Released twenty-five years ago this week, Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990) is making a splash again with a cast reunion on this morning’s Today Show, making Matt Lauer the first person to get these people together in the same room for the first time since the movie even came out. Julia Roberts was a twenty-one-year-old unknown (her most significant role at the time was a supporting part in Herbert Ross’s tearjerker Steel Magnolias (1989)) when she was cast in the Academy Award-nominated role of the titular “pretty woman,” Vivian Ward, a Los Angeles hooker with a heart of gold, and Richard Gere was forty when he played the part of her New York businessman john, Edward Lewis (hard to believe, isn’t it?). During its original run, the film sold more tickets than any other romantic comedy in the history of the United States, and I guarantee you that Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” got stuck in your head as soon as you read the title to this post.
I’m Twenty-One And My Life Doesn’t Even Come Close To Julia Roberts
Pretty Woman wasn’t always the Cinderella story that audiences fell in love with. The first draft of the script, called 3,000 (as in the dollar amount you pay for a night out with Vivian), ended with Edward throwing Vivian out of his car and dumping the money on top of her before cutting to the credits. It’s certainly a narrative transformation on par with Vivian’s own.
Critics weren’t as receptive. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly awarded it a “D” letter grade. Sure, it’s not the next It Happened One Night as far as romantic comedies go (It Happened One Night was shot in 1939, the year that the Golden Age of Old Hollywood peaked artistically), and Edward literally buying Vivian’s love is problematic, to say the least (what will they tell their kids when they ask how they first met?), but it is a product of the 1980s “greed is good” Reaganomics era, and what distinguishes this film is Julia Roberts’s undeniable star power.
Roberts has made a habit of lighting up the screen in otherwise unexceptional films. Joseph Ruben’s Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) comes to mind, and so does her Oscar-winning turn in Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000). These high-budget Lifetime movies (Sleeping with the Enemy is a domestic abuse thriller and Erin Brockovich is “based on a true story”) would not be half as watchable without Roberts’s presence.
The fact that she has gone on to costar in John Wells’s August: Osage County (2013) alongside heavyweights like Meryl Streep (nominated for a record-setting nineteen Oscars throughout her career) and Ewan McGregor (listed thirty-sixth in Empire‘s “Top 100 Movie Stars”) should be testament to her talent and charisma, not to mention the iconic names like Oscar winner Sally Field, country music megastar Dolly Parton, Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, and Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis in Steel Magnolias. It must run in the family, too. Roberts’s niece and actor Eric Roberts‘s daughter, the twenty-four-year-old Emma Roberts, has delivered stellar performances in FX’s anthology series American Horror Story (2011-), Wes Craven’s brilliant horror genre satire Scream 4 (2011), and Rawson Marshall Thurber’s We’re the Millers (2013, a comedy I was at first hesitant to see because they’re never as funny as people say they are; it still makes me laugh out loud every time).
Julia Roberts’s chemistry with Richard Gere helped support Pretty Woman as much as Roberts herself did (which is miraculous, considering that Gere didn’t get along with female lead Debra Winger in another romance of his, Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), and Roberts didn’t get along with male lead Nick Nolte in another romantic comedy of hers, Charles Shyer’s I Love Trouble (1994)). Gere achieved the distinct honor of being the first big-name actor ever to film a full-frontal nudity scene in Paul Schrader’s American Gigologo (1980, where he also plays a prostitute, though one without a heart of gold) before that pesky gerbil rumor took root in popular culture. He stars (he can sing! he can dance!) in my all-time favorite musical, Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002), and in Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful (2002), the wife-cheating-on-her-husband companion piece to Lyne’s own classic (and unignorable) husband-cheating-on-his-wife potboiler (or “bunny” boiler, if you will), Fatal Attraction (1987).
The moviegoing public so enjoyed Julia Roberts and Richard Gere together that Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall reunited them in Runaway Bride (1999; My Best Friend’s Wedding, anyone?), but, apparently, Pretty Woman‘s lightning in a bottle doesn’t strike twice, with the critical consensus on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reading that their chemistry is lacking in Runaway Bride. Still, Roberts revealed in today’s cast interview that her chemistry with Gere is what landed him his role in the first place, and Pretty Woman wouldn’t have been the same without him. After all, he’s the one who got that famously improvised laugh out of her, and that acting more than anything is what made Pretty Woman age into a filmmaking icon.