The two biggest box-office openings so far in 2015 are a pair of fantasies aimed squarely at the female movie-going population: “Cinderella” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
That their main characters aren’t exactly the epitome of empowered feminism didn’t prevent them from attracting their demographic targets. While the lush, PG-rated fairy tale went after the family crowd and the lusty, R-rated erotic fable went after older women, both films basically share the same plot: A girl falls for a man of means who allows her to escape her dreary life, upgrade her wardrobe, and find true love.
These two cinematic success stories have something else in common. They owe a debt to a massively popular predecessor that combines elements of both stories. Namely, “Pretty Woman,” which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week.
In these post-liberated times, who would have guessed that a romantic comedy about an opportunistic streetwalker named Vivian and a cold-blooded corporate raider known as Edward who hires her for a week, would be so fondly remembered a quarter-century later?
Directed by Garry Marshall of TV’s “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley,” the film gave a big career boost to its two attractive stars, who are still in demand today. Then-40-year-old Richard Gere, who broke out as a paid escort himself in 1980’s “American Gigolo,” got the chance to prove himself in a rare comedic performance, as did Julia Roberts, who at 22 became a full-fledged star when she earned a lead Oscar nomination to go along with her supporting nod for 1989’s “Steel Magnolias.”
But “Pretty Woman,” which sparked a romantic-comedy revival in the ‘90s along with 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally…,” would likely be a hard sell today, when R-rated funny fare is overrun by raunchy 20-something bromances aimed at young males, such as “The Hangover” and most of Judd Apatow’s productions, with the exception of “Bridemaids” and the upcoming “Trainwreck.”
But that wasn’t the case back when Disney created its Touchstone label in 1984 to better separate the studio’s all-ages fare from titles with more adult-oriented topics. Back then, Hollywood routinely created mainstream entertainment that catered to the grown-up tastes of both sexes. And Disney discovered a goldmine of opportunity in a string of comedies, such as 1984’s “Splash”; 1986’s “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People”; 1987’s “Tin Men” and “Outrageous Fortune”; and 1988’s “Big Business.”
Several of those films starred women, including Shelley Long and Bette Midler, but none have captured the public’s imagination — nor continue to still hold as much fan affection — as “Pretty Woman.”
That might not have been the case if the film hadn’t undergone its own Cinderella-style makeover, thanks to a farsighted Fairy Godmother in the form of Laura Ziskin, the producer who would go on to oversee the first ”Spiderman” franchise before dying from breast cancer in 2011. Originally, J.W. Lawton’s script was titled “$3,000” (the fee that Edward pays Vivian for her services) and was a grittier look at prostitution, with Vivian as a drug addict who must stay off cocaine for the week.
Ziskin decided that Vivian should be a much more sympathetic character, with many of her more questionable traits transferred to less stable best friend Kit, played by Laura San Giacomo, who originally was supposed to die from an overdose. Studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg took Ziskin’s idea one step further by suggesting that the script be totally transformed into a full-on modern-day fairy tale.
The one seedy element that remains was the era-correct depiction of Hollywood Boulevard, where crack-addict prostitutes are found dead in dumpsters and cat-calling guys cruise by in cars. The famed Walk of Stars is co-opted for business purposes by Kit, who tells a competing lady of the evening to buzz off, since she and Vivian control the territory between Bob Hope and Ella Fitzgerald.
But ever since Disney bought and renovated the El Capitan Theater in 1991, the area has evolved into a tourist haven, especially after the Hollywood and Highland complex, where the Oscars are now held, opened in 2001. Considering when it was built, the proceeds from “Pretty Woman” might have helped make that dream come true.
Does the movie hold up despite the “Dynasty”-style fashions and the overly bouncy MTV-era pop songs on the soundtrack? Indeed, it does. Seeing it again for the first time in 25 years, I found myself once again somehow utterly charmed by a film that shamelessly prettifies the act of prostitution and celebrates the power of cold, hard cash.
How did “Pretty Woman,” with its potentially off-putting premise, seduce audiences into buying its “happily ever after” premise? Here are 10 ingredients that helped turn it into a hit and allow it to work its magic today.
1. She’s no hooker, she’s a lady. While Vivian eagerly plies her trade, the script goes out of its way to portray her to be several steps above the average sex worker. She has no pimp. She doesn’t kiss on the mouth (“too personal”). She carries an array of condoms (“I’m a safety girl”). She doesn’t do drugs (she stopped when she was 14). She has good hygiene (Edward catches her flossing her teeth in the bathroom). She knows arcane facts about cars and the human body (“You know your foot’s as big as your arm from your elbow to your wrist?”). And the only reason she initially agrees to pose as Edward’s lady friend during his business trip is that her roommate Kit spent all their rent money on drugs. Vivian in her tacky attire might initially shock the snooty clientele in the lobby at Edward’s swanky Beverly Hills hotel, but she cleans up quite nicely — and is a quick learner when it comes to fitting in.
2. A prince with daddy issues. Manhattan-based Edward Lewis, who is in town on business, might initially rival “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko as a seemingly heartless investor who buys large companies in trouble, only to dismantle them and sell divisions off like used car parts. But there is more to this sharp-dressed, snake-eyed man, who is lousy at intimate relationships, than meets the eye. For one, he only stumbles upon Vivian by the curb when he asks for directions to Beverly Hills. And he only strikes a deal with her because he just broke up with his girlfriend, who refused to accompanied him, and needs a no-strings-attached escort for the week. Edward goes out of his way to show Vivian the utmost respect and anticipates her needs, whether food or clothing. And he never acts superior. As he tells her, “You and I are such similar creatures, Vivian. We both screw people for money.” Later, when the pair grow closer, he reveals why he is so aloof: His wealthy father ditched his mother and him when he was very young, and he has struggled with anger issues ever since.
3. A lesson in chemistry. Early in her career, Roberts could be almost cartoonishly beautiful with her big eyes, voluminous hair, and super-wide smile. And Gere often gave off a chilly, invulnerable, somewhat dangerous aura as he strutted across the screen. But her warmth and his cool struck a very happy medium in “Pretty Woman.” You can see how well they click in an improvised scene, where Edward shows Vivian the $25 million necklace that he wants her to wear to the opera. When she reaches in to touch it, Gere suddenly snaps the jewelry case shut as if it were an alligator’s jaws. Roberts reacts with a fit of raucous laughter, and Marshall smartly decided to keep the now-famous scene in the movie.
4. The ultimate makeover. Lots of movies have a run-of-the-mill makeover scene a la “Cinderella.” But “Pretty Woman” features one of the best, with a great build-up that rewards the audience with a terrifically satisfying payoff that doubles as a comeuppance scene. After Edward entrusts Vivian with his charge card, she trots off in her tacky work clothes to Rodeo Drive, where she is gawked at with disdain. Matters grow worse when she actually goes into a store and the female clerks shun her. But Vivian gets sweet revenge when Edward accompanies her to another store, tells the manager he is about to spend an obscene amount of money, and, as a result, ensures that Vivian is tended to as if she were visiting royalty. Of course, Roberts looks like a knockout in every outfit she tries on, which just adds to the fun. The coup de grace arrives when, laden with shopping bags, Vivian stops by the store that rejected her previously and tells them, “I was in here yesterday. You wouldn’t wait on me.” She then adds, “You work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. Huge!”
5. A Fairy Godfather. Hector Elizondo’s stuffy hotel manager Barney is initially on high alert when he first spies Vivian stomping through his lobby in her thigh-high black vinyl boots, blond wig, and midriff-baring minidress. But he soon becomes disarmed by Vivian’s frank street-smart demeanor and not only arranges for her to buy a cocktail dress from a friend who works in a store, but also gives her a primer on table manners to prepare her for Edward’s business dinner. Barney also facilitates Edward finding Vivian at the end of the movie.
6. A cultural high point. Edward decides to take Vivian to her first opera, a production of “La Traviata,” which happens to be about a nobleman who falls in love with a courtesan — a subtle rebuke to anyone who criticizes “Pretty Woman” for its similar premise. Vivian is mesmerized by what she has witnessed and, when asked by an old-lady patron what she thought of the opera, she excitedly exclaims, “Oh, it was so good, I almost peed in my pants.” When the woman looks puzzled, Edward quickly explains, “She said that she liked it better than ‘Pirates of Penzance.’”
7. A perfectly awful villain. While Edward treats Vivian with tenderness and concern, his less-than-upstanding lawyer Stuckey — played to a weasel-like hilt by a pre-”Seinfeld” Jason Alexander — speaks to her in a demeaning fashion at a polo match and later tries to sexually attack her in the hotel room until Edward arrives in the knick of time. Seems Stuckey, who wants revenge after Vivian’s influence on Edward causes him to soften on a billion-dollar deal, is more of a whore than she is.
8. Yes, there is sex. While Roberts and Gere rarely reveal too much skin, they do engage in one steamy encounter atop a grand piano in the hotel’s lounge. It’s a moment that nearly equals Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer’s ivory tickling in 1989’s “The Fabulous Baker Boys.”
9. “Cinderella” gets name-checked. If anyone hasn’t gotten the point that “Pretty Woman” is a “once upon a time” romance, a scene near the end makes it perfectly clear. After Edward offers to make Vivian his long-term mistress — a deal she ultimately rejects by saying, “I want the fairy tale” — she admits to Kit that she loves him. She then wonders if anyone in their position ever had such a relationship. Kit declares: “Cinder-fuckin’-rella.”
10. A dream of a proposal scene. At one point, Vivian reveals her spotty relationship history, saying that her mom declared her to be a “bum magnet.” But as a child, she dreamt of a knight atop a white horse rescuing her when she was locked in the attic as punishment. And sure enough, her wish comes true. There is a balcony (OK, a fire escape) — the better to capitalize on Edward’s fear of heights. There are flowers. And there is a carriage in the form of a limo to whisk her away to happily ever after.