Long-dead pop-cultural bodies are never really dead. As the generation that first delighted over them ages, they are restored to life again: Dallas, Dynasty, Ghostbusters... And so it is with Pretty Woman, Garry Marshall’s 1990 movie soon to become a Broadway musical, with songs and lyrics written by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance.
Tony-winning Steve Kazee will play Edward, the businessman originally played by Richard Gere. Samantha Barks—for me, as Éponine, the best performer in the movie of Les Misérables—will play Vivian the prostitute, originally played by Julia Roberts.
Whether the musical interrogates, or even toys with, the original’s suspect cultural politics remains to be seen. On Broadway, the thinking may be more “Nail the shopping scene,” furnished with Roy Orbison’s famous song and lots of swinging of boutique bags, rather than dig too deep into what it means.
In this love story, Roberts plays the most goodly prostitute ever, and Gere the most gentlemanly john, and the principal villain is the person who doesn’t play along with the candy-coated theatrics on screen—and who instead proposes that men who use prostitutes treat it as a cold transaction, and the prostitutes themselves as mere objects whom they can brutalize.
Pretty Woman may have a prostitute at its center, but it’s not a film about prostitution; it treats the topic like Dame Maggie Smith in her Downton finest avoiding a peasant with her nose held resolutely high.
Pretty Woman is a fairytale in ’90s garb, Roberts’ big breakthrough film, and a materialist fantasy with money and shopping the two lures giving that candy coating an especially sickly sweet taste. It works, if you ignore the various alarm bells it sets off, by suggesting that Gere’s character Edward Lewis isn’t that kind of john, and Roberts isn’t that kind of prostitute. This isn’t Taxi Driver, it’s Pygmalion.
To underscore the duo’s distaste for their own circumstance, Roberts is given a roommate and pal Kit De Luca (Laura San Giacomo), who is a mess and who does go off and have sex with clients, and whom Roberts gives stern talkings-to and eventually helps escape her bad-prostitute destiny.
Meanwhile, multimillionaire Edward has his lawyer Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), who wants him to be ruthless and swallow up a shipbuilding company run by the avuncular James Morse (Ralph Bellamy); when Phil, who is short and fat and not pretty, finds out Vivian is a prostitute he decides to treat her with the exploitative disdain according to his understanding of what “prostitute” means.
Both Kit and Phil, in very different ways, represent the real worlds that Vivian and Edward kind of occupy but are desperate to transcend. Phil is the villain, but one feels a trace of sympathy with him when he shouts at Edward that he built his empire thanks to his ruthlessness and now he is throwing all that away. It’s likely true. But within the confines of the film, he must be punched, vanquished, and morally renounced by Edward.
Thus, Kit and Phil, the most reality-rooted personalities in a film about prostitution, have no place in Pretty Woman and are cleansed.
The film’s biggest feel-good moment, besides its romantic conclusion—and the reassurance that dreams really do come true—is a shopping scene. Because what else could complete a woman but a designer wardrobe!
This sequence occurs because Edward needs to take Vivian out to exhibit her, but Vivian, with her short skirt, patent boots, and cut-out top—today, a relatively modest look on the VMA red carpet—is considered not fit for public viewing.
Right at the beginning of the film, Edward is covering Vivian up, so she can pass as unnoticed as possible through the swanky hotel he’s holed up in. She must be changed, transformed, made over, made nice.
On Rodeo Drive, Gere’s character lays out the guiding philosophy for the film: “Stores are never nice to people; they’re nice to credit cards.”
Edward has the ideal relationship with money: He has lots of it, and he is mighty tortured by the same burden. So, he can finance a whole new wardrobe for woman he has bought, while also—as the film progresses—realize what a shit his pursuit of money and influence has made him. It’s the best kind of ennobling capitalist balancing act.
“OK, stop fidgeting, get rid of your gum,” Edward tells Vivian, as they approach their first store, where he will instruct the manager to make a big fuss over her and make her new anew, for a “really offensive” sum of money.
Vivian appears to be in heaven; she spits out her gum on command and signs over her identity to Edward willingly and happily, and we cheer—as I expect we shall cheer on Broadway—when she returns to the shop of snotty sales assistants who previously looked down on her dressed in her prostitute daywear.
Now, armed with shopping bags and dressed in the utterly samey uniform of a Beverly Hills lady-who-barely-lunches, circa 1990, she circles them with her shopping bags, which may as well be weapons. “You work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. Huge.”
Vivian returns to the hotel, where fabulous Hector Elizondo as the benevolent manager sees this now-fragrant vision of class and style and smiles proudly to himself. Roy Orbison’s song ends with Roberts throwing off her hat and just sighing at the sheer material majesty of it all.
Money has saved her, and shopping is her sword and shield.
The film treats the issue of her being seen as chattel, and her perception of others seeing her so, as the complication that keeps her and Edward apart. But Vivian’s goodness and her saintly patience—having to endure Edward’s glumness over his mean dad and world of material emptiness, and helping him combat his fear of heights—is her ticket out of BadTown.
The film seeks to equalize the two characters by reducing them to soap-opera damaged children. Edward’s daddy issues are solved by relenting on his plan to destroy substitute-papa Morse.
In Roberts’ case, she even presents this childhood awfulness in the frame of a fairytale: “My momma locked me in the attic when I was bad. I’d pretend I was a princess trapped in the tower by a wicked queen. Suddenly this knight on a white horse would charge up, draw his sword, and I’d wave. He’d climb up the tower and rescue me.”
And, of course, guess what happens in the final reel.
That final reel is also memorable for Roberts’ insistence that “She rescues him right back.” This you could say was a modern feminist salvo, or merely a miserable portent of co-dependency.
Edward’s material supremacy and Vivian’s emotional groundedness will be each other’s safe place; although day to day, because of his money, he will be in a much safer place than she, who will remain dependent on his riches.
The film places a false equivalence around the material and emotional. A modern prince like Edward comes with his own issues, and so the best a modern princess can hope for, Pretty Woman suggests, is a mutuality between gorgeous if acutely damaged people, helping each other surmount their demons one shopping trip at a time.
There is nothing wrong with lush romance glossing over fairly fundamental character flaws in fiction—see Jane Eyre. But a Pretty Woman musical in 2018 would serve an audience well if, as well as singing along to Prince in a bubble bath and enjoying Lucy and Ethel stomp grapes, it addressed the faulty feminism and materialist crud the film version shamelessly parlayed. (Important note: It is possible to love the shopping scene, and also query the meaning of the shopping scene.)
The one truly magical moment of the film isn’t confected—the sequence when Edward presents Vivian with a necklace and then goes to snap the box shut on her fingers. Roberts squeals in genuine surprise, as Gere did it out of the blue.
The musical will be seeking to replicate that defining moment of magic, and if it can’t then at least find a way to simulate it, while—of course, this is Pretty Woman—making as much money as possible.