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.