Film Discussion

Pretty Woman (1990) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.


In an alternate universe, there is a chance that you are not reading about a movie called Pretty Woman, but one called 3000. That movie is perhaps not a traditional romantic comedy but a grittier tale about life as a sex worker in Los Angeles, with dark themes involving drug addiction and a narrative with a much more realistic and downbeat ending.

Instead, you actually are reading about Pretty Woman, one of the definitive romantic comedies of the 90s, and alongside When Harry Met Sally a film that led to a resurgence in popularity of the genre and which, like that movie and Meg Ryan, was a major catalyst in launching the career of an actress who presence would come to define the genre for the decade.

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If J.F. Lawton’s original screenplay for 3000 had been filmed as was, it’s perhaps likely that the resulting film would not be remembered as fondly as the one that was eventually reshaped into Pretty Woman at the insistence of Walt Disney Studios’ president Jeffrey Katzenberg. It might have won some critical acclaim, maybe it would have been regarded as one of the best films of the 90s or thereabouts, but it’s very unlikely it would have become the massive blockbuster that it did. Not for nothing, but the film was the third highest-grossing of 1990, and very much made Julia Roberts into America’s Sweetheart, which in turn would be the inspiration for the title of one of her future box-office hits.

The film itself is not without issues, and a lot of that is perhaps down to the fact that it was reconstituted into the version of the film we ended up getting. If Lawton intended for the film to be a gritty account of what it was like to be a sex worker having to make a living on the streets of Los Angeles, its eventual turn into something more approaching Pygmilian (itself an inspiration for the big-screen version of musical My Fair Lady) has frequently been the thing for which to criticise the film.

There was a danger, many thought, that the film was selling the idea to young women that if you wanted to meet your very own version of Prince Charming, one with the charisma and good looks of Richard Gere, then all you had to do was go into sex work and all your dreams could come true. It’s a criticism that isn’t without merit. Director Garry Marshall’s direction is slick and glossy, and the film is very escapist, fuelled by the undeniable chemistry of its two leads and the fairytale-like approach where love wins out in the end via a declaration and combatting one’s own fear of heights.

You can criticise the film all you want, but it’s still a massively popular one today. The most recent Rom-Com hall of fame entry (and sadly underseen at the cinema as evidenced by its not so stellar box-office) Long Shot made reference to the film by using the main theme ‘It Must Have Been Love’ as performed by Roxette.

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This being the early 90s, it was still a period of time when soundtracks were a big deal for major movies. The resulting music video with clips that reminded you of the film, and those albums that contained the slogan ‘Song from and Inspired By’, were another major factor by which films could make more money on the side, on top of those box office dollars, eventual releases on the growing home video market, and selling of the television rights. The 80s and 90s was a period of time when the likes of John Hughes productions, Top Gun, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and future Rom-Com Rewind entry Four Weddings and a Funeral all made a considerable impact not only in the box office charts but also on the Sunday evening Top 40 countdown.

While it might be a conversation that fuels much debate, there’s something about Roxette’s song that makes it feel like it might be the best combination of a song with a romantic comedy. It’s achingly romantic, poignant, full of emotional melancholy and carried magnificently by the late great Marie Fredriksson’s vocal delivery. What makes the success of the song and its association with the film even more brilliant is that it wasn’t even written for the movie, and a version of the song had already been released in 1987 before it was altered for Pretty Woman. Yes, Roy Orbinson’s song is also used to brilliant effect, and the film has the polarising ability to make you fall in love with it all the while you’re well aware of its problematic issues, but then that’s the magic of Gere and Roberts for you. 

Gere’s career has always been one that has straddled the line between Hollywood mainstream and more left-of-field choices, but you get the sense here that he was really embracing the heartthrob status that many labelled him with. Undeniably one of Hollywood’s best looking leading men, he usually turned away from more conventional leading actor projects in favour of riskier (and risque) productions such as American Gigolo and Jim McBride’s remake of Breathless, roles that frequently called for full-frontal nudity from the actor.

Roberts had broken through with roles in Mystic Pizza and Steel Magnolias, but Pretty Woman was the one that made her into the superstar that we now know her as. Like Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, she was someone who had been around before, but you get the sense that her romantic comedy breakthrough was a seal the deal moment for her career. She would become one of the biggest box office draws of her generation and famous for other films in the genre, not least Notting Hill and Runaway Bride, the latter being a long-awaited reunion with Gere and the former bringing her on-screen with definitive male romantic comedy lead of the decade Hugh Grant.

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The third and most important element of the film was perhaps director Garry Marshall. Famous for co-creating Happy Days and who had scored a massive commercial success two years previously with Beaches, it was perhaps his heightening of the fairy tale moments and his ability to direct comedy as well as he did that probably lets the film and audience off the hook a little bit when it comes to the problematic component of the story.

Being problematic is part and parcel of so many films of the genre, perhaps because of gender politics, sexism, and the social attitudes of the time, which are frequently represented in their purest form in the genre. While Lawton may have had loftier intentions for the film, and its eventual portrayal of sex work is unrealistic in the extreme, the Gere/Roberts combination, the soundtrack, the always pleasing appearance of Hector Elizondo who takes Roberts’ character under his wing, and that always punch-the-air moment when after being denied customer service in a high-end clothing store Roberts returns and lays into the snooty owner of the business, means that you can sit there and poke holes at it all you want, but in the end resistance is futile.

Now let’s listen to some Roxette, shall we?

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