to retain Vivian for the whole night, and, telling himself it's just a lark, hires Vivian to be his personal escort for the remainder of his stay in LA, since, he reasons, he's going to enough "social" business events that it would be useful to have a date, and he ascertains that Vivian must clean up nice. They make the deal, and Vivian finds herself thrust into an alien class, leading to numerous amusing complications as they spend the week together, and (get this) fall in love, even though they've convinced themselves, for their different reasons, that they're beyond caring about anything.
It's also twenty minutes' worth of Business Deals, out of 119 overall, which is where the problems start to seep in; nothing else is as drably unnecessary as the surprisingly-detailed look we get at Edward's current project (there's a presentation), when the only reason this is even happening is so Vivian can awaken a Business Conscience in him, but Pretty Woman is sometimes at a loss as to just what movie it is. Maybe this is what happens when a screenplay is rewritten to specification, but I doubt J.F. Lawton's original script ever played entirely to its strengths either, or it wouldn't have struck Katzenberg as the romcom crowd-pleaser it very much turned out to be. The Cinderella element is, of course, still one of those strengths. It comes through in spades, even if it's led to a significant amount of discourse over the years on how transactional their romance is versus how emotional, leading to the sort of unproductive criticism that happens when you deconstruct a wish-fulfillment fantasy that is already post-modern and self-aware.
Less of a strength, but pleasing to the quadrants, is the fish-out-of-water comedy of Vivian navigating a world beyond Hollywood Boulevard. Some of this is genuinely satisfying—Vivian's revenge on the Rodeo Drive shopgirls who spurned her when she was still dressed like a streetwalker is the kind of thing that makes you want to cheer even though you know how ham-handedly you're being manipulated—and some of this is merely fine. A lot of it is embarrassingly broad and miscalculated, to the extent that Vivian routinely comes off less "high school dropout turned to hooking" than "cavewoman recently unthawed from a glacier," unaware of the function of orchestras at the opera or that garnishes are not meant to be consumed. They put fucking garnish on the country-fried steaks at Ryan's. (I half-wonder if Katzenburg's own insecurity over being something of an uncultured rube—Eisner frequently condescended to him—had something to do with his passion for this film.) But it's as bad from the other direction, trotting out a counter-intuitive sketch of a contemporary Angeleno elite who are as easily scandalized as Victorian dowagers.
Now, this is mostly good (we get to vicariously experience Vivian's wondrous journey through a new world of luxury consumption, even if her new outfits occupy only the two registers, "more expensive prostitute" and "Audrey Hepburn," and given the overt riffing on My Fair Lady and Sabrina and the career that Julia Roberts would soon have, at least the latter seems appropriate). So it would be a shame to lose it, because one of the movie's most interesting elements is also the only thing it deigns to pursue subtly. Being remotely subtle means it tends to get overshadowed (reading about Pretty Woman, I've never even seen it brought up), but, other than those mean shopgirls, it's striking how uniformly the supporting cast aligns with Vivian, because they're the help, but so is she, and they want her to win. Because this is post-modern, they're also us, the audience for every story about girls who sleep in ashes but get their prince in the end. This is most forcefully represented by Héctor Elizondo's hotel manager: initially hostile, because it's his job to be hostile to hookers hanging around his hotel, he rapidly reveals himself as the warmest male presence in the film, and the only figure in it (besides, obviously, Roberts and Gere) who ever threatens to be indispensable to it. Clearly, Alexander's Rapist George Costanza is not; and I doubt anyone's ever thought Ralph Bellamy's Business Dad was, nor Laura San Giacomo's Other Prostitute.
None of that even touches on the core of the film, which works better by far than everything else here, to the extent that somewhere inside of Pretty Woman there's a comparatively austere and deeply beautiful film about two fragile humans that never needed to leave the hotel room to have been great. It's true that Marshall's directorial effort really does appear to top out at making sure the lens cap is off—he somehow makes a $14 million movie stacked with aspirational wealth look like it cost seven figures (or six), and the majority of the shots and nearly every cut in Pretty Woman is grimly functional at best (Charles Minsky's photography of dimly-lit rooms is at least decent, but the needle drops in this movie named after a song are the most savagely artless soundtrack album fodder)—yet he manages something extraordinary, half by accident. Half, because he plainly had rapport with his actors, and they're both essentially perfect: it's no surprise that this was a starmaking turn for Roberts. Yet frankly I think Gere gets the better of it. Roberts is pure ingenue, but then, crafting a credible combination of innocence, pragmatism, wisdom, bravado, and fear certainly isn't anything to be scoffed at, especially when the screenplay keeps drawing far too much of its comedy from making her a jackass. She and Gere alike seem to realize the fundamental truth about Pretty Woman, however: it's not a romantic comedy. In their scenes alone together, it's a romance-tinged character drama with people who, sometimes, say dryly funny things. And this is the accident part, because Marshall's largely-aimless and unhurried direction, which isn't great at comedy, does wonders for romance, born slowly out of small gestures and small talk. This is where Gere becomes first among equals, precisely because Roberts has about three times as many lines and talks about three times as loud, while Gere recedes into the background and takes us with him, with a sensitive, tentative performance as a self-loathing master of the world who knows he's killed most of himself and is confused and scared to feel alive at all.
In its best moments, Pretty Woman feels like something almost arty, but high-concept enough to get a studio push. Even the Cinderella aspects of it feel of a piece with that, the film having managed to create a hushed, intimate world that we almost feel like voyeurs to visit, which is where the sex comes back into the picture. Sex is how this story is told: it is the movie about a sex worker and her client where they don't kiss on the mouth. That's this universe's one magic rule, and when its characters break it, that means it's time for your heart to skip. It's a lumpy movie and far from a perfect one—it's why the laconic direction on even the great parts feels like indifference rather than style—and three out of four of its ending scenes (it has that many) are childish in ways that come off a little flighty and desperate to force a plot structure onto a narrative that hasn't been very interested in that. Romantic bombast just isn't this movie's thing. But by now, it's earned an expression of happiness. It would be churlish to say it doesn't do "happy" right.
*Which, by the way, I like, and probably still prefer, despite the impressively-swift qualitative downslide of every single one of their nerd shit brands over the last few years. But it's certainly harder to prefer it than it used to be.