Twenty years ago, in the spring before the major summer movies opened, a little Disney film about a prostitute opened in theaters with little pre-release hype. I was in my senior year with a severe case of "Senioritis". A friend asked me if I planned to see this movie. I laughed and said, "Yeah, a movie about a hooker with a heart of gold is exactly the kind of movie I want to see!"
I didn't think much about the film. The radio played a few songs from the movie (Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love" and Go West's "King of Wishful Thinking") that I liked. The movie was a certified hit, receiving some of the strongest word of mouth recommendations that guarantees a hit with "legs". This film definitely had more legs than the ones on the movie poster (it was still playing in theaters at the end of the year). Before this movie came out, Julia Roberts was an up-and-coming actress who was best known for 1988's Mystic Pizza and being the ONLY actress to score an Oscar nomination in the excellent ensemble cast of that ultimate "chick flick" Steel Magnolias. In a movie that starred Sally Fields, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Darryl Hannah, and Dolly Parton...how did an unknown and new actress Julia Roberts manage to receive the only acting nomination for this movie?
Its amazing to reflect now, but Julia Roberts only received $300,000 to star opposite Richard Gere (who had played a gigolo for hire in an early 1980s film). However, there was no doubt what made this movie a popular success. Its the kind of "destined role" that you can't imagine any other actress playing. This movie is Julia Roberts, pure and simple. Hopefully, she received money through profit sharing or bonus checks from this movie. Her asking price jumped to over $1 million for her first post-Pretty Woman role, and rightfully so. Soon, she became the highest paid actress ever and would finally earn her first Oscar in 2001 for Erin Brockovich.
Since I lived in Georgia at the time, Julia Roberts was a source of pride for Atlanta since she grew up and graduated from high school in the northwestern suburb of Smyrna (where I lived from 2004 to 2006), replacing previous Georgia pride and joy Holly Hunter (1994's Best Actress Oscar winner for The Piano), who replaced Kim Basinger (the actress who bought the town of Braselton GA and did absolutely nothing with it!). The tabloids hurried to uncover skeletons in Julia's closet. I was shocked when my favourite teacher, Mr. Malone (whom I've written about in a few previous posts about the impact he's had on my life and thinking due to his atheist activism), bought a copy of a tabloid that featured a cover story on Julia Roberts. The story was about losing her virginity in high school. The guy who was bragging about it to the tabloid was none other than a former student and soccer player of Mr. Malone, who took some strange pride in this story. He taught and coached the guy who "deflowered" Julia Roberts as a teenager! That's "two degrees of separation" between the school teacher and the famous actress. I thought then (and still believe today) that its sleazy to sell that sort of thing to a tabloid. Who cares? Obviously, enough people did--including my government teacher!
The movie was still playing in theaters through the summer and fall of 1990. I saw it at the $1 theater with a girl I was interested in (who also went to see Johnny Clegg and Savuka in concert with me). If I remember correctly, we had gone to see it on my birthday, but I didn't tell the lady that it was my birthday (I've been known to do that a lot, because I think its just weird to bring that to other people's attention. I only tell if asked).
I was impressed with the movie and could not believe that I did not want to see it before. I chalk it up to my conservative morals. A movie that "glamourized" prostitutes just did not sound appealing at all. Usually movies about prostitution or feature one tend to be dark. This one was different. A "romantic comedy" based on the play Pygmalion which also inspired the musical My Fair Lady (starring Audrey Hepburn, the Julia Roberts of her day). In the modern update, Julia Roberts plays a Hollywood streetwalker who approaches a driver of a white Lotus Esprit. She gives him directions to his upscale hotel in Beverly Hills. Something about her strikes him as endearing, so he invites her to stay the night. She charms him with her un-prostitute like personality (sweet, funny, and girlish...who cares about her teeth to the point where she advises him: "You should never neglect your gums!"). He propositions her to stay with him for the week that he's in town. Naturally, love blossoms while both are in denial.
The comedic aspects of the movie center around the attempts to make her more lady-like, as she takes lessons from the Hotel manager on the proper etiquette for dinner. The most popular scene is probably when she tries to go shopping on Rodeo Drive (pronounced roh-DAY-oh, not roh-dee-oh, for those who don't know) and is turned away by snooty sales ladies of the ultra luxurious stores that line one of the most famous shopping streets in the world. To ease her hurt feelings and build up her self esteem, the wealthy suitor takes her shopping, where he demands ass kissing as part of the experience.
In one of the most audience-pleasing scenes ever created in the movies, Julia is dressed like one of those wealthy women who live to shop, carrying multiple bags featuring designer names on the outside, and walks into the shop with the snooty salesladies. They don't remember her, because the last time she came in, she looked like a low class hooker. She reminds them, asks if they make a commission, then tells them that they made a big mistake, "huge!", and walks out with the taunt, "I have to go shopping now!" In the outtakes that plays during the closing credits of Valentine's Day, Julia Roberts is in the back of the limo and the limo driver points out Rodeo Drive and asks if she's ever shopped there. Julia repeats her famous lines about the big mistake, "huge!" It was pretty funny. I think that scene is what sealed the deal on Julia Roberts becoming "America's Sweetheart." How can you not root for such a lady?
Over New Year's 1997 / 1998, a former Navy buddy gave me a driving tour of Los Angeles and drove down Rodeo Drive. It looked like a movie set to me: fake fake fake! I also got to see the Ambassador Hotel (where RFK was assassinated in 1968), the Brentwood house where O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1994 (it was smaller than I thought it would be), and the Viper Room (where River Phoenix collapsed from a drug overdose). L.A. -- a fascinating place!
Another favourite scene from the movie for me is when Julia is singing Prince's "Kiss" in the bathtub and gets embarrassed when Gere catches her. She plays it off by saying, "Don't you just love Prince?" or something like that. When he propositions her with an offer to stay the week and they negotiate a deal, I love it when she ducks underneath the bubbles in the water and pops back up with bubbles all over her face. She's giddy...and she's damn cute when she's giddy.
At my first command in the Navy, one guy I became friends with who was into movies and celebrity culture hated this movie. He thought it set a bad example for young girls. He laughed at my theory on why it was such a hit (I had called it a "modern fairy tale", based on the scene at the end of the movie where the fantasy of a knight in a shiny white "horse" comes to rescue her from the highrise she's trapped in). He said that it doesn't happen. Of course not. Its a freaking movie! One scene that we both loved to make fun of was when Laura San Giacomo advises her newby friend to "work it, baby, work it!" My favourite line in the film is when Laura San Giacomo struggles to think of someone they both know that experienced a fairy tale come true. She then laughs and says: "Cinder-fucking-rella!"
It was interesting to see how the edited for television works. I had seen this film several times unedited, so I knew all the lines. When Laura San Giacomo tells an elderly couple at the hotel: "Fifty bucks, grandpa. For seventy-five, the wife can watch!" in the movie, the TBS version has her saying: "Your dress looks like my mother's curtains!" The couple storm off in disgust. That's the best line they could come up with? What's so offensive about the original line? A crass, low class prostitute is likely to say such a thing. My sister and I have laughs over that changed line.
In 1991, I had gotten up early to watch the Oscar nominations and remember hearing the stunned reactions of the press when Ghost was nominated for Best Picture and Julia Roberts received a Best Actress nomination for her role in Pretty Woman. It was a well-earned nomination. She truly made the film what it is. Its proof that when the right actor or actress meets the right role in the right movie, synergy happens. To this day, I consider this film to be Julia Roberts best. She's made some interesting choices over the years, but none have come close to the magic of this movie (My Best Friend's Wedding, Runaway Bride, Erin Brockovich, The Pelican Brief are other ones that I really like). Naturally, there have been talk of a sequel but that would be a mistake. Realistically, we all know what that movie would be about (the unraveling of the relationship as they realize that they just aren't right for one another). Better to leave it as is.
Instead of a sequel, though, what fans of the movie got was a completely different film which featured both Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in a new love story, with some familiar secondary cast members and the same director (Garry Marshall). That movie, Runaway Bride, was brilliant in the number of sly references to Pretty Woman. If you don't believe me, watch those two movies back-to-back. You'll see just how clever and brilliant Runaway Bride is with all the subtle references to Pretty Woman. To me, this was an even better idea than a sequel and you get a completely fresh story, as the film works in its own right.
Below is a clip from my absolute FAVOURITE scene from Pretty Woman. The song is perfect. In fact, that song ("Fallen" by Lauren Wood) is on my short list as a potential "first dance song" at my wedding someday (of course, I'm certain that its one of those negotiation things with the lady I end up marrying). What I love about the scene is how stunning and elegant Julia Roberts looks. Its a true transformational scene as they fly off to San Francisco for a night at the opera. The dress is phenomenal and the scene where Gere closes the jewelry case on Julia's fingers is perfect. It was actually unplanned, so the laugh was spontaneous and genuine. Just one more example about the little details that make a standard movie into a classic. Can't believe that its 20 years old this year.