How Pretty Woman Revived Romantic Comedies

The story of boy-meets-call-girl, released 25 years ago, took a tired genre and gave it new life.

Pretty Woman was initially conceived as a gritty story of a drug-addicted prostitute. In an early version of the script, Vivian Ward uttered lines like, “Are you sure you want me to stay for the entire night? I could just pop you good and be on my way." A condition of her unusual arrangement with the billionaire Edward Lewis was that she stay off cocaine for the week they spent together. The whole thing, at first, was meant to be a dark exploration of class divisions in Los Angeles and beyond. It was meant to be a cautionary tale. It was definitely not meant to be a romantic comedy.

The filmmakers, however, ultimately took a different kind of gamble with their take on Pygmalion, re-(re-)imagining their tale of prostitution as an unlikely, upbeat rom-com. And it’s a good thing they did. Pretty Woman, released 25 years ago today, remains one of the most popular movies, and also the highest-grossing romantic comedy, of all time. It revived the languishing career of Richard Gere; it catapulted Julia Roberts to mega-stardom. It seems to be playing on TV, thanks to cable channels both premium and decidedly basic, at pretty much any given moment.

It is also, along with When Harry Met Sally, generally credited with reviving the romantic comedy as a genre. Before Pretty Woman came along in 1990, the rom-com had been suffering. The 1960s, '70s, and '80s weren’t entirely devoid of movies about romance, to be sure, but even classics like The Graduate and Annie Hall—films that concerned themselves, primarily, with love's various anxieties—offered heavily ironized, and generally pessimistic, takes on relationships. Rom-coms of that period tended toward what my colleague Chris Orr has called a posture of “bittersweet reinvention,” focusing on integrating the lessons of the counterculture and, in the process, losing much of their faith in that most basic of rom-com tropes: the happy ending.

Into this dark night of the rom-com soul came When Harry Met Sally, with its knowing update of screwball, and then, a year later, Pretty Woman. Which was notable not just for its clear-eyed, fanciful adoption of fairy tale archetypes, but also for its embrace of the romantic, both as a lower-case and upper-case proposition. Sure, Pretty Woman—true to its original conception as a class-based morality play—anticipated the culture wars of the 1990s and the class wars of the 2000s and the rise of contemporary maker culture (Edward proving himself to Vivian, in the end, by opting to build things rather than tear them down). And, sure, it must be said, the movie made light of feminism and Marxism and consumerism and, to add insult to injury, escargots.

Mostly, though, as a winking update to Cinderella—and as, by extension, a La Traviata for the era of the corporate raider—Pretty Woman celebrated a core belief in the triumph of romantic love across varying obstacles. Love, Pretty Woman suggested, transcends the inconvenient impediments of wealth and class; it is at its best a meeting of true minds, regardless of the condition in which those minds happen to find themselves at first meeting. The first night Vivian and Edward spend together—after he has picked her up, literally and otherwise, in a borrowed Lotus Esprit—they watch reruns of I Love Lucy while Vivian has “a carpet picnic.” After Edward tries to seduce her with champagne and strawberries, Vivian interrupts his efforts: “Let me give you a tip,” she says. “I’m a sure thing.” He then catches her in the bathroom of his penthouse suite—not doing drugs, as the film's initial script would have had it, but flossing her teeth. (“We had all those strawberries!” she explains. “And you shouldn’t neglect your gums.”)

Which is, in the film's rom-comic context, a joke that is doing double work: Vivian, we are meant to understand, is a particularly wholesome kind of prostitute. Not only does she stay away from drugs; she is healthy to the point of a comical obsession with the prevention of gingivitis. She is, partly because of that, a fitting foil for Edward, who is—though we will probably spare our small violins for this handsome billionaire—frustrated and lonely, with a "special gift" for "impossible relationships."

The two are, in other words—according to the ethic of the rom-com, which has little concern for superficialities like clothing or status or the inconvenient fact that one member of a couple happens to be a prostitute—equals. "You and I are such similar creatures Vivian,” Edward tells his new hire, early on in their relationship. “We both screw people for money.”

And Vivian, crucially, never questions her suitability as a partner for Edward; she isn't plagued with the anxieties that, the film suggests, women of Edward’s superficial “league”—the women social convention would choose for him—tend to be burdened with. Life may have been unfair to her; guys may have been unfair to her; it’s never a question, however, that she deserves much better than she has gotten. Vivian is independent (“I say who, I say when, I say how much!” she and her roommate and fellow prostitute, Kit, keep as a mantra) and confident. In the end, largely because of her pride, she rejects Edward’s money. She rejects the apartment he has offered her in New York. She also, briefly, rejects him.

This, among other things, places Vivian squarely in the tradition of the heroine—Cinderella, Elizabeth Bennet—who proves, within the moral cosmology of the fairy tale, that she is worthy of attaining wealth precisely by not caring about it. Vivian talks about “copping a squat” in a public park; she teaches Edward what it means to “veg” (“be still like vegetables—lay like broccoli”); she gets him to take off his shoes and socks and walk barefoot through the grass. She is a manic pixie call girl. She is also, in her way—by constitution if not by initial condition—a princess. She and Edward have a week-long courtship that starts as a story of the oldest profession in the world and ends as a story of the oldest fairy tale.

The tale, importantly, goes both ways. “And what does she do after he rescues her?” Edward asks, after he rides to Vivian on a white horse in a white limo to declare his love. Vivian doesn’t miss a beat: “She rescues him right back.”

Pretty Woman, it’s easy to forget now, was controversial in its time. Actresses considered for the role of Vivian included Meg Ryan, Molly Ringwald, Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Connelly, Mary Steenburgen, Daryl Hannah, and Jennifer Jason Leigh; those who were offered the part, until Roberts came along, rejected it—not wanting, in the end, to play a prostitute. (The role of Edward, for its part, was rejected by Al Pacino.) These qualms now seem quaint. Pretty Woman, through Garry Marshall’s light touch and the charm of its actors—to coax the uproarious guffaws Vivian emits with while watching I Love Lucy, Marshall tickled Roberts’ feet—became an instant classic. It was about a prostitute, yes, but it was not at all about prostitution. It was unapologetically sappy; it was delightfully witty; it was earnest in its celebration of the magic that can happen when two strangers come together and, against all odds, rescue each other. It was, in other words, a classic, #sorrynotsorry rom-com.

In that, and in its massive success, it left a significant legacy. Pretty Woman was followed, in short order, by a slew of now-classic romantic comedies, from 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle to 1995’s Clueless and Before Sunrise and The American President. Which were in turn followed by 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and 2004’s Sideways and 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Rom-coms became so pervasive that it became easy to forget they'd ever been in decline. You could, just as you could with Pretty Woman, debate their quality, both as pieces of cinema and as specimens of a genre. What you couldn't really debate, though, is their status as rom-coms in the first place. These are movies that believe, fundamentally, in the entertainment value, and simply the value, of romance. Pretty Woman—that now-classic story of boy-meets-call-girl—paved the way for them.