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'Pretty Woman': 20 years after my most infamous review (yes, I gave it a D), here's my mea culpa -- and also my defense

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pretty-woman-juliaImage Credit: Everett CollectionTwenty years ago this week, I wrote a review in EW of a new Hollywood romantic comedy. (Back then, they didn’t come out of the cookie cutter with quite such frequency.) It was called Pretty Woman, and it starred Richard Gere as a wealthy but lonely corporate dude — the sort of natty, self-involved, empty-on- the-inside player who’d risen up in the go-go culture of the ’80s — and a relative newcomer with a 500-watt smile named Julia Roberts as the prostitute he hires to spend a week with him, not so much for sex as for company. Her character, named Vivian, was entirely sweet, inside and out, even if she did dress in slinky vinyl boots that went all the way up to her neck.

Unlike some people, I never had a major moral problem with the movie’s premise. I didn’t throw a righteous conniption fit because I thought it was “sugarcoating” the exploitative realities of prostitution, or presenting Roberts’ Vivian as some sort of literal professional role model. On its own terms, however, I did think that Pretty Woman was a “plastic screwball soap opera,” and I complained, a bit starchily, that “These are the kinds of characters who exist nowhere but in the minds of callowly manipulative Hollywood screenwriters.” (To which a fan of the movie might respond: And your problem with that is…?) To me, the two stars displayed an obligatory, rather wan and stilted non-chemistry. What’s more, I’m now embarrassed to say, I was so busy picking the film apart that I missed Julia Roberts’ natural-girl radiance. As a result, I panned Pretty Woman, fairly mercilessly, and gave it a grade of D.

From almost the moment that my review of Pretty Woman appeared, it became the most infamous review I had ever written or probably ever would write. At the risk of sounding grandiose (and seriously, has that ever stopped me before?), it became part of my brand, my legend, my writerly DNA. I was no longer just any old movie critic. I was the guy who gave Pretty Woman a D. And I always would be.

I’ve never felt that my review of Pretty Woman was a very good piece. Its tone is miffed, hectoring, and righteously unamused; I should have lightened up a bit, and had more fun dissing the movie, even if I didn’t care for it. And a bit of the notoriety of my review, I have to say, may have had something to do with the newness of the magazine. At that point (it was issue #6), Entertainment Weekly was still a very young publication struggling to find its tone and its footing. Because Pretty Woman was the first movie I reviewed here that became a cultural touchstone virtually overnight, the review made me look, in certain peoples’ eyes, like I was “out of touch with mainstream values.” My God, he doesn’t like the big hits! My editor-in-chief for the next 12 years, James Seymore, always staunchly protected my right to say whatever I wanted in a review — but on a personal level, he never stopped tweaking me for panning Pretty Woman.

He’ll be pleased to know that I no longer agree with my review. I watched Pretty Woman again in the late ’90s, when I was warming up to review Runaway Bride (which reteamed the movie’s two stars), and what I saw, on that second viewing, is that I was wrong about Roberts and Gere. They did have chemistry — it was there in the quiet amusement of his reactions, his inner delight at her outward vulgarity, and in her need to melt through his reserve. And plugging into that teasing, almost private camaraderie, I saw the movie’s cheeseball charm. I also saw its shrewdness as a kind of primal-princess makeover fantasy. The thing is, that’s exactly what had pissed me off about it the first time.

Looking back on my fatal first reaction to Pretty Woman, I think the D grade I gave it was so low that it didn’t necessarily match the review I wrote. That grade was like a scarlet letter. Frankly, it came off as a slap, and I truly regret it. The reason that I wanted to slap the movie, however, is that I did have a moralistic problem with it. I was up on my high horse, all right. What made me overreact so badly — what caused me to experience Pretty Woman through a lens of huffiness — is that every moment I was watching it, I was actually fighting and rejecting the movie’s message. Not the part about a hooker with a heart of gold, but the part about a Cinderella in vinyl boots who learns to stop worrying and love the makeover.

pretty-woman-robertsImage Credit: Everett CollectionIn the one line of my review that I still stand by, I predicted, “the movie may catch on. With its tough-hooker heroine, it can work as a feminist version of an upscale princess fantasy.” That, in fact, is exactly how it worked. In the last 20 years, there have been far better romantic comedies than Pretty Woman, but the reason, I think, that the movie occupies such a singular place in the hearts of so many women is that it marked an essential swing of the pendulum back toward a new-style version of old-fashioned girly-girl values. The movie said: You can be a feminist and a seductress, a hooker and a princess, all at the same time — and you can dress up and look like a million bucks while doing it! That message helped to usher in a new age of fashion obsession, an era in which the romantic and the cosmetic would be entangled with a newly seductive, if not addictive, intensity. It marked Pretty Woman as the rare Hollywood movie that doesn’t just channel the culture but changes it.

In the myopia of my righteousness, I did grasp that it was a movie about buying things (wow, major insight — that’s the film’s basic concept), but I got a bit too peeved about it. The moment in the picture I really hated — I think it colored the tone of my whole piece — is the famous, and much beloved, scene in which Vivian goes back to the clothing boutique and says, in essence, “How do you like me now, bitch?” Here’s how I described it, in the final paragraph of my review:

“At one point, Roberts wanders into a Rodeo Drive boutique still clad in her hooker garb. The store ladies gaze in shock and refuse to help her, as though here, in the hedonistic center of Beverly Hills, they’d never encountered a flagrantly exposed midriff before. To get revenge, Roberts returns to the store a few scenes later — only this time, she’s wearing a more restrained sundress, and she proudly announces that she’s going to do her buying elsewhere. In today’s Hollywood, this passes for integrity.”

That last line is pretty awful; I sound like Peter Travers in another paper-tiger installment of his “Damn You, Hollywood!” series. What I wish I’d said, if only to make the point better, is that Vivian should have gone back to the store armed with a new self-esteem, but that what the film arms her with is the power of a credit card. I wish I’d said that Pretty Woman (in the boutique scene, at least) is a movie that wants to sneer at designer class snobbery and eat it, too.

In that way, I do think I was on to something about Pretty Woman; in just about every other way, I think I was wrong. (I would now, incidentally, give the movie a grade of B.) For just a moment, however, I want to touch on a larger question that’s raised by the teensy, trivial “scandal” of my review, a question that has never been more relevant than it is today, namely: Why does a review that people disagree with almost always provoke such bitter, fulminating, toxic intolerance? When did our culture of bloggy, shoot-from-the-hip opinion turn into such a culture of haters?

I’m one of the many who think that Pauline Kael is the single greatest film critic who ever lived — the most brilliant and exciting and perceptive, and far and away the most extraordinary as a writer. Yet for all the bravura common-sensical passion of her insights, I disagreed with Kael all the time, and she occasionally had opinions that I thought were nuts. She hated All the President’s Men, preferred Ghostbusters II to the original, insisted that some of Brian De Palma’s worst movies (like Casualties of War) were masterpieces, believed that Woody Allen was on the wrong track when he made Annie Hall and Manhattan, and adored Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Pt. I. She didn’t much care for Alfred Hitchcock, for God’s sake! (I knew Kael personally, and one of the last times I saw her, just before she retired in 1991, she had been to a screening of The Silence of the Lambs and told me how ambivalent she was about it, saying that she thought it was going to be “the Psycho of the ’90s.” In her book, that was an insult!)

The point is that Pauline Kael, a brilliant and fearless writer, had the right to every last one of her opinions, even her most head-scratchingly idiosyncratic ones. It’s part of what gave her criticism such flavor. Of course, she had the right to those opinions not only because she was a great critic, but because she was, quite simply, an individual, like you or me, one who said what she truthfully thought.

In the 20 years since Pretty Woman, I’ve written plenty of other reviews that have gotten people riled, and I have no doubt that I will again. The fans of Let the Right One In still want my blood (sorry, you can’t have it); believe it or not, the fact that I’m the only critic on rottentomatoes.com who gave a “Fresh” rating to Epic Movie still has some people in a snit. I say: Deal with it! It’s only a movie review! I haven’t changed my opinions about those films, but even if you violently disagree with me, the point I want to make is that a critic doesn’t have to be right all the time. He has the sacred, holy right to be wrong.

So 20 years later, what do you think of Pretty Woman? Does it hold up? Or does anyone think I was right the first time? And do you believe that a critic has the right to be wrong? What’s the movie review — by me, or anyone else — that you’ve disagreed with the most?