Pretty 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.
What’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:
- Heroine offers to sell her body to the hero, and succeeds (eventually)
- Sex on a grand piano, no mouth-kissing
- Nakers fun in a huge bathtub
- Sweeter sex, on a bed, but still no mouth-kissing
- 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.