There are reasons I didn’t watch Pretty Woman before this week, none defensible. When the movie came out, I was a kid trending toward cartoons and videogames and things with the word “Star” in the title. When I grew up a bit, I experienced the great Julia Roberts millennium sequence in real time: My Best Friend’s Wedding in 1997 through Ocean’s Eleven in 2001, that legendary run when she defined the romantic comedy genre and won the Oscar and took her place alongside Clooney-Pitt-Damon in Steven Soderbergh’s pantheon of movie-star self-awareness.
Maybe, on a subconscious level, I assumed Pretty Woman was just the beta test for that run, that watching it now would be like moving backward to an old outdated operating system. (I must be the only person who saw Runaway Bride first, right?) And in fairness, the constant presence of Pretty Woman in popular culture gave me what I assumed was the experience of the movie just via osmosis.
Right before I finally saw the movie, my girlfriend asked me what I knew about the movie. Because I am a human person who has not been in a coma for most of my life, I figured I had the basic talking points down:
—Julia Roberts is a hooker with a heart of gold.
—She goes shopping on Rodeo Drive.
—There’s a delightful scene where Richard Gere closes a necklace case down on Julia Roberts’ fingers, which was improvised, which is why Roberts’ laugh in that moment is enchantingly genuine and so the absolute utter pinnacle of Julia Roberts-dom.
—Hector Elizondo plays the Hector Elizondo role.
—The movie started off as a dark drama, but Jeffrey Katzenberg changed it into a romp with a fairy-tale ending, because Jeffrey Katzenberg is a genius and Hollywood is an empire of lies we want to believe in.
—Presumably the Roy Orbison song features prominently at some point.
All of which are true. None of which come close to capturing the actual experience of watching Pretty Woman, roughly a quarter-century after everyone else. Here is what jumped out to me, in almost real-time, as I experienced the movie:
1. Richard Gere is Patrick Bateman. I don’t mean Richard Gere is playing a Patrick Bateman type — although the decision to cast a heartless corporate raider as the romantic lead in a comedy only makes sense in the context of the late ‘80s that developed Pretty Woman and the very early ‘90s that released Pretty Woman. I mean that you could easily read Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman, “Edward Lewis,” as an alter ego for Patrick Bateman, the demented Wall Street weirdo at the center of American Psycho. Gere plays an absurdly wealthy, apparently emotionless human money-train who makes money by purchasing real American businesses and converting them into abstract globo-currency. Like Bateman, Edward amuses himself by hiring a prostitute and making that prostitute do uncomfortable things. Like Bateman, Edward lives in a world defined by the optics of greatness. Why, when he has a fear of heights, does he choose the tallest balcony seating at the opera? Because it’s the “best” seat in the house, and appearances are everything in his post-human world. Everything about Gere’s Edward in this movie is retroactively coded as “Bad Guy from Mr. Robot.”
2. Julia Roberts’ character is obviously way cooler than Richard Gere’s character. I don’t mean she’s “cooler” like she “is a nuclear missile of pure human delight exploding his bleak dead world into a resurrected wonderland of rainbow joy,” although obviously that is the subtext. I mean that the whole central Pygmalion pitch on Pretty Woman no longer makes sense in our modern moment. Scrub out the prostitution angle — which, in fairness, the movie mostly does — and Roberts’ Vivian Ward now reads as a cool hipster gal who bought early stock in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The movie’s whole big idea is that she’s some uncouth gal who goes crazy for Edward and his Beverly Hilton lifestyle. Like: “Whoa, horse polo! Golly, opera! Gee, overpriced clothes!” This is the post-modern princess narrative, which is totally fine, but it’s unthinkable that there isn’t a single scene in the movie where Vivian introduces Edward to N.W.A. or the Pixies or literally any music made in either of their lifetimes.
3. Laura San Giacomo is in this movie! Question: Is there a LauSanGi fan club? (Pronounced “Low-San-Jee,” FYI.) Answer: Yes, there is, and I am it. Somehow, I had never been informed that Laura San Giacomo invented Judy Greer in Pretty Woman. This immediately promoted the movie from “very important” to “cosmically important” in my eyes. And this, right after her role in Sex, Lies, and Videotape? Incredible.
4. Laura San Giacomo is playing the real-life version of Julia Roberts’ character. LauSanGi plays Roberts’ pal, who has a totally realistic implied drug addiction and a believable wild side and a tendency to spend all her money on all of the aforementioned. I immediately imagined a world where every great Julia Roberts movie received a simultaneous darker/sadder/funnier LauSanGi remake. What a world that would be!
5. Every blonde person in Pretty Woman is evil. Accurate, but still impressive given that the genre had only recently been defined by everygal-phase Meg Ryan. The movie’s only real villain — unless you count No. 8 — is the nefarious judgmental saleswoman, who is flanked by her gaggle of Blonde Blandazons.
6. Actually, the fact that Julia Roberts is not blonde counts as socially disruptive in the society of Pretty Woman. There is no way to really get around the uncontested whiteness of Pretty Woman. There is an early scene where Richard Gere interacts with a couple of valets and a couple of chauffeurs, which is the only scene in the movie with more than one non-Caucasian character. There are better things to get upset about in Pretty Woman — see No. 15 — but because the movie convincingly argues that Beverly Hills and Wall Street form together into fantasy gene-fascist metropolis of rich white people, the movie also argues that Julia Roberts’ mere presence in that world (she’s a redhead! with boots!) is a social disruption on par with the storming of the Bastille.
7. As a result, this is a movie filled people doing reaction shots to Julia Roberts. Because J-Ro plays The Other, every time she enters a room, there are at least seven shots of bystanders — usually old, usually dressed in something expensive — who look up from their copy of the Wall Street Journal or put down their Gordon Gekko cell phone or cough into their highball glass while they flash a double take in Roberts’ direction.
8. Jason Alexander is playing the real-life version of Richard Gere’s character. Alexander is a venal, money-focused, relentlessly greedy and probably adulterous lawyer. He’s basically DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street minus the intrinsic glamour of DiCaprio doing anything. The genius of Pretty Woman, I think, is how Alexander and LauSanGi root the movie in something like actual reality — the reality where prostitutes aren’t princesses and Wall Street jerks are actual jerks — which frees up Gere and Roberts to play fantasy variations of the same.
9. There is an attempted rape scene. Which is the kind of thing that would never appear in a rom-com today, but also further evidence of how the bright pop fantasy of Pretty Woman at least tries to acknowledge some kind of bleak weird reality. Compare it to, like, Sweet Home Alabama, which is nominally about Reese Witherspoon leaving the bright-lights big city for the down-home reality of her smalltown birthplace. But really, that movie is the Tiffany fantasy of New York versus the country-music fantasy of the Good Ol’ South.
10. Like, one of the first scenes in Pretty Woman features a dead prostitute in a dumpster. And Hank Azaria is the detective investigating the crime scene! And some tourists take pictures of the dead prostitute! Clear evidence that Pretty Woman takes place in some darkly comic Eszterhasian bizarro world.
11. Did you guys know Laura San Giacomo voiced a character on Gargoyles? Sorry, brief tangent, but now I’m on an LSG Wikipedia wormhole. She voiced Fox. #LSG4Life
12. The film spends a very long time on Richard Gere’s job. Most romantic comedies in the decline period gave the lead characters hilarious Movie Jobs: Architect, Gallery Curator, Journalist Working Exclusively On An In-Depth Story About Modern Dating. Giving Edward an actual recognizable job — and treating that job as something with almost equal plot importance to the romance — makes Edward feel like an actual character and not just a romantic avatar.
13. Richard Gere’s job will never be the job of a movie protagonist ever again. Or at least, not until America forgets what Recession feels like. Gere spends the entire movie planning on buying a company run by Ralph Bellamy, the Hollywood demi-legend cast here as the onscreen incarnation of everything America used to be. It really does feel like someone made a movie about how Dick Fuld is a really nice guy when you get to know him.
14. Pretty Woman does seem to realize that Gere isn’t a very good guy. At one point, as Edward prepares to buy Ralph Bellamy’s company and junk it into money that he can spend on his miserable lonely existence, he gets existential with Jason Alexander.
Richard Gere: “We don’t build anything, Phil. We don’t make anything.”
Jason Alexander: “We make money, Edward.”
This is uncanny pre-echo of one of the single heaviest lines from recent TV history:
Pretty Woman works, I think, because some part of the original, darker Pretty Woman is still there: The idea that Gere-as-heartless-money-man isn’t too different from Roberts-as-prostitute. They really do both screw people for money.
15. But also, the movie loves money. Loves it. One of the first lines is someone saying, “It’s all about money.” In the land of Pretty Woman, it really is. The evil blonde fascists on Rodeo Drive don’t take Vivian seriously until Edward promises to throw money at them until they can take no more. Pretty Woman is maybe the inception point for the near-pornographic fashion montages that defined the rom-com genre, and there’s a way of looking at that part of the movie as a long training sequence for Vivian — except instead of learning how to box, she’s learning how to spend.
16. Conversely, the movie builds up to the point when Vivian refuses to take money from Edward. Which — in the context of a movie that stops just short of showing people using hundred-dollar-bill napkins — is an action that becomes some kind of Bartleby the Scrivener anti-establishment fusillade.
17. Double conversely, the movie ends with Richard Gere reborn as a much nicer multimillionaire. I think he’s going into defense contracting? So Richard Gere in Pretty Woman starts off as the bad guy from Wall Street and ends as a bad guy from 24.
18. Pretty Woman works because the movie just lets Richard Gere and Julia Roberts hang out. The first half-hour of the movie is mostly just long conversations between Gere and Roberts. “Conversations” are what happened in movies before hijinks took over. Half of the movie feels like it’s just Roberts and Gere talking around his sweet penthouse. Rom-coms eventually hyperbolized into a genre where two obnoxious people who hate each other argue themselves into love. As fantastical as Gere and Roberts might be, there’s just so much valuable real estate given over to them talking, flirting, getting angry, making up, having actual conversations about their past.
19. We need more pianos in movies. Between Pretty Woman and The Fabulous Baker Boys, the ’89-’90 nexus was a prime moment for sexy piano scenes. Like, We Are Your Friends might actually be a better movie if you digitally replace all the turntables with pianos.
20. We also need more of Julia Roberts’ laugh. Serious question, though: Did Roberts-as-Vivian invent the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? She’s both innocent and experienced, capable of calling out the lead male character BUT ALSO devoted to fixing him from a successful sad person into a successful happy person. If there was just one scene where Roberts played Gere, like, a Stone Roses cassette…
21. Hector Elizondo is God. Literally though, I think his hotel manager is the movie’s manifestation of some higher power. He’s like the angelic counterpoint to the ghosts in The Shining. Has anyone conceived a unified theory for Hector Elizondo yet? Is he, like, the Nick Fury of the Garry Marshall-verse?
22. Holy crap, Laura San Giacomo maybe voiced Gina Carano in Haywire? Sorry, sorry, brief tangent, but this is some serious high-level film nerd gossip that I have never heard before and will henceforth repeat ad infinitum. #LSG4Life #LSGShouldDubAllActors
23. All romantic comedies should be rated R. Or anyhow, that would make romantic comedies much better and more interesting. The sexual politics of Pretty Woman are so upfront outrageous that the only way to make the movie today would be to gender-swap the leads. But that’s true of most romantic comedies — and maybe true of most actual real-life romance. The thing Pretty Woman has going for it is that most post-Pretty Woman pretenders live in a PG-13 world of hugs and kisses and not an actual world of human sexual activity. But Pretty Woman does not shy away from the fact that, like, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere are having all kinds of wild sex while gradually falling in love.
24. Actually, the movie really does live up to its central premise of being old-fashioned and modern. The whole “I don’t kiss on the lips” thing is a weird running thing in the movie, and it feels like a weird attempt to give some sense of agency to a character who is, after all, spending the entire movie getting paid by a wealthy supervillain to satisfy his every need. But viewed from the year 2015, when the whole practice of romantic comedy has been generally banished from the multiplex, it’s possible to appreciate how Pretty Woman manages to be “modern” (in the sense that people have sex before they fall in love) and old-fashioned (in the sense that the moment of falling in love is captured onscreen as the First Kiss).
25. Also, someone should remake Pretty Woman today and gender-swap the leads. I see Rooney Mara as Richard Gere and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Julia Roberts.
Have your own Marxist theory of Pretty Woman? Email me your thoughts, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly Mailbag.
WANT MORE EW? Subscribe now to keep up with the latest in movies, television and music.