Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The seductive fairytale

Review: Pretty Woman (1990)

I have been indulging myself this week. My husband was away at the weekend so I sat down to watch one of my favourite, feel-good films: Pretty Woman. For two happy hours, my teenage years of 1990 - the year the film was released - came flooding back. The soundtrack alone transported me to a wistful era of adolescent heartbreak, experimental outfits, thick eyebrows and endless daydreaming. At the time, my family lived in Oman and I vividly remember cruising along desert roads in our 4x4, watching the goat herds at work, with Wild Women Do belting out from the tape-deck. 

I confess that I saw the film at the cinema three times - twice
Julia Roberts at the world premiere of her new movie "Mirror Mirror" at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood. March 17, 2012 Los Angeles
Pretty Woman made Julia Roberts a star 
© Featureflash | Dreamstime.com
with friends and once with my mother!
  Evidently I was not alone: the film was one  of the highest-grossing romantic comedies in history. When I sat down to watch it yet again on Saturday night, I feared that I might have outgrown this Hollywood fairytale, but no! I was caught up in its charm once more, delighting in a script I knew embarrassingly well ("I'm a safety girl... I appreciate the whole seduction thing you've got going on here, but let me give you a tip: I'm a sure thing" etc). 

So in an attempt to justify my sappy affection for PW, I started to analyse why it had endured, when other romcoms such as the inane The Wedding Planner (which was on TV a night later), had bombed. The hooker-meets-dysfunctional-businessman plot unfolds along Pygmalion lines. Richard Gere's character, Edward, is instantly attracted to Julia Roberts' prostitute Vivian during a chance encounter on Hollywood Boulevard. With some irony, Edward tells Vivian: "I want a professional. I don't want any romantic hassles this week." 

Much is made of the misogynist plotline: Edward buys Vivian's services for the week and slowly transforms her from a bright and ballsy streetwalker into a refined young woman. But this overlooks that fact that Vivian drives a few changes of her own: under her influence Edward turns from a corporate raider (with personal issues) into an angel investor, who decides to revitalise an ailing shipbuilder. As he says at the beginning of the film, "You and I are such similar creatures, Vivian, we both screw people for money."

Although this is a sanitised portrayal of prostitution, there are enough moments of poignancy to engage us, such as Vivian's admission: "People put you down enough, you start to believe it." But at the end of the day, Vivian is a modern-day Cinderella (or "Cinder-fucking-rella" as the wisecracking Kit De Luca puts it). The hotel manager becomes Vivian's besotted fairy godmother, while lawyer Philip Stuckey provides a nefarious element. Right from the start, the film is clear about its terms - as the opening credits roll, a drifter proclaims, "Everybody comes to Hollywood, got a dream. What's your dream?" It makes no excuses. It eschews gritty realism in favour of social mobility and aspirational thinking - indeed it is dealing in the sacred American dream

While the script is witty and insightful (particularly about the power of money), what really lifts the film are the performances. The camera lovingly tracks the gawky elegance of Julia Roberts' limbs, with close-ups on her exquisitely ductile face, exhibiting every nuance of emotion. Without becoming mawkish, Ms Roberts manages to combine vulnerability (using naturalistic tics like pulling at her bra strap) with a fresh kind of worldliness. No wonder Pretty Woman was the vehicle that made her a starAnd Mr Gere? When I asked a friend why she thought the film was so successful, she had only one answer: "It has Richard Gere in it." He manages to complement Ms Roberts' exuberance with a restrained performance that bubbles over with slow-burn sexuality.

At the end of the film, Vivian rejects Edward's offer to put her up in a Manhattan apartment as his kept mistress, telling him: "I want the fairytale!" Deep down, so many of us want the fairytale too as an antidote to life's knocks and bruises. For a couple of hours, Pretty Women delivers just that - a light-hearted break from reality.


If you too have a secret penchant for Pretty Woman, please share some of your favourite scenes or quotes in the Comments box below!



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