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A middle-aged businessman pays a much-younger prostitute to be his live-in lover for a week. How did he make such a tasteless exploitation fantasy seem almost wholesome? Well, casting a star with the incandescent beauty and charm of Julia Roberts was undoubtedly a factor. But another factor was casting a co-star, Richard Gere, who behaved as if that beauty and charm meant nothing to him. The original screenplay, written by JF Lawton, was a gloomier and grittier affair entitled 3, but by the time it had been made over as Pretty Woman — much as its heroine is made over on screen — it had far less swearing and drug use.
Several rewrites later, Edward has his mind on higher things. Edward appears to be genuinely scared of getting between the sheets with Vivian; the film might as well have been called Some Like It Cold. Pretty Woman makes this clear.
When Vivian does eventually get her hands on Edward, he responds with a sharp intake of breath and a pained, faraway look.
Marshall then cuts to his hot post-coital shower, as if he and the viewer were washing away a shameful memory. Pretty Woman is positively prudish in comparison: a film about a sex worker which is primly censorious about casual sex. Time for some smoky jazz saxophone and candle-lit canoodling?
Well, no. Edward takes the opportunity to discuss the issues he had with his late father. Form a queue, ladies! How many other actors could be so convincingly unaroused by their statuesque leading lady? At times, this aspect of Vivian is taken way too far. It makes no sense, but because they are outraged by these labels, the viewer can be outraged, too.
The only unambiguous bedroom scene is placed near the end of the film, after Vivian and Edward have fallen in love and been redeemed by each other. ificantly, this sequence begins as Vivian wakes up the snoozing Edward with a kiss. As contrived as all the coyness may be, you have to respect how cleverly Marshall and his team pulled off a feat which should have been impossible. And yet the resulting film was produced by Walt Disney, and it was a box-office smash during the era of Aids panic and Reagan-Bush conservatism. Both Twilight featuring another Edward and its unauthorised spin-off, Fifty Shades of Grey featuring another high-finance tycoon take brief tourist trips to steamy and transgressive territory, then run back to the socially sanctioned security of abstinence, commitment, and very wealthy men.
They do what Pretty Woman did, which is to let the viewer have their room-service strawberries and eat them, too. We get the titillating naughtiness of an Amazon in thigh-high boots boasting that she will do anything a man desires. Love film? If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook or message us on Twitter. Film Film history. How Pretty Woman erased sex from its story. Share using .
By Nicholas Barber 17th March As the smash-hit rom-com turns 30, Nicholas Barber asks why a dark and gloomy tale of sex and drugs was so heavily sanitised. Happily ever after?
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