This is not going to be an article about how Pretty Woman jump started Julia Roberts’ career. There have been enough of those. Granted, she wasn’t the doe-eyed novice that many think that she was (after all, she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination the year before for Steel Magnolias), so you can make the argument that her star turn would have happened eventually. But its pretty much a given that this film turned her from a character actress to commanding a seven figure salary, so other than this paragraph, we won’t discuss it much.
We will, however, look back on how Roberts’ star turn took a film that by all rights should be in the dustbin of history and turned it into an enormous hit that is still fondly remembered 25 years later.
Let’s try to forget the film we all saw and think about the plot of Pretty Woman as it might have been presented to an executive of the day. It is a film about a venture capitalist–a man who buys struggling businesses only to tear them apart and sell off the pieces—who makes a wrong turn and ends up in the red-light district of Los Angeles. He picks a hooker who shows him the way back to his Beverly Hills hotel. The businessman invites the prostitute to stay the night, then the week, as he molds her into a passing resemblance of a society matron, while she helps him develop a conscience. Eventually, they fall in love with each other, and, against all odds, try to make a go of it as a couple.
And that’s the kinder, gentler version of the film. The original script was much darker. It was a drama that showed the seedy life of a prostitute in Los Angeles, complete with drug addictions and threats of violence. But, regardless, even with the drama turned into a film that was part “opposite side of the tracks romance” meets “whimsical farce” with a touch of commentary on the class system added in,the film must have been a hard sell, and after a deal was made the importance of getting the right actress in the role of the prostitute, Vivian.
That’s why Touchstone Studios wanted to have nothing to do with Julia Roberts. Roberts was not the studio’s first choice. She wasn’t even their 21st choice. Virtually every actress who starred in a movie in the last ten years was considered for the role. This is the list actresses sought out before Roberts from IMDB: Molly Ringwald, Daryl Hannah, Winona Ryder, Jennifer Connolly, Meg Ryan, Kim Basinger, Kathleen Turner, Debra Winger, Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Bo Derek, Kelly McGillis, Melanie Griffith, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer, Madonna, Jamie Lee Curtis, Emma Thompson, Rosanna Arquette, Heather Locklear, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Joan Cusack, Phoebe Cates, Elisabeth Shue, Tatum O’Neal, Bridget Fonda, Lori Loughlin, Diane Lane, Brooke Shields, Uma Thurman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Valerie Golino, Jodie Foster, Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock and Justine Bateman.
That is quite a list, full of actresses who had won Oscars, starred in blockbusters, sold pin-up posters and were cultural icons. Each one would bring something different to the role of Vivian. None would have been as right for the role as Roberts was.
Have a person who sells her body for money as your protagonist puts your film at a disadvantage. People in the Bible Belt could be outraged to have someone of such moral turpitude be the heroine in the film. Having a sex worker as your hero at the height of the AIDS epidemic could be seen as being irresponsible. Then there were people who would find the whole story distasteful. There was a lot for an actress in this role to overcome.
Being that this was only Roberts’ fifth film and her first lead, audiences did not have any preconceived notions about her. Since she didn’t bring any baggage with her, the audience would learn more about her as Edward (Richard Gere) was learning about Vivian. While she was a pretty woman, she wasn’t a conventional beauty exemplified by Pfeiffer or Locklear. Roberts has a gawky smile and wild, unruly red hair. She looked like your neighbor or your co-worker, not some flawless supermodel. In other words, she was someone audiences could relate to at first sight.
This allowed Roberts to get a foot in the door, so to speak, with what could have been an unfriendly audience and gave her a chance to win them over with her nuanced performance. Her Vivian is a bundle of insecurities wrapped in a thin veneer of false bravado. She is a series of internal conflicts and contradictions. She needs to sell her body to make her rent, but yet doesn’t have the killer instinct to close the deal when a potential john crosses her path. Vivian is supposed to play the role of a sophisticated lady of high society, but her own clumsiness and boisterous nature sabotages her more than once. Once we get to know Vivian through this characterization, we have come to like her and start rooting for her. By the halfway point of the movie, Roberts has us eating out of her hands.
Which is a good thing because Vivian is the engine that drives the whole film, and if Roberts’ performance was lacking in anyway, the film would go down like a lead zeppelin. Characters are defined by how they interact with Vivian, specifically Edward. Gere’s low-key performance allows Roberts to shine, but without a strong Vivian to help him along on his character arc, his performance could have quite possibly put audiences to sleep. And Jason Alexander’s Phil, while not sharing many scenes with Roberts, is essential the evil opposite of Vivian. Her love and attention changes Edward for the better, all the while knowing that they will likely never see each other after the week ends. Phil wants Edward to stay the same, because if Edward doesn’t change, Phil makes a ton of money for himself. He is a steamroller of nasty set on an inevitable head-on high-speed collision with Vivian, and his slimy nature makes the prostitute Vivian look more virtuous in comparison.
If I can digress from this Julia Roberts love fest for one second, I’d like to commend another great, if understated performance in the film. Hector Elizondo had appeared in the five films Garry Marshall directed prior to this one, and would act in everyone Marshall would direct afterward. His role here, as hotel concierge Barney Thompson, is a small one and acts primarily as a plot facilitator (Vivian needs a dress for dinner, he sends her to a friend of his. She needs to learn the etiquette of formal dining, he’s there to teach her. Edward really wants to go after Vivian at the end, Barney is there to push him in the right direction). However, Elizondo does a magnificent job. He plays Barney as a man who is proud of doing a good job, serving not only the guests of his hotel, but to the hotel himself. I love the dichotomy between the scenes of him being condescending to Vivian after meeting her for the first time, and his being condescended to a few scenes later by Edward. I love the way how Elizando moves from being a man in a position of strength to being a man in a position of subservience without losing his characterization along the way. I’ll admit, you might not be as impressed with Elizondo’s work as much as I am, or even given it much though, but he is one of my favorite parts of the film.
Roberts and Gere would reunite with Marshall, Elizondo and a number of other actors from this film in 1999’s Runaway Bride. That film was also a hit, albeit not as big of one as Pretty Woman. We are still waiting for the next reunion of the trio.
Julia Roberts would win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical for playing Vivian, also garnering a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role as well. She’d have to wait 10 years for her next nomination, but she would win the award for Erin Brockovich. I’m not sure I’d get many takers if I said that Roberts deserved the Oscar more than Kathy Bates, who won the statue that year for playing Annie Wilkes in Misery, but Roberts’ performance is the main reason why Pretty Woman became as successful as it was and why we are talking about the film 25 years later.