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Still from "Pretty Woman"
Still from "Pretty Woman"

The dark reality of Pretty Woman

On the rom-com’s 25th anniversary, should we be watching something else instead?

This week Pretty Woman turned 25, and the internet reminisced about the crown jewel of the rom-com phenom. Writers took a trip back to 1990 – the year when The Simpsons debuted, Thatcher resigned, Photoshop 1.0 was released and Julia Roberts was transformed, for a while, into America’s Sweetheart™ – to reflect on the film’s place in Hollywood history and even in their own dating lives. And quite a few took to mentioning an infamous Hollywood story about the film’s intended alternate ending – one with a much different twist.

In the original script by J. F. Lawton, Vivian, the spunky Los Angeles prostitute played by Roberts, was more than a bubbly underdog with a mop of red curls, a smile as wide as the Hollywood sign and a heart, they say, made of gold. She was also a crackhead, one whose $3,000 per week price tag (the source of the script’s original title, 3,000) included $1,000 to guarantee she wouldn’t get high while working for Edward, a stone-cold businessman played by Richard Gere. And after earning her keep through a week of humiliations at the hands of her john, Vivian ends up jumping out of his limo and into a gutter, where he throws the cash at her. That’s how the story ended, at least until Disney got its hands on the film and flipped the script, tacking on their very own “and they lived happily ever after.” Rechristened Pretty Woman, the film went on to gross nearly half a billion dollars, and earned 22-year-old actress Julia Roberts her second Oscar nomination. The rest, they say, is history.  

The thing is, sex work is a pretty complicated topic, one that hardly fits neatly into three acts and 119 minutes. But that’s not to say the topic hasn’t been captured on film in more realistic ways. There are plenty of films out there that, no matter how flawed, do a better job.

When Pretty Woman came out, Gere himself was no stranger to the genre. A full decade earlier, he played the title character in American Gigolo, an aging L.A. hustler who mostly lounges around rich ladies’ homes before his shining personality – and a dash of sexual prowess – wins over a client enough to get her to give him an alibi when faced with a murder rap. It’s not too different from Jon Voight’s 1969 turn as an unlucky and unlikeable country mouse trying to make it in Manhattan in Midnight Cowboy. For all its problems – most of all the complete lack of charisma of Voight’s Joe Buck – at least the X-rated film shows some of the realities of the business: the scammers who scam the scammers, the ratty apartments and shady characters who live in them, and the concept of gay for pay.

On-screen depictions of female prostitutes are definitely more numerous in cinema, and for every happy-go-lucky Holly Golightly there’s a story that tells it way more like it is. In Leaving Las Vegas, Elisabeth Shue’s Sera is a working girl with an abusive pimp who falls in love with a failed writer trying to drink himself to death. Amid his alcoholic death throes, their romance is unlikely, but definitely more realistic than Disney’s fairy tale version. Sera may take charge of her life – and power to women everywhere who do what they want, no matter what that is – but she doesn’t really have the most appetizing spread of offers to choose from.

The close relationship between addiction and prostitution is also at the core of the inspired-by-true-events story of Christiane F., the Berlin teen turned heroin-addicted prostitute in 1981’s Wir Kindern vom Bahnhof Zoo. While Christiane and her young boyfriend try alternately to kick heroin and get one more score, the pair debate the degrees they’ll go for money and what, exactly, their relationship can withstand. It’s a touching subplot in a tragic story, yet even this grim tale misses the mark a bit when Christiane is held up as a fashion icon.

Perhaps the most realistic on-screen prostitution story isn’t even in a movie about prostitution. And that says a lot about the subject. The 2003 film Monster, another movie inspired by someone who really lived it, tells the story of Aileen Wuornos, a desperate woman so victimized by a lifetime of abandonment and abuse that she turns to hooking at truck stops as a teenager, and finally snaps, killing a series of clients in rage. It’s hardly surprising that these true stories get at something closer to the reality of sex work and how it exploits human beings. But that’s not really what people want to pay to think about in the dark for two hours, is it?     

While Pretty Woman’s Hollywood makeover has gotten a lot of ink this week, it’s not the only issue with the film that should be talked about while celebrating its more charming moments. Besides belittling the dangers an illegal trade that often preys on vulnerable people – mostly young women – the plot reinforces the very ideas that prop up the industry by keeping sexual power dynamics firmly unbalanced. Theme song aside, what more should we expect from a movie that reduces the love story of a charming, if unpolished personality with the title Pretty Woman? And, besides his money, why’s this rich guy cruising for a date on Sunset Boulevard supposed to be such a catch anyway? With its exchange of youth, sex and beauty for cold, hard American cash, the love story at the center of the film is equally as insidious as the more up-front transaction it portrays. In a cultural climate where conversations of gender are shifting from simple equality to more subtle ideas of gender fluidity, we deserve better than to celebrate the old boy-meets-girl, boy-rescues-girl (with a handy assist from his money and power) trope.

So as we looked back this week, let’s not forget that while people love an excuse to celebrate anniversaries, they’re really only about one thing: time went by, you are older now. Old enough to realize not every story has a happy ending.