Pretty Woman (1990): Star Is Born–Julia Roberts Shines, Showing Strong Chemistry with Richard Gere in a Cinderella-Like Fable

Pretty Woman is the 1990 movie that made Julia Roberts America’s biggest female star, catapulting her to the boys club with international reputation and huge paychecks to follow.

Roberts’ vivid, wide-open grin gave the picture its appealing spark. Her goofy, imperfect looks (sharp nose) and giggly charm proved to have a glimmer.

Roberts’ nervy laugh, jittery but innocent, and long beautiful hair, became signature pieces of an iconic image in formation.  Oddly, though, Richard Gere’s body is more on display that that of Roberts or Laura San Giacomo, who plays Roberts’ comrade-in-arms.

Restless, ruthless financial wheeler-dealer Richard Gere meets a Hollywood hooker (Julia Roberts), when he gets lost on the way to his hotel. Finding her outlook on the world intriguing, he offers her $3000 to spend the weekend with him, not for sex but for companionship. Taking a cue from Pygmalion’s Professor Higgins, he proceeds to make her over, providing a new wardrobe as well as a new outlook on the world. Rather than stay passive as an object of desire, she reciprocates by softening his view on humanity.

An enormously popular sleeper hit (grossing over $100 million) that made Roberts a superstar and revived Richard Gere’s career. This is the kind of enjoyable, fluffy, light entertainment that Hollywood has been doing for decades.

Ironically, the original screenplay by J. F. Lawton was a gritty downer, but Touchstone, a subsidiary of Disney, Disneyied the movie into a bright and sunny tale that embodied the American Dream in all its consumerism allure. Roberts’ shopping spree in Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, using Gere’s credit card, may be the ultimate fantasy of young American girls. The whole movie is, like David Thompson noted, like an expensively wrapped Christmas candy, and one of the most insidious and comprehensive lifestyle commercials masquerading as a movie.

The transmogrification of “Pretty Woman’s initial script is lampooned by Robert Altman in “The Player,” in which a writer’s determinedly downbeat screenplay gets transformed into an upbeat movie, staring no other than Julia Roberts (and Bruce Willis).

As directed by Garry Marshall, the helmer who gave us TV’s “Laverne and Shirley,” among others, “Pretty Woman” is modern fairy tale, a Cinderella story. The cast includes Ralph Bellamy, Jason Alexander, Laura San Giacomo, and, best of all, Hector Elizondo

Roberts received a second Oscar nomination, and the first in the Best Actress category; her first nod was in the supporting league for “Steel Magnolias.” Roberts lost the Best Actress Oscar to Kathy Bates in “Misery,” but a decade later, won the Oscar for a more deserving performance and film, “Erin Brockovich.”

One of the oddest fashion trends was inspired by this mega-popular Cinderella story of a prostitute who meets her prince, falls in love with him and goes on to becomes a more refined society lady.

Though Marilyn Vance’s classic designs for Roberts included a russet polka-dot dress and the now-familiar red Cerutti gown that had women swooning, it was Roberts’ “before” look, which appeared on the poster and videotape cover that made more waves fashion-wise. Paris runways paraded scores of “Pretty Woman” hooker looks –spandex, hot pants and thigh-high go-go boots–which made the oldest profession seem like the newest thing.

The formulaic script lurches from one implausible situation to another, but who cares about coherent plot if you have such charismatic performers.

Marshall, a mass entertainer but never an artists, directs this paint-by-the numbers scenario as if he were wearing earplugs to protect him from the rather banal dialogue (some of which was improvised on the set).

This flick is not the street-mart “Pygmalion” it desperately wants to be, but it works as a romantic and mythic fable that teenage girls like.

Surprisingly, however, some feminist critics liked the film, even though it contained enough elements to offend millionaires on the one hand and prostitutes on the other.

Runaway Bride, also directed by Marshall, in 1999, is sort of a sequel, though, despite the eagerly-awaited reunion of Gere and Roberts, the film was not as popular as the first one.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Actress: Julia Roberts

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of Best Actress Oscar was Kathy Bates for “Misery.”