In A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1950, film scholar Robert B. Ray argued that mainstream American film often addresses one or another social ill by reducing it to a personal problem. The impact of racism, anti-semitism, et cetera on one or a few individuals is portrayed, then a tidy reconciliation between offensive and offended parties is effected by one means or another. The unwary viewer may thus be lulled into believing that complex social conflicts can be cured just as magically outside the local Simplex.
Simplistic answers notwithstanding, the better “problem”/ reformist pictures of the 1940s and 1950s – e.g., Gentleman’s Agreement (1949), Home Of The Brave (1947) – at least managed to give red-hot social issues a reasonable public airing. No so Pretty Woman (1990), in which director Garry Mashall slickly sidesteps substantive questions about prostitution and the unequal treatment of women that persist to this day.
Pretty Woman depicts the unlikely romance of Edward Lewis (Richard Gere), a ruthless, acrophobic corporate raider, and Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts), a leggy young hooker with the requisite heart of gold and a supposedly refreshing vulgarity (it would, I believe, gag a goat). Edward is visiting Los Angeles to pirate a shipyard away from its crusty owner, James Morse (Ralph Bellamy — so crusty as to seem terminally sclerosed).
At a lavish party of fellow one-percenters, Edward’s latest live-in-lover calls to tell him she’s bailing out because of his monumental selfishness. Edward throws a narcissistic fit, exits the party, and swipes his lawyer’s Lotus with the astonishing notion of driving himself to the Regency Beverly Wilshire instead of sulking in his limo.
He promptly gets lost on the Sunset Strip and asks street-walking Vivian for directions. She takes him on a madcap excursion to the ultra-posh hotel; winds up in his penthouse, hired for the night. By the morning he’s been taken with her off-beat beauty, kooky candor, and bedroom skills (inferred through the conventions of soft-core porn). Rationalizing that he’ll need a decorative lady on his arm at some point in his relentless pursuit of pelf, he proposes to lease her services for a week at $3,000 (a serious chunk of change in 1990), plus whatever glad rags she buys. She accepts – purely business on her part, too, in the world’s oldest business.
When Viv attempts to exchange her garish hooker outfit for the latest fashionista-wear, Rodeo Drive salesladies cruelly shame her out of their shops. The stern but kindly hotel manager takes her under his wing, gets her properly kitted out, and teaches her to distinguish between a salad and desert fork. Hector Elizondo plays the sort of fussy facilitator regularly encountered in classic Forties screwball comedies (Edward Everett Horton specialized in such roles.) Marshall knows his film history, and cannily references the screwball genre throughout Pretty Woman.
A revamped Vivian proceeds to transform Edward from corporate predator into liberal empath through ‘vegging out’ in front of the TV, barefoot walks in the park, and other witless pleasures. The generous spirit concealed by Viv’s crass facade likewise blossoms as Edward whisks her to four-star restaurants, decks her in diamonds, and flies her to the San Francisco opera in his private jet. Viv proves her ability to assimilate high culture by weeping buckets over her fictional alter ego in La Traviata.
At the end of the week, Edward is so gentled up that he decides to partner up with Morse so he can build “things” instead of tearing them down, Banes fashion. He also proposes to set Viv up as his mistress. It’s an enormous step for him towards healing his formidable self-preoccupation. For Viv, however, his offer is a painful putdown.
Turns out that when she was a kid her mother often locked her in the attic for ornery behavior, a punishment she bore by imagining herself as a princess imprisoned in a tower by an evil queen, awaiting rescue by a handsome prince. Being Edward’s mistress doesn’t fit Viv’s script: it just makes her feel like his whore, which is pretty much what she’s been all along.
Viv’s pragmatic roommate (Laura San Giacomo as a saucy sexpot a bit worse for wear). urges Viv to take Edward’s deal and forget about her moonbeam fantasies: the only woman ever rescued by a handsome prince was “Cinderfuckingrella”. But Viv protests – “I want the fairy tale!” Then Edward actually does rescue her – from his sleazoid partner (Jason Alexander). The latter, seeking revenge because Viv wrecked the shipyard takeover by airing out Edward’s parched psyche, attempts to rape her.
Edward decks the partner. After performing like a prince, he still can’t bring himself to do better than install her as his courtesan. Viv refuses: she now loves him so much she can’t even sleep with him. So he ponies up the $3000 retainer and leaves for the airport. Saddened but chockful of new self-respect, Viv is packing her bags to depart for a new life off the streets. Then Edward pulls up in his limo, ascends her fire escape despite his fear of heights, and shakily sweeps her off her feet. Pretty Woman concludes with Edward asking Viv what’s supposed to happen to the prince after he rescues Cinderella. “She rescues him right back!” chirps the happy ex-hooker.
Viv’s rejoinder is a summary example of how Pretty Woman weds its’ exploitative agenda with fashionably feminist leftoid blather. My mentor in psychoanalytic film criticism, Dr. Martha Wolfenstein, wrote that cinema is pervaded by false appearances: one can discover the actual content of a movie’s ‘unconscious’ scenario by examining what the film is trying to reassure viewers never really happened, or happened for a ‘good’ reason. For instance, in Casablanca (1943) Ilse Lund explains to Rick Blaine that she only indulged in a flagrantly adulterous affair with him because she thought her husband had been killed by the Nazis.
When he first meets Vivian, Edward smugly exclaims – “You and I are such similar creatures – we both screw people for money.” The film then ‘reassures” us that Edward’s cynicism masks a bruised but beautiful soul. He’s really a prince of a guy. His barracuda business practise stems from a post-traumatic stress disorder – the stress being his childhood abandonment by a ruthless CEO father after a nasty divorce. Edward has become a corporate raider by identifying with the agressor: his first hostile takeeover was of his father’s company. As for his previous callous manipulation of women, he simply cannot bear the possibility of repeating his parents’ traumatic divorce.
Viv, for her part, is ‘really’ a plucky, offbeat lady whose life-affirming possibilities withered on the vine because her mom chronically rated her a bum, creating a bummed out self image and a yen for bum boyfriends which somehow brought her to walk Los Angeles’ wild side. Her harlotry is clearly provisional, serves to keep men at a distance until some prince arrives to climb her tower and jump on her bones. Unable to exercise her talents in the business world because of her lousy self image, she’s still managed to turn prostitution into street-level venture capitalism; has no pimp; carefully choses her clientele; doesn’t use drugs; persistently flosses her teeth – presumably after fellatio; and otherwise practises impeccably safe sex – offering customers a choice of colored condoms.
The raw truths Pretty Woman seeks to cunningly anesthetize audiences from recognizing is that prostitutes and raiders do indeed screw people for money, but most Romney-ish raiders get away with it – in 2012 even more so than in 1990. Nor are will the shuck and jive of whoring and raiding be quickly surrendered after a mite of pop-psych parent bashing. With rare exceptions, and despite the pop-culture platitudes surrounding prostitution, the world’s oldest profession is hardly fun; is not a victimless crime, rather a humiliating, sometimes deadly enterprise. It thrives on collusion with corrupt authority; is ridden with sordid victimization, human trafficking the worst example.
One further pierces the film’s sinister cloaking devices to discover that in the end Edward is little changed from the crude emblem of unprincipled patriarchy he initially embodied. His Trumpish vulgarity actually eclipses Viv’s, with his parvenu pursuit of the ‘best’ room, meals, digs, and other empty signatures of boardroom triumphalism. His facile identification with Morse/Bellamy’s benevolent elder patriarch merely leads him to cease dismantling companies (at an appalling cost to workers, one assumes), in aid of building destroyers for the military-industrial complex.
Pretty Woman’s notion of the sexes rescuing/redeeming each other is essential to its devious work of disavowal. Despite Viv’s concluding speech, Edward actually doesn’t much crave rescue from his megabucks and extravagant lifestyle; he merely needs to become a trifle humanized by Viv’s beauty, vitality, and the ‘special’ qualities he never fully articulates. Intelligence certainly can’t be an attributes Although Edward claims she’s bright, she’s consistently depicted as a decerebrate ding-a-ling. Other women in the film are likewise painted as bimbos, bitches, or both. One is reminded of Sigourney Weaver’s ‘bony-assed’ corporate predator in Working Girl, a film which bears many instructive comparisons with Pretty Woman, including its’ meritricious portrayal of the Nineties sensitive ‘new man’.
Vivian, on the other hand, clearly needs to be extracted from her tawdry circumstances. Her rescue fantasies are wickedly construed as a ‘natural’ given of feminine psychology, as native as the desire for the dazzling consumer goodies Edward provides with his phallic Mastercard.
Pretty Woman cleverly positions the audience, women in particular, in Viv’s place as she plays pixillated Jane Eyre to Edward’s junk-bond Rochester, undergoes ritual testing of her worth by her raider Pygmalion.
A repellant adulation of masculine domination informs this post-Reaginite reinvention of the Pygmalion myth. Pretty Woman emphasizes Edward’s charisma and power compared to his creation’s degraded status. The cockney heroine of Shaw’s Pygmalion sold flowers. Viv hawks her body. (In this regard, someone pointed out that we actually see more of Edward/Gere’s naked flesh than of Viv/Roberts’.) With Vivian, we goggle at the fabulous accoutrements of Edward’s loot; are stunned and humbled by the splendor of the Beverly Wilshire and other fabulous habitats of the unreprentent wealthy; participate vicariously in her triumph as Edward redeems her from her mean streets.
While token potshots are taken at Rodeo Drive conspicuous consumption, the most crucial – and cynical – test Viv had to pass in 1990 is whether she can consume as elegantly and endlessly as The Housewives of Beverly Hills. Pretty Woman preaches that once tutored, then backed in classy spending by the man of your dreams, you too, can be transformed into the princess of every rich lout’s lustful, predatory fantasies. Presumably, your job in his script would be to abide cheerfully at home, ever ready to service the sahib at the end of his predatory working day.
In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story, the ironic wife says: “If men had their way, every woman would lie down a prostitute and get up a virgin.” Pretty Woman garnered huge box office by selling a dubious vision of woman as hooker cum handmaiden, madonna and whore simultaneously made flesh.
A large constituency of women who ought to have known better were seduced into buying the film as a harmless fantasy, particularly appealing to women who have it all at the price of terminal exhaustion. Daphne Merkin, in a much discussed New York Times piece, notably testified to the untenability, indeed downright speciousness of the film’s premises, yet could still conclude: “…it appears that in the post-modernist, post-feminist closing decade of the 20th century, we still need our myths; our amatory fictions – they help us endure.” God forbid.
The need fulfilled by these fictions is regressive; what endures in them is the demeaning patriarchal practice which the feminist ‘revolution’ has yet to really revolutionize, at least not with respect to the Neanderthal ideology of the contemporary male American lunatic right. In chosing her prince and the tainted fairy-tale he incarnates, Vivian has simply exchanged one form of whoring for another.
An earlier version of Dr. Greenberg’s review appeared in the Psychiatric Times, December 1990, pp. 41-2.