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The success of Pretty Woman might well be attributed to stars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, who are both very good as the young couple, but there is a lot more to it than that. The fairytale story, written by J. F. Lawton, is expertly realized on screen by director Garry Marshall, who understands very well the nature of love and the audience he is playing to. A light-hearted romantic-comedy, the film’s playful but sincere approach is just grounded enough to feel (mostly) authentic, but also dreamy enough that we can escape into its universe where all dreams come true and there is someone out there who can rescue us (and more importantly, someone we can rescue right back).
Filled with well-defined supporting characters, Pretty Woman manages to not only take the well-established tropes of the genre but overhaul them, with Roberts especially creating a new breed of independent women who still longs for romantic love but can earn it with much more than what the title suggests. This resonated powerfully with viewers and opened up a new age in rom-coms where women weren’t saved but rather adored, allowing the genre to expand well beyond the clichés of the past. Deceptively light and breezy, Pretty Woman still cuts deep, and to this day has great influence.
Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) makes a living as a corporate raider, a lifestyle that has brought him great wealth but a cold attitude. He’s met Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) while lost on a side street in Hollywood, stopping to ask her directions, but soon takes her on to be his escort for the week, paying her a lot of money, at least for her. As the days pass, the two find a connection and she ingratiates herself into his life both sexually but more importantly, personally. For these reasons, both have significant transformations.
Meanwhile, Edward and his business partner and attorney Phillip (Jason Alexander) have spent ten years brokering deals and making money by legal but ruthless tactics. On their latest venture, Edward and Phillip are planning to purchase a large company and dismantle it into smaller groups to make a profits, thereby destroying 40 years of work the family who owns the company struggled to achieve, putting many people out of a job. Vivian’s influence on Edward has softened his approach to his work, and in the last meeting to sign the deal, Edward backs out and instead decides to help the company rather than break it apart, a decision that Phillip didn’t see coming and one that naturally shocks him.
Infuriated with Edward, Phillip rushes to the luxury hotel suite where Edward is staying, hoping to confront his partner. Instead, he only finds Vivian. There is some history here already, as earlier, Edward confessed to Phillip that Vivian is in fact a sex worker, prompting Phillip to hire her after her obligation to Edward is over. This came as a great insult, devastating her, though Edward wins her back.
Now though, as he worms his way into the hotel room, she is nearly crippled with disgust for the man. Repelled by his mere presence, she moves away from him as he heads for the small bar, fixing a drink. Vivian warns him that Edward will be home shortly, but this does nothing to curb Phillip’s seething attitude, blaming her for his business partner’s change of heart. He reminds her that no, Edward won’t be ‘home’ soon as this is a hotel suite not a home, and she is not the little woman in waiting. He then proceeds to backhandedly insult her by complimenting her skills as a hooker, saying how she must be so good it doesn’t matter to Edward to have lost millions. He figures that if he ‘did’ her too, then he wouldn’t care either. To ‘screw’ her is to make things okay. He begins to touch her exposed thigh, but she pushes him away. He tries again, shoving a hand between her legs, to which she violently reacts, biting his hand. In fury, he strikes at her face, sending her to the floor where he pounces upon her, intending on raping her. Edward suddenly arrives and yanks him free, tossing him easily away, landing a punch to the smaller man’s face, breaking his nose. He then kicks him out of the room.
There’s a lot to unpack here, beginning with Phillip. This is a man who has found success solely on the coattails of Edward. Seeing only the personal financial gains of their partnership, he sees little value in Edward beyond the well of money he returns to for each deal. He thrives and relies on it. As Edward reminds him, it’s the kill that Phillip wants, not a friendship. For the first time in their ten-year collaboration, Edward has abandoned the formula that has made Phillip rich, but more importantly, the killing blow that he so craves. Feeling betrayed, he is confident why.
When he arrives at the hotel suite, Edward isn’t there. With Vivian answering, he acquires a new target. But let’s consider Vivian for a moment, looking at her through Phillip’s eyes. She is the source for all his misery and furthermore, most significantly, represents everything that he lacks. A statuesque woman of uncommon beauty, kind, gentle, funny, and sexual, she is beyond anything he could ever have (without payment). But more so, she is a poison, a seething venom that has tainted Edward’s blood and ruined the man who could once topple industries. Phillip isn’t interested in the personal growth or emotional significance of Edward’s change (nor the opportunities these developments offer for greater gain). He sees his end in her. If one can not have, then one will destroy so no one can. That is Phillip’s philosophy. He has lost all his (albeit limited) power, stripped away by this woman off the street. But she is not a corporation to dismantle, not a company in which to break apart and sell. She is, what? Nothing to him. A meddling cheap prostitute who has sabotaged his life.
Phillip needs to gain some semblance of authority, some control over the spiraling situation. What’s important here is power. He has none, not because Edward suddenly changed his mind. Phillip has never had power. That’s the issue. He’s been successful only because of his proximity to his partner. Here though, with Vivian, he has power, physically, the last, worst use of it. He will take from her everything. And in so doing, take from Edward. This is power.
Phillip attempting to rape Vivian is a shocking moment. It comes in a film that has, to this point, been forthright about its message and tone, a romantic comedy about beautiful people in a fantastical situation. It’s lightweight and unchallenging, a superbly produced morsel of quality escapism. Director Garry Marshal surprises up here, taking us to a very dark place that yes, is scripted to be heroic, but is much more. In fact, it might seem like an unnecessary moment, but is actually very important.
Notice how different Vivian is in this scene than she was when she began her journey. In a relationship now, she is the girlfriend of a wealthy man, experiencing the world like never before. She’s becoming cultured and graceful, a woman of refinement and dignity. She feels comfortable in this suite, like she belongs. We feel the same. Phillip sees her as a fraud, a shallow imposter with no reason to be here other than for sex.
While it’s difficult to watch, it’s important that this moment occur, and for her to end up on the floor as she does, not just for her but for us. The first thing might be the bite. Edward’s money comes from deals that Phillip helps secure, and it could be said that without Phillip, Edward might not be where he’s at. Metaphorically speaking, biting the hand that feeds her, Vivian shows defiance in doing so, incurring his wrath, one born of anger and frustration.
When he hits her, it sends her to the rug in a heap, a shocking attack that is powerful in its force and meaning. What is happening here? Phillip is more than just a man angered by her presence, he represents the establishment that has been looking down on her since she arrived (save for a wonderful character named Barney, played by Hector Elizondo). She is meant to stay down, to be on the ground, lower and subservient to them. Maybe on another day Vivian might have stayed there, but not today. Instead, she fights, something she learned a lot about in the last week. She screams at him to get off, a fearsome scowl that tells us she is no victim. One wonders if Edward hadn’t shown up, where it would have ended.
When Edward does pull Phillip off her, Phillip calls her a whore, but Edward says she’s not while she looks on in terror. (There’s a nice moment there when he looks back at her while this is happening, a quick reassurance that she is okay and that this real). But this isn’t about rescue, not in the slightest. Edward is not saving Vivian anymore than he is rescuing Phillip. She has done that all on her own through the story’s arc. What he is doing is saving himself. This is the moment when Edward takes the last step in cutting himself out of the life he was once part of, no longer wanting to destroy but looking to build. Just as Phillip saw Vivian as a poison, now Edward sees Phillip as such.
The rape scene is a remarkably challenging moment to put in this film and one Marshall did right by leaving in. While it might lack the graphic visual terror many rape moments in dramas or thrillers have, it is no less impactful and remains deeply significant.
Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Jason Alexander