Cinémawonque Analysis: Pretty Woman

wonktastical_PrettyWomanPretty Woman (1990) is such a modern classic of the mainstream romance genre, I think it’s incredibly easy to forget exactly how wonked this story is. In fact, I’ve attended writing workshops in which it’s used as a universal reference to illustrate romance fiction plot structure, because just about everyone’s watched it at least once. If not ten times.

For the two of you who have not seen Pretty Woman—forgive me, but I’m not going to bother synopsizing it. Just know these two basic facts: the heroine is a prostitute, and the hero is a wealthy businessman.

Before I enumerate what’s wonked about this movie and how its writer, J.F. Lawton, made it work, here’s a brief critique of the film itself.

I like this movie. I don’t love it, but I think it’s an incredibly successful romance (I’d argue it has to be, to float a hooker heroine and still have grossed nearly half a billion dollars in the box office, worldwide.) But the major thing that keeps me from loving the film isn’t a story issue. It’s a casting issue. I simply don’t buy Julia Roberts as a street-wise hooker. There’s something too delicate about her features, and too wooden in her delivery of the tough-girl bits of dialogue (“You’ll buy a snap-dog, we’ll cop a squat under a tree somewhere.”) Nor do I buy her as a gear-head grease monkey. But what I do buy is her chemistry with Richard Gere. And I think that, traded in for an actress who could play a more convincing tough-cookie, would have been a mistake. So, my main criticism is a negligible one.

A lesser factor that keeps me from loving this movie is predictable to most anyone who’s known me for two seconds—I’m turned off by incredibly wealthy heroes. While I think Edward is a good guy—with human flaws and none of the nearly standard-issue controlling douchebag millionaire tendencies we’re used to suffering—I simply can’t fall for him as I’m intended to. My favorite heroes all struggle far more than he does. A couple failed relationships, a freshly dead daddy, and a therapist do not a lust-worthy hero make, in my book. But that’s a very subjective complaint and rectifying it would ruin the story’s Cinderella / My Fair Lady angle, so I’ll declare that concern moot, as well.

On to the wonk! And how it is J.F. Lawton managed to make that wonk work, to the tune of a box office gold rush.

Edward-Vivian-in-Pretty-Woman-movie-couples-21269415-1280-720What’s Wonked: The Heroine’s a Hooker!
And not a classy one, either. She works on Hollywood Boulevard, and it’s a dangerous gig; she’s no pampered modern-day courtesan. But she’s not a desperate wretch, either. Vivian chose to be a hooker. She was initiated—but not coerced—by a close female friend, after not finishing high school and struggling to support herself doing some crappy straight jobs. Vivian doesn’t arrive at this point in her life in as a victim, which I find incredibly gratifying. This is just the shitty job that she’s taken to pay the rent. Realistic? Maybe not. But refreshing, certainly!

Why It Works
As the movie opens, the writer’s telling us, “So. Heroine’s a hooker. That’s how it is. Here are some brilliant little prop details to prove she has loving friends and family and that she’s relatable. Go ahead and care about her.” Her gig is presented as something barely worth batting an eye over, and we see her interacting with her hooker friends the same way we might banter and bicker around the water cooler. It’s not until she enters Edward’s world that her hookeriness feels startling—it’s not until she herself feels badly that the bubble bursts.

From the second we meet Vivian, we’re given reasons to like her. She’s resourceful and funny and loyal. She wants to do good and make the rent. She forgives her fuck-up friend and roommate, Kit [who would make a terrifically wonked heroine in her own right, if far a more challenging one to redeem than Vivian], while not being a complete doormat. Vivian wants to “get out of here,” even if she doesn’t have any great ambitions (aside from romantic ones, revealed later in the film.) She won’t get involved with a pimp—she wants to control her own career. A respectable street walker, this one. She has levels. Maybe not crazy-deep levels, but enough that we easily forget her vocation and she simply becomes “Vivian.”

We also see the way she interacts with the hero—she’s far more competent than he is during their highly unconventional meet-cute on the streets of Hollywood. Even if Roberts’ delivery of those tough-chick lines leaves something to be desired, authenticity-wise, the writer gives us every reason to believe Vivian is capable, and in as much control as a woman in her position could hope to be. She may not love hooking, but again, she’s no victim—and I can’t emphasize enough how key this is, for me.

What’s Wonked: The Hero Hires a Hooker!
[Spoiler alert for the two people who haven’t seen the film.] Edward hires Vivian as a prostitute—and he gets what he pays for. They have sex, and he gives her money, and she keeps it.

Why It Works
It works largely through sheer screenwriting magic. It works because Edward’s solicitation of Vivian’s sexual services happens in a very gradual and roundabout fashion. She gives him the curbside hard-sell and he caves somewhat, hiring her to escort him to Beverly Hills (he got lost on the way to his super-swanky and very nineties-tastic hotel), which makes the transaction innocent—even sweet, since she’s trying to talk him into letting her render some far seedier services.

He’s prepared to leave it at that once they reach Beverly Hills, except she’s charmed him. He rather reluctantly invites her to the stay the night, spurred by a fast-acting crush so well-acted by Gere and smartly nuanced, you know he’s not simply horny—he’s smitten. And once things do eventually become sexual (with I Love Lucy playing in the background—genius) Vivian is the initiator, and Edward’s the hesitant one. She makes all the first moves. Lawton does a brilliant job of somehow making what should be an incredibly sleazy scene into something quite vulnerable and romantic.

Another reason it works is that Edward is only marginally embarrassed by the arrangement, once it becomes a week-long affair. He does the only bare minimum of work to camouflage what Vivian is. Had he been ashamed and tried to hide her more rigorously, it would have been much harder to like him. But he’s nearly as blasé about the reasons for her staying in his penthouse as she is. He doesn’t flaunt her gig before the hotel staff, as she sometimes does, but he doesn’t apologize for it, either. He’s her champion, pretty much from the start, but he never sets out to “save” her. Nor does he even really try to change her, not outside of the necessity of classing her up so she can function as his date for business events. A million points for Edward.

But Why It Really Works
It really works because of the chemistry. The physical chemistry between Gere and Roberts, and the characters’ chemistry, as evidenced in their easy rapport, the way they make one another laugh, and how naturally they complement one another. They’re foils, after all. You really do believe these two people suit one another uniquely, in ways they wouldn’t be able to find in another match. Which is one of the most challenging feats to pull off, in any romance.

Add to that, the deliciously backward pace of the courtship! Their sexual relationship goes:

  1. Heroine offers to sell her body to the hero, and succeeds (eventually)
  2. Blowjob
  3. Sex on a grand piano, no mouth-kissing
  4. Nakers fun in a huge bathtub
  5. Sweeter sex, on a bed, but still no mouth-kissing
  6. Mouth-kissing, finally

It’s like a chart marking the progression of acts of sexual intimacy from chaste to lewd, flipped upside-down. Plus a piano!

Add to that, a kick-ass vintage 1990 soundtrack. The Red Hot Chili Peppers! Roxette!!

Add to that, the fabulous details of prop and symbolism. Sure, the balconies and opera box and fire escapes aren’t exactly subtle, and neither are Edward’s bare feet in the grass. But there are some real gems of characterization in there—the way Vivian eats a croissant, for example, or fixes her scuffed boot with a Sharpie.

But my truly favorite, unexpected thing about Pretty Woman? Edward never appears bothered by Vivian’s experience or threatened by her other clients / lovers. It is 100% slut-shaming free, somehow! He never calls her promiscuity to light, nor acts insecure or intimidated by it. He does get a touch jealous at the polo match and turns briefly into a douche as a result, but when confronted he’s quick to apologize and it’s clear his dickishness sprang from a place of vulnerability. A million more points for Edward! This film so easily could have relied on the conflict of “I’d love you, but you’re a dirty hoor and I’m a powerful rich dude with a reputation to protect,” but it doesn’t. Instead we get, “I’d love you despite you being a whore, but I’m an emotional wreck at the moment.”

The more I think about this movie, the more I admire the writing. In addition to the challenges revolving around the hooker issue, the story also takes place inside a single week…and yet I have no trouble believing both protagonists are in love by the time the credits roll. Which is pretty amazing, and a testament to their chemistry. I appreciate this movie so much more than I would have a few years back, simply being able to analyze the plot and characterizations from a romance writer’s point of view.

So to the two people who haven’t yet seen Pretty Woman—go get yourselves educated. You don’t have to love it, or even like it, but if you write romance, at least invest the time and energy to dissect it. It’s wonked, but man, does it work.

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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18 Responses to Cinémawonque Analysis: Pretty Woman

  1. taragel says:

    The more I think about this movie, the more I admire the writing. In addition to the challenges revolving around the hooker issue, the story also takes place inside a single week…and yet I have no trouble believing both protagonists are in love by the time the credits roll.

    The lack of slut-shaming is actually quite impressive now that you mention it (I’ve never really considered it before). But also–this bit about it only taking a week. It’s amazing to me how so many excellent romance movies get away with that incredibly quick pacing. Another one I love (that might also qualify as wonky if you really think about it) is While You Were Sleeping–where (for those few who haven’t seen) heroine has a massive crush on a stranger, fakes being his fiancee complete with an almost-wedding, and falls for his brother…all in the space of a week, two tops? The brother even proposes at the end and she says yes–even though they’ve never shared more than a peck on the lips under the mistletoe with his entire family watching them. Hee. Oh the ’80s.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Good call! I haven’t seen While You Were Sleeping since it was new-ish, but I do recall doing a wonk-double-take when I heard about it, for all the reasons you mentioned. Coma? Brother-swapping?? Just goes to show, wonk done right can turn into crazy-big mainstream success!

  2. Had the total opposite reaction to watching Pretty Woman as an adult. Was so disappointed by how smug and controlling he seemed…how silly and pretty and gawky she was for a supposedly streetwise hooker. It just felt like the same old trope dressed in slightly different clothes. In fact, when 50 Shades hit and everyone was so surprised, I thought why? Pretty Woman was a smash – it’s all the same thing.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      I first rewatched it as an adult about a year ago, and I was shocked to catch myself enjoying it—I’d expected to hate it! And I actually wanted to re-rewatch again for this post, to try to figure out why I didn’t hate it.

      Oddly, I didn’t find Edward smug at all. And I have my anti-wealth bias, so I was fully prepared to hate him!

      But, and this is only my own interpretation, I found that even his smuggish lines—such as when he explains that he chose the penthouse because “it’s the best”—didn’t strike me as smug. I thought there was a real self-deprecation to them, like he knew how stupid his logic was. Like he knew in that first scene that it was silly that he couldn’t drive for shit, because he’d been chauffeured in a limo his entire life. I dunno. I thought he seemed charmingly out of his depth, when Vivian was there to act as his foil. And shockingly smug-free!

      But yeah, she was not well cast AT ALL for the role. But I still thought their chemistry made for a fair trade-off.

      • I think my problem was that as a kid, I found the movie wild. I thought it was really weird and cool. It sort of set me up to find it different, then was disappointed that it felt too familiar to everything I’m surrounded by now.

        It did help tho that Gere had that twinkle in his eye. Not enough for me, but at least it was there.

        The biggest problem for me with Vivian tho wasn’t that she was played by Julia…it was all the friend trying to buy her stuff. Oh she’s too good for it, now! Ah yes now she can have her happy ending, because she was this sweet young girl all along and look at this awful lech trying to buy her…just like Edward did ten minutes ago.

        • Cara McKenna says:

          Yeah, I can see that. But I could also see not wanting to wear all my old streetwalker clothes, once I’ve decided to quit being a streetwalker and go to San Fran to earn my GED. But I did find myself wondering, “Does she ever wear that awful hat again, after the credits have rolled?” Maybe if her character arc had been a bit crisper, I’d feel confident in guessing.

          • It just made the whole hooker thing ring false. It was just a plot device, a little touch of risque…but quick get rid of all of that before she gets her Prince! Otherwise she’s not worthy. Must make sure she’s violated by this other plot device, so we all know she’s now a pure Madonna and not some awful Whore.

            Clumsily done, Pretty Woman.

  3. Cara McKenna says:

    Oh—I did just think of a scene that forces me [temporarily] to side with Charlotte against Edward!

    That bit in the bathroom when she’s flossing but he thinks she’s hiding drugs? That scene did make me roll my eyes. Like, “Really, buddy? You pick up a streetwalker off Hollywood Boulevard, then get scandalized that she might be a drug user? Granted this unicorn hooker isn’t, but really—what did you think she was planning to spend your money on? High-waisted pleated shorts?”

    Minus ten points for Edward for the being the most naive New Yorker in history. Though of course, he was sheltered…

    • Shelley says:

      Ugh, I HATE that scene. I think it’s because it makes so clear the ugly side of this power dynamic, where a rich man has, essentially, bought a woman–

      She has no privacy. It’s his hotel room, his money, and her desire to floss her freaking teeth without his interference is ignored because he’s the one with the power in this scenario. Yes, there are times when he’s emotionally and sexually vulnerable, but in the end, he has the power, you know? And this scene makes that quite clear.

      That said, I am going to have to re-watch with your analysis in mind and reserve the rest of my judgment until then.

      • Cara McKenna says:

        I get what that scene is trying to do—make him the cad for a moment and cement her relative goodness, get them on even ground, morality-wise. I get that it’s important, so we should ignore his rudeness in barging in and his unrealistically convenient naivety for the sake of the turning point…but that scene did ask too much, as far as the suspension of my disbelief went.

        • Shelley says:

          Wait, wait, I’ve figured out my problem with the movie and it has a little to do with what you just said and a lot to do with what Charlotte’s been saying:

          Richard Gere’s character may not slut-shame, but the movie as a *whole* does.

          All that stuff Charlotte’s talking about, how we had to see a Madonna instead of a whore in order for her to get her happy ending with her prince? And how doofy and innocent she is, to an extent that is just utterly unbelievable? And how that scene with the rapey friend is supposed to underscore that Edward isn’t a jerk, doesn’t shame her for her profession?

          I think we as viewers are supposed to see the rapey friend’s behavior as unacceptable because we know that deep down, Vivian really IS an innocent, instead of the movie narrative framing it as being wrong because it’s WRONG. I think Julia Roberts being cast in the role, and being unable to convincingly be tough, is all part and parcel of the same thing. If she COULD convincingly be tough, then the movie wouldn’t be able to treat her with the kind of sympathy she garners.

          Ugh, I feel only half-coherent about this and my thoughts are only sort of half-formed, but I think that’s where my icky feeling comes from.

          • Totally agree with everything you’ve just said. You said it way better than I could!

            However, your analysis, Cara, has made me feel I’m being a bit harsh on the movie. And I do enjoy it, when I watch it – apart from a few icky things!

  4. With all these billionaire a-hole heroes running around, I love this contrast and compare. I’ve only seen parts of this movie, and I want to see the full now. What always struck me about it is how his friend, that guy who played George on Seinfeld, treated the Julia Roberts character. I remember feeling like there was such a kind of scary ferociousness to it, and it cast such a strong non-slut-shaming light on the Richard Gere character. I love seeing these lessons drawn out like this.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      At first, rewatching the scene where Stucky tries to rape Vivian, I was super pissed at Edward. Like, “Hey, you douche! Way to punch the guy, but if you loved this woman, wouldn’t you call the cops on a man who assaulted her, business partner or not?!” Then I remembered, oh yeah, prostitution’s illegal in California, so it’d be tricky. (Another point for the writer—it’s easy to forget how unlawful their romance is!) So I decided to let it slide.

  5. Kaetrin says:

    I’m an unashamed fan of Pretty Woman. My favourite romantic trope is the hero rescuing the heroine and the herione rescuing him “right back”. Most often, but not always, the hero’s rescuing is physical/material and the heroine’s rescuing is emotional but there is a mutuality to it which works for me.

    That said, I agree that the movie is, on the whole, not waving the prostitution flag. It’s a Cinderella story – the heroine is taken from life of squalor (in this case physical and sexual) and paired with a handsome prince. I can’t see how the movie could have been any other way and tell that story. I don’t know that I’d call the movie slut shaming per se but it certainly presented a world where it was far better not to be a hooker. In much the same way as it’s far better not to be poor have you a choice. And Cinderella was essentially innocent and good and beautiful etc. So Vivan, albeit being sexually experienced, to be the Cinderella character, had to have those essential qualities for the fairy tale to work. If she had been a chain smoking, drug addicted hooker who looked like she’s been rode hard and put away wet why would Edward fall for her? Why would the audience want him to? Why would anyone watch?

    I disagree (with respect) with Shelley re the Stucky incident. He didn’t try and negotiate with Vivian about sex – he just took it and, to me, he was being a douche and an asshole (and a rapist) but he wasn’t treating her like a prostitute – I think the movie DID say that rape is wrong. The message was very clearly that it’s not okay to jump on an unwilling woman even if she sells it for money.

    Edward could have called the police because Vivian didn’t solicit Stucky. But frankly, I was happy enough with the punch and I’m pretty sure Edward was going to make him pay even more financially and reputationally (I made up a word!).

    As much as I love the romance between Edward and Vivian, I have always felt uncomfortable with the piano scene – I felt that was a scene where he did use Vivian as a vessel and treat her as a hooker. I found no romance in it whatsoever. Also because it was disrespectful of her, being in a public place, Edward having to dismiss the barman so he could open his fly.

    I loved loved loved the way Hector Elizondo’s character (I can’t remember his name now) was so scathing of Vivian at first but how he came to admire and respect her and I adore the shopping scene where Vivian says “big mistake”. I think there was a message hidden there about how sometimes beautiful people are hidden under a bit of dirt. Or something.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      I’m with you on the Stucky issue—I don’t draw any parallels between the way Stucky treats her (attempted rape), the way snooty staff or salesladies treat her (class contempt and moral judgment), and the way Edward does (slow acceptance of the sexual services she willingly and repeatedly offers him, spurred by a growing affection).

      Neither do I find anything slut-shamey about the movie as a whole, in suggesting the heroine might be happier as not-a-prostitute. She may have chosen to hook, but I don’t think it’s ever unclear that she’d prefer a different life. I even think Kit—the “bad” kind of hooker—is painted in a lovable, redeemable light.

      I like your thoughts on the piano scene, and I’m not sure how I feel about it, myself… It doesn’t match any of their other love scenes. At first, the only thing that really bothered me was that I worried they didn’t use condoms, since Vivian is a self-proclaimed “safety girl.” But I decided to tell myself that Vivian had some in the pockets of her robe, so that I could continue enjoying the movie. I wish they’d shown her handing him one, just to prove the sex was a mutual decision and reinforce that she has some control over it, despite being his “beck-and-call girl” for the week.

      The thing I liked about that scene was that Edward sort of caved, and became the thing he was resisting becoming (a john) out of a place of deep vulnerability and exposure. Like at the polo match, I think there was an element of him punishing Vivian, out of insecurity. In the piano scene, when she’s watching him play, it’s like she walked in on him naked and crying, he’s so exposed and raw (by Edward’s usual buttoned-up businessman standards, that is). And because of that, I don’t mind a little abrasiveness in the sex that follows—he’s hurting. Also, I believe Vivian wants the sex, so unless he pushes her into it without condoms (which we don’t get to know) I’m okay with it. In fact, it was nice to see Edward take some ownership of their sexual relationship. And again, him embracing his role as the john brings them to a more level playing field, morality-wise.

      It is a sleazy moment—public place, more forceful than any other sex scene—but I think if anyone’s in danger of emotional damage, it’s Edward, so the power imbalance for me gets appropriately wobbly.

      Man, this movie is so subjective!

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Oh and yes, Hector Elizondo’s character was the best! He had a way more dramatic and satisfying character arc than Edward, that’s for sure. He was like her fairy godmother…if Cinderella’s fairy godmother had started the story in contempt of her charge :-)