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‘Pretty Woman’: Looking Back at Julia Roberts’ Star-Making Role

On March 21, 1990, Touchstone Pictures previewed “Pretty Woman” at the Avco Westwood near UCLA, two days before its national launch. Variety columnist Army Archerd reported that laughter drowned out much of the dialogue and young Julia Roberts “is headed for heavy stardom.” In retrospect, that seems like a pretty safe prediction, but Roberts was not well known when she was cast in the film. (She had completed her role as Sally Fields’ daughter in “Steel Magnolias,” but the film hadn’t been released yet). Roberts was only cast in “Pretty Woman” after numerous other actresses had passed on the role, including Meg Ryan, Karen Allen, Molly Ringwald, Diane Lane and Michelle Pfeiffer.

And the project began with a much darker tone; in J.F. Lawton’s original screenplay, streetwalker Vivian (Roberts) agrees to give up cocaine for her week with banker Edward (Richard Gere), but at the end he dumps her back on the street and drives off.

But Disney execs thought Vivian’s Cinderella transformation would work better as a romantic comedy. Garry Marshall was signed to direct and Gere and Roberts were eventually cast.

Five months after the movie’s debut, Walt Disney Studios took out an ad in Variety proclaiming that on Aug. 25, “Pretty Woman” had become the highest-grossing film in the studio’s 67-year-history. On Dec. 31, Variety reported that the top three domestic films of the calendar year were “Ghost,” “Pretty Woman,” and “Home Alone.” Globally, “Pretty Woman” earned more than $460 million.

Roberts received her first Oscar nom for 1989’s “Steel Magnolias,” as supporting actress. She scored her second bid the following year, as the lead for “Pretty Woman.”

And Gere has a unique distinction. Though he’s been doing great film work for 40 years, he’s never scored an Oscar nomination himself, though he consistently makes his co-stars look good. Four of his leading ladies earned a best-actress Oscar nomination in roles opposite Gere: Debra Winger (“An Officer and a Gentleman”), Roberts, Renee Zellweger (“Chicago”) and Diane Lane (“Unfaithful”). Plus, five other actors were nominated in Gere films: Tuesday Weld, Louis Gossett Jr., Edward Norton, Cate Blanchett, and eventual Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones.

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