Gere plays Edward Lewis, a wealthy businessman who hires Vivian Ward (Roberts), a Hooker with a Heart of Gold, to serve as his escort while he stays in Los Angeles. They end up falling for each other.
This movie was a genuine blockbuster when it came out, and it made then-23-year-old Julia Roberts a star; she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress as well. Richard Gere didn't do too badly out of it either.
Pretty Woman was initially intended to be a dark drama about prostitution in Los Angeles, but was reconceptualized into a romantic comedy. Today it is one of the most financially successful romantic comedies ever, making $178m in the States and another $285m worldwide for a total of $463m note , on a $14m budget with a R-rating and its subject matter to boot. The film was followed by a string of similar romantic comedies, including Runaway Bride, which teamed up Gere and Roberts under the direction of Garry Marshall once again.
This film contains examples of:
- Answer Cut: At the start of the film, guests at a function Edward is at wonder where he is, to which Stuckey jokes he's probably charming some woman. Cut to Edward on the phone with his live-in girlfriend in New York having a very terse break-up conversation.
- Anywhere but Their Lips: Vivian's one rule is that she never kisses on the mouth because it makes it too personal. Truth in Television: most sex workers prefer not to kiss on the mouth, not only as a personal boundary, but also to prevent the spread of infection (colds, flu, hepatitis, etc.).
- At the Opera Tonight: Vivian has an emotional reaction to La Traviata (especially considering the subject), but the real point of the scene is almost more that Edward finally sees the person she could be—a sensitive woman with an inborn appreciation for beauty—if only she had his advantages.
- Attempted Rape: Phillip attempts to force himself on Vivian. Thankfully, Edward intervenes and stops him.
- Back-to-Back Poster: The poster has Edward leaning on Vivian's back. The way they are posed hints that Edward is stiff and high-class, while Vivian is free-spirited.
- Berserk Button: Though reserved in anger, when Vivian mentions the sales people at a shop refused her service, Edward is angered and takes time to help her by ensuring the next place does treat her nicely. It should be said it isn't said if this is because it was Vivian who was insulted or one of his employees was slighted that set him off.
- Catch-22 Dilemma: A social example: Vivian needs stylish clothes in order to look respectable, but the sales staff at the high-end clothing boutiques that sell the kind of clothes she needs won't accept her as a customer because she's not dressed respectably. The hotel manager, and later Edward, have to get involved in order to circumvent this problem.
- Comically Small Demand: Even in 1990 dollars, $3000 seems like a ridiculously small sum for a solid week of prostitution—especially considering Vivian's going rate is normally $100 an hour (168 hours in a week x $100 = $16,800). More so considering how filthy rich Edward is; she could've asked for more. The film does imply that Vivian's lying about her normal going rate and that inexperience makes her think she's asking for a big sum while Edward regards it as cheap change. Plus he's buying her an entire wardrobe of high-end clothes while putting her up in a luxurious penthouse and paying for all her meals.
- Compressed Hair: Vivian hides voluminous hair under her blond wig.
- Cool Car: The Lotus Esprit. When the film was made, it was cutting-edge: the car so cool and obscure even lovers of cool, obscure cars had only heard rumors. Now it's practically a legend.
- Deadpan Snarker: Edward, much of whose dialogue involves his utterly straight-faced and deadpan replies to the things that other people say. (Apparently Gere was told during production "In this film, one of you moves and one of you doesn't. Guess which one you are?")
- Defrosting Ice King: At first, the hotel manager Mr. Thompson only puts up with Vivian's presence because Edward is an important client. As he assists her over the course of the film, he grows fond of her and becomes a Shipper on Deck.
- Does Not Like Shoes: Vivian, who is often barefoot.
- Downer Beginning: The two protagonists get one beginning each, both of them downers. Edward's beginning is merely about his life being shallow and empty, without any room for people really caring about each other. From there the scene flips to Vivian's life, taking the audience along for a plummet into hell. In the first few minutes we get:
- One of her fellow streetwalkers has just been murdered, her corpse getting dug up from a dumpster.
- She has to avoid her landlord and needs a new john really quick, because her roommate has taken all the rent money to buy drugs...
- ...from an especially skeevy guy who is entirely too keen on becoming Vivian's pimp.
- Elite ManCourtesan Romance: Wealthy businessman Edward Lewis hires Vivian to act as an escort for him for a week. Over that time he gradually falls in love with her, and she with him.
- Farmer's Daughter: Vivian started life in a rural town in Georgia before escaping to the Big City.
- Flowers of Romance: Edward arrives at Vivian's apartment building in a limo and then climbs the fire escape (despite his fear of heights) with a bouquet of roses clutched between his teeth, in order to persuade her to stay with him because she wants to, not because she's paid to do so.
- Formal Full Array of Cutlery: Vivian is prepared for a formal dinner by Barney who explain her the difference between salad fork (the only one she's able to recognize) and meat fork, by counting prongs. The usual application of the trope is then played at the dinner when Mr. Morse confesses he's never understood which fork is for what, demonstrating himself as personable and down-to-earth despite his comfortable situation.
- Get Out!: Edward to Phillip when he stops his attempt to rape Vivian.
- Grand Romantic Gesture: Vivian reveals her dream of being a princess swept off her feet by a handsome knight on horseback. Later, to reveal he truly loves her, Edward does his best to recreate her dream in real life. The truly grand part of this gesture is that a) Edward, previously pragmatic and undemonstrative, does his best to do something spontaneous and heartfelt; and b) he does so by conquering his extreme fear of heights to climb to Vivian's window.
- Hidden Depths: While Vivian's the primary example, Edward has a love of music: he plays the piano beautifully, he takes Vivian to the opera, and if you listen carefully, you learn that the reason he has to leave California on Sunday is because he has tickets to the Met in NYC. Even with unlimited money, you have to be a serious opera lover to fly cross-country because you don't want to miss the Met.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Vivian is practically the modern resurrection of the trope. She's a hooker, but she's bright, sensitive, honest, and dreams of bettering herself, and she's managed to avoid the pitfalls (drugs, pimps, etc.) that she sees harming her fellow sex workers.
- Knight In Shining Armour: Evoked directly by Vivian, who relates this specific fantasy to Edward.
- Lighter and Softer: The final film compared to the dramatic spec script. The movie was originally going to be a dark, serious drama about a pair of sex workers both trying to escape their line of work, only to be held back by drugs and society
- Lipstick-and-Load Montage: During the open credits, we watch as Vivian rolls out of bed (at eight at night), wriggles into her skintight skirt, zips up her boots, and applies her makeup, all showing in loving tight shots.
- Love Redeems: Edward's growing love of Vivian helps him turn from being a cold, ruthless businessman, to a logical but caring man who seeks to protect the very business he was just looking to buy and destroy.
- Makeover Montage: Vivian receives one with the assistance of Makeover Fairy "Bridget from women's clothing," who helps take her from an attractive streetwalker to a refined woman.
- Mistaken for Junkie: Edward interrupts Vivian in the bathroom and thinks she's doing drugs. Turns out she's only flossing strawberry seeds from her teeth. (May also be a Development Gag, as the original script wrote Vivian as a drug addict.)
- My Horse Is a Motorbike: Vivian wanted someone to carry her off on a white horse. Cue the white limousine.
- No Fame, No Wealth, No Service: Vivian gets this at a Rodeo Drive store when the sales ladies refuse to assist her because they believe she can't afford to shop there. She gets to tell them off later once she's looking more respectable:Vivian: Do you remember me?
Salesperson: No, I'm sorry.
Vivian: I was in here yesterday. You wouldn't wait on me?
Vivian: You work on commission, right?
Salesperson: Ah, yes.
Vivian: Big mistake. Big. Huge! (She walks out of the shop.)
- Not So Different: Edward starts on his way to a Heel Realization when Vivian points out that his "buy the company, sell off the pieces" business tactic is just like a chop shop with a stolen car. He also is fascinated with Vivian because he sees her operate as a sex worker the way he does as a businessman.Edward: We both screw people for money.
- Odd Name Out: In the mostly ad-libbed shopping scene (see Video Example), the store manager (Larry Miller) calls to the shopgirls:Store Manager: Mary Pat, Mary Kate, Mary Francis, Tovah, let's see it, c'mon ...
- Princess Phase: When Vivian was a little girl she would pretend she was a princess... trapped in a tower by a wicked queen. And then suddenly this knight... on a white horse with these colors flying would come charging up and draw his sword. And she would wave. And he would climb up the tower and rescue her.
- Pretty in Mink: The spec script involved Edward renting Vivian a white fur coat to wear during their time together. When she had to give it back, Edward just thought she was upset due to not keeping the coat.
- Pygmalion Plot: Somewhat subverted. Edward does give Vivian a physical makeover, but her personality never really changes.
- Rags to Riches: As it seems Vivian and Edward are going to be very close, she will end up a very rich woman.
- Running Gag: Edward has a whole bunch of luxuries that he can't take advantage of because of various aspects of his personality (a Lotus Esprit when he can't drive stick, a penthouse suite and a balcony seat at the opera when he's afraid of heights). When asked why he owns it, he replies "It's the best." The gag reaches its zenith at the end, when the acrophobic Edward is climbing up the fire escape of Vivian's apartment building; he calls up, "It had to be the top floor, right?" Vivian answers, "It's the best."
- Scary Black Man: In the alternate DVD version, the hotel's personal driver, Daryl. Vivian's pimp comes asking for money and threatens Edward, who is trying to smooth it over. Edward kindly suggests not to harm him and leave, and on cue, Daryl opens his coat to flash a handgun. Vivian's pimp wisely withdraws himself.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Slightly subverted. Vivian was always beautiful, but with a few lessons in table manners and a new wardrobe, she's also able to pass for classy.
- Shopping Montage: Subverted and played straight. Vivian tries to go shopping on Rodeo Drive, but is crushed when she's asked to leave immediately by salesclerks who judge her for her apparent lack of money. With a little help from Edward and the hotel manager, she's able to go on a real spree later.
- Slut-Shaming: Less for Viv's profession and more for her fashion sense, but the film makes it clear that many of Edward's high-class friends see her as a person only because they don't know what she does for a living.
- Titled After the Song: Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman." The song is featured in one of the film's most iconic scenes.
- Troubled Sympathetic Bigot: Edward keeps looking down on Vivian, in spite of not wanting to and in spite of his prejudice against her being proven wrong. Of course, he's rather oblivious to the whole thing, innocently arguing that she should accept being treated like a commodity because he's a nice buyer. As he comes to see Vivian as a person, he begins to realize that he's been treating everyone like a commodity, when they, like Vivian, are so much more.
- Would Hit a Girl: Phillip attempts to rape Vivian, and slaps her when she resists.
- Wrote the Book: Late in the film, Edward says that "I know about wanting more. I invented the concept."
- You Are Better Than You Think You Are: During a heart-to-heart conversation in bed, Edward tells her that she could do much more with her life because of her intelligence and kindness. Vivian responds that when you hear the opposite for so long, you believe it.