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Pygmalion and Pretty Woman Essay

“I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman except for that whole hooker thing.”

It’s no surprise that Laney, the speaker of these words and heroine of 1999’s She’s All That should feel that way. She could have just as easily said that she felt like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady because She’s All That is the latest example of a series of movies based on the Pygmalion myth, an occurrence that illustrates Hollywood’s long fascination with this myth. The original Pygmalion story is found in Ovid. Pygmalion is the story of a gifted young sculpter who is a woman hater. Ironically, the sculpture that most fascinates him and that he puts all of his genius into is a statue of a woman. The statue is exquisite, but Pygmalion wasn’t content. He kept tweaking the statue, working on it until it was so well-made that it looked real, and no other woman–real or sculpted–could compare. Pygmalion reached a point, however, where he could improve nothing else on the statue, and he fell in love with his creation.

The poor sculpter tried to pretend that the statue was real; he caressed it, tried to dress it up, brought it the gifts he thought a real woman would enjoy. Ultimately, his pitiful situation of his passion came to Venus’ attention. On the goddess of love’s feast day, Pygmalion asked the goddess to let him find a maiden like his statue. Venus knew what Pygmalion really wanted, however, and the flames on her altar leaped up three times, signalling that Pygmalion would get his wish. When Pygmalion arrived home, he discovered that his statue was alive. He named her Galatea, and the two of them were married. What the Pygmalion myth boils down to is a man who creates a woman exactly as he would like her to be. Hollywood remains faithful to the basic events of the myth in each film version it creates.

In each film, a man takes a flesh and blood woman and recreates her–usually through a physical makeover but sometimes the makeover goes deeper into thoughts and manners; each man also has the man falling in love with his creation now that she is the way he wants her to look, dress, and act. While Hollywood’s films try to have the male creator realize somewhat during the course of the makeover that the woman is a person in her own right, the actual perception of the man’s noble awakening is weak. Each film adaptation ultimately conveys the idea that the woman is not a worthy individual in her own right until she is molded by the man. His love, now that she is worthy of it, brings her to life.

My Fair Lady, the film musical starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, is actually based on the earlier play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. The Galatea in this film is Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn), a poor, dirty flower seller in turn of the century England. The Pygmalion in this film is Henry Higgins (Harrison), a cocky, sexist linguist and phoneticist who believes that diction is what really sets the classes apart. He wagers with Colonel Pickering that through a change in dress and diction, he can turn the lower class Eliza into a lady that will fool high society. The only thing in the wager for Eliza is that she might be able to open her own flower shop and somewhat escape her lower class roots. He bullies Eliza and treats her as an object. To him, she is only an experiment, and it comes as a shock to him that she has feelings and opinions of her own.

Higgins succeeds in turning her into a proper lady, but the irony is that as a proper lady, Eliza has almost become a statue, an object. She was a real woman in her natural state. Higgins’ experiment has robbed her of her identity and her natural feelings and has left her with too much class to ever be able to achieve her dream of being able to open a flower shop. She is no longer functional; with her higher class diction and appearance, Eliza is now decorative. While the movie ends with a sense of a love match between Higgins and Eliza, it is unconvincing. In Shaw’s play, Higgins and Eliza never get together, and the film never quite convinces the audience that Higgins’ Pygmalion falls in love with his Galatea.

Pretty Woman is the early 90’s take on the Pygmalion myth. The time is modern and the setting has changed to California. The Galatea role has been similarly updated. Instead of being a lower class flower girl, the Galatea is Vivian (Roberts), a prostitute with little education. Vivian’s Pygmalion is Edward (Gere), a wealthy businessman who first appears to have little heart or little need for another person. The two meet over a car and continue their acquaintance because Edward needs a date for his social functions while in California. What is interesting about this film is its reversal of roles. Vivian and Edward fulfill both the Galatea and Pygmalion roles. Vivian undergoes a physical transformation through the designer clothes necessary to her role as Edward’s date, and her new appearance seems to transform her life as she decides to leave prostitution and endows her with a new sensibility and nobility.

Edward’s physical alteration of Vivian through clothes and the exposure to a more cultured society seemingly transforms her from a pretty doll into a real person, making her now worthy of him, and allowing a real relationship to develop between them. Interestingly, though, Vivian isn’t the only one who changes in the film. While Edward’s physical appearance and outer reality need no work, his spirit does. He is the real statue, wooden and without feeling. As Vivian’s noble nature begins to emerge because of her outer transformation, she begins to work transforming magic on him. He becomes a real person capable of feeling and capable of being the prince that Vivian desires. As a result, Pretty Woman might retell the Pygmalion myth the most faithfully. Just as Pygmalion became able to love a woman because of how his creation affected him, Edward is changed and improved through Vivian, his own creation.

She’s All That, 1999’s version of the Pygmalion myth and starring Rachel Leigh Cook and Freddie Prinze, Jr., is probably the weakest adaptaton of the myth. Unlike the characters in the previous films, the characters is this film are high school students, and the setting has been moved to a high school. Like the other two films, She’s All That tries to make a social commentary by pitting the higher class, wealthier man against the lower class, poorer woman. The movie begins with rich, handsome Zack (Prinze Jr.) returning from Spring Break to find that his rich, beautiful, and vain girlfriend Taylor has dumped him for a former cast member of MTV’s The Real World. This rejection doesn’t sit well with Zack, who is practically king of the school. Attempting to raise Zack’s spirits, his best friend Dean makes a wager for Zack to prove his superior charms by turning any girl into a prom queen in six weeks. The guttersnip they select is Laney (Cook), a lower class Bohemian artist and outcast who unconvincingly hides her beauty under heavy glasses, paint-spattered clothes, and low self-esteem. Unlike the other films, the makeover in She’s All That isn’t a key element. In this film the makeover takes about five minutes and requires only a skimpy red dress, contact lenses, makeup, plucked eyebrows, and a hair cut to turn ugly duckling Laney into the swan.

There also appears to be no other transformation in Laney and Zack other than the five minute makeover. Unlike the other two films and the original myth itself, their characters do not grow. Zack is already a pretty good guy who never struggles with Laney’s eccentricities or has any emotional problems he must overcome. As for Laney, she may look better, but her character is exactly the same. Hollywood loves the Pygmalion myth as illustrated by the number of films that retell the myth. The problem with Hollywood’s film adaptations, though, is that they are often shallow and anachronistic. Is it really necessary on the cusp of the 21st century to still be making films that have the male trying to transform the heroine into something beautifl and better than what she was before he came along?

Why does Hollywood always require the Pygmalion to be wealthy and handsome while the Galatea is poor and ugly–at least surfacely? If filmmakers are going to continue to retell this myth, why don’t they breathe some ingenuity and fresh life into it? Perhaps they cannot because to some extent, all of the films miss the point of the myth. The myth isn’t simply about a man who created his ideal woman; it is also about how two people transform each other into something better than they were before. Perhaps the best and most interesting example of the Pygmalion myth is Overboard, starring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. In this film, Hawn is the rich, vain, and selfish one, while Russell is the decent, hard working, yet flawed Pygmalion. When the two are thrown together, their lives change. Hawn becomes caring and unselfish, acting as cheerleader to Russell’s reinvigorated Pygmalion. The two have fallen in love and changed each other for the better.

Pretty Woman By Jim Emerson

Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) is a whore. So is Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts). Only she works on Hollywood Boulevard and he stays at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “You and I are both such similar people,” says the Wall Street corporate raider to the streetwalker. “We both screw people for money.” Pretty Woman sells itself as a contemporary Hollywood fairy tale — Pygmalion Meets Cinderella in Beverly Hills — about two floozies, a corporation man and an “indieprod” hooker (she keeps her rates low in the free marketplace by choosing to work without a pimp), who (supposedly) find redemption, or at least financial security, in each other’s lovin’ arms. The fairy tale aspect of the picture almost works like a charm, thanks to some adroit and appealing comic performances (including Laura San Giacomo as Vivian’s hussy roommate and Hector Elizondo as the prim hotel manager) a few snappy one-liners, and Garry Marshall’s sitcom-bright direction, which tries — but finally fails — to bleach out the movie’s darker, scuzzier implications about what money can and cannot buy in America’s culture of greed.

Edward has bought and paid for virtually every relationship in his adult life; he treats everyone around him like an employee. While in LA for a week, he hires Vivian (originally in blonde wig, looking like a skinny, slatternly Angie Dickinson) to be his “date” for a series of business functions, including a fancy dinner and a polo match. Out of the bargain, she gets $3000 cash, a makeover, new clothes and a crash course in what fork to use. Unavoidably, they both get more than they bargained for because — surprise! — they fall in love. And that changes everything. Of course, Cyndi Lauper sang that “Money Changes Everything.” And in its original, darkly cynical incarnation, the script for Pretty Woman (which could’ve been called Working Girl ) was called 3000, because it was about the money that makes men and women unequal. But even in this heavily processed and polished Disney product, it’s not clear what has actually made the (unconvincing) difference in these characters’ lives: the love or the money? Finally, all the movie says is that you can be a harlot — in executive offices or on the streets — but if you look like you live in Beverly Hills, then people will suck up to you and it won’t matter who you are or what you do to acquire your money, just as long as you spend lots of it.

Of course, it is beyond the scope (or intention) Pretty Woman to sharpen this into an ironic or satirical point. The bleak notion is just there on the screen, acknowledged and reinforced, but never questioned. Vivian (the designated moral superior) compares what Edward does — buying companies, dismantling them, and then selling the pieces for profit — to stealing cars and selling the parts. Edward (the designated economic superior) argues that what he does is perfectly legal. It just doesn’t occur to him (yet) that it’s also parasitical and ethically deplorable. This same lesson appears to have been lost on the makers of Pretty Woman. The movie itself is like a stolen car that’s been given a spotty paint job in an attempt to conceal the true nature of the vehicle underneath. Scratch this movie’s polished coat ever so slightly and you’ll see that Pretty Woman is a conflicted tale about prostitution and dreams: how we prostitute ourselves to achieve our dreams, and how those dreams are defiled and compromised by our prostitution. For commercial reasons, the picture desperately tries to skirt or downplay its own underlying themes.

Significantly, the crucial, ambivalent lines from Roy Orbison’s title song are buried somewhere in the middle of the movie’s upbeat music mix: “I don’t believe you/You’re not the truth/No one can look as good as you.” Orbison, at least, knew that enticing appearances could be deceiving. Pretty Woman (the motion picture) does not. In this movie, the clothes make the man (or woman) and if you cry at the opera, it proves you’ve got a cultured soul. Pretty Woman brackets its urban fable with appearances by a black street hustler/panhandler/chorus, who strides through the picture hollering stuff like: “This is Hollywood where people come to fulfill their dreams! Some dreams come true and some don’t! Believe in your dreams!” The first time this chipper fellow shows up, his comments are juxtaposed with sleazy slices of life on Hollywood Boulevard (crack dealers, pimps, a murdered whore stuffed in a dumpster).

His exclamations serve as an ironic (and chilling) comment on what tourists find when they actually travel to the heart of Hollywood: The mythologized home of America’s movie dream factory has fallen into decay and corruption. And yet, when the chorus figure reappears at the film’s Happy Ending, his spiel is suddenly meant to be taken at face value — which, I guess, demonstrates just how corrupted the dream factory has become. So, what are this guy’s dreams? To prowl the streets of Hollywood day and night shouting at people? Pretty Woman doesn’t wanna know… It would have taken the mordant wit and satirical sharpness of a Billy Wilder or a Preston Sturges to get you to appreciate both the emotional surface lie and the deeper moral truth inherent in a story like this — and to fully explore the ironic contrasts between the two. But Pretty Woman isn’t black comedy or satire. It’s tepid, force-fed pabulum, with a few cold and bitter lumps that have slipped through the studio strainer which make it very hard for all but the most inattentive viewers to swallow. Pretty Woman can’t handle the contradictions it raises. It’s simply schizoid — probably because the aforementioned screenplay has been subjected to major Disnification in the development process, tarted up with an imperative feel-good ending that negates every valid observation that has preceded it.

At one point, Vivian speaks for Disney (and audiences) when tells Edward, flat-out: “I want the fairy tale.” Inevitably, she gets it — thus violating all narrative and character logic. She knows it’s not true, and so do we, but we’ll take the Disney version so we don’t have to think about it. Apparently, test audiences wanted to buy into the fantasy, too — integrity and verisimilitude be damned. And so, a form of moral nausea creeps up on you as you watch “Pretty Woman,” growing from the realization that the unequal economic/power basis of this relationship isn’t going to change, Happy Ending or not. Vivian herself recognizes as much. Nevertheless, all your (and, it seems, Vivian’s) movie-conditioned reflexes make you hope-against-hope that these two will stay together. You want the Hooker with the Heart of Gold to make Edward see how degenerate his social and business practices are. You want him to play White Knight and rescue Vivian from the streets, carrying her off to his penthouse castle.

You want those Pavlovian wedding bells to ring so that you can salivate. Then you recall the real world, and people like Ivan Boesky or Michael Milken, and you want to puke in disgust. Edward becomes the movie’s hero when he prevents an associate from raping Vivian and decides not to commit a comparably despicable business transaction at work. During the Reagan ’80s, moral decisions we used to regard as minimum requirements for anyone with a conscience have somehow become grounds for sainthood in the movies. Maybe Pretty Woman isn’t really a tainted romantic comedy after all, but a sort of latent horror film about the ethical/economic decay of America. Sounds like a hit!


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