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Romantic, Cliched, Corny. We Love It

14 February 2010 - 02:09 By Kate Muir

What makes Pretty Woman such an enduring guilty pleasure, asks Kate Muir as she settles in to watch the two-decade-old favourite yet again

It's a guilty pleasure long enjoyed in secret on DVD, accompanied only by a bucket of chocolate cookie dough ice cream. Now, on the 20th anniversary of its release, the anti-feminist film loved by women against their better judgment is back.

Julia Roberts will once again be prostituting herself on the big screen in thigh-high patent boots for the cinema rerelease of Pretty Woman in time for Valentine's Day. Why?

The superficial answer is that Roberts has a part in a saccharine ensemble movie called, inevitably, Valentine's Day, released just before February 14. Pretty Woman is its retro companion piece, made by the same director, Garry Marshall.

He also made Runaway Bride, another showcase for the unstable chemical compound that made up Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Marshall is now 75, and seems to be getting a touch repetitive.

But the more disturbing answer is that Pretty Woman still raises women's pulses and men's self-esteem, and in some baffling way has become a cinema classic. The plot - man buys woman, woman buys dress - is everywhere from Cinderella to Pygmalion and the Belle de Jour blogger.

The story says reassuringly, "My prince will come", even in a culture that claims to have moved on. At the time feminists complained that it was a misleading advertisement for prostitution and bemoaned its retrograde sensibility.

Of course, Pretty Woman is also a great big shiny, happy film that in 1990 focused the world's attention on the young Roberts as she burst into fame as the hooker picked up by a millionaire businessman and groomed for greater things.

Gere, too, was at his charming peak, the George Clooney leading man of his day, recharged after a few box-office flops. The Wilshire Hotel and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills were deliciously glamorous reflections of the excess at the end of the '80s.

The rom-com took $463-million and is still a nice little earner. It made Roberts the best-paid actress in the world, up there at last with the men at $25-million a pop, until Nicole Kidman appeared. And in these times of wicked hedge-fund managers and their bonuses, the Gere character once again has resonance as he tells Roberts: "We're so similar - we both screw people for money." When the money runs out, he's grown accustomed to her face, and the inevitable results.

Pretty Woman was also the first film to take shopping seriously as an art. The snooty saleswomen of Rodeo Drive who ignore the whoreishly dressed Roberts with her flash cash are the pantomime villains of the piece. When Roberts returns to the boutiques all gussied up with Gere and his fantastic plastic, the audience's relief as the bags pile up is palpable.

This set the standard for an entire oeuvre of retail romance, from Sex and the City to Confessions of a Shopaholic.

The clothes, from slutty to sleek, remain memorable, particularly when Roberts does an Eliza Doolittle scene at the races, or in this case the polo, in that terribly tasteful chocolate-brown silk spotted dress with a matching hatband. But because the changes to our cliched tart with the heart of gold are all superficial - the right clothes and manners taught by the hotel manager (and apparently he's wrong about salad forks always being three-pronged) - Roberts still remains the weak character, dependent on a knight in shining Armani. We want a little more Erin Brockovich, in which Roberts dressed like a tart from WalMart but acted like a real man.

Yet, whatever your qualms, the film was addictive, and became shorthand for all that was ridiculous about Hollywood. It is clear that Roberts recognised this too and was happy to laugh at herself. In Robert Altman's 1992 satire The Player, Roberts's possible presence in any movie, thus rendering it a dead cert with the money men, is a running joke - until she appears in absolutely the wrong role on Death Row.

In Notting Hill, nearly a decade later, she plays a stratospheric, instantly recognisable star who falls for Hugh Grant. In the dinner party scene, the perfume of Pretty Woman fills the air without being mentioned, as Roberts explains how hard it is to be famous - the nose job, the boyfriends, the paparazzi - and gets laughed at by the British for her superficiality. A woman in a wheelchair sits cheerily at the table, just in case anyone missed the point.

Now 42, Roberts has constantly, and sensibly, refused to make a sequel to Pretty Woman. Her role in Valentine's Day is a small one. The film is a sort of remake of Love, Actually, without the irony. (I loved Love, Actually and cried at the end, but people tell me it was in fact a terrible film.)

No doubt Valentine's Day will ring the tills, but it appears to be written by a rom-com computer and to feature bland superhumans with no real character but great hair, including Jessica Alba, Ashton Kutcher, Queen Latifah, Jessica Biel, Jamie Foxx, Eric Dane, Bradley Cooper and Anne Hathaway, with Taylor Swift's Today was a Fairytale as the theme song.

As it says on the adverts on buses, "from the director of Pretty Woman comes a day in the life of love". It's so sugary you'll need to shoot up with insulin in your cinema seat just to make it through to the end.

Valentine's Day will never have the enduring appeal of Pretty Woman as the classic, original chick-flick, with all the conflicting questions it raises.

Or as one American addict confessed: "Every time I watch it, I think: 'You've regressed a long way, baby.'" - © The Times, London

  • Valentine's Day is now on circuit