Pretty Woman (1990) and Philadelphia (1993)

Because Pretty Woman intends to be a modern mixture of Cinderella and Pygmalion, with an allusion in the movie to the title character being a princess who is rescued from a wicked queen by a knight on a white horse thrown in to boot, it hardly seems appropriate to criticize this fairy tale as being unrealistic. Suffice it to say that it is far-fetched that a rich, handsome man like Edward (Richard Gere) would not find the right woman until he met Vivian (Julia Roberts), a streetwalker who is so perfect that she even likes the opera. Perfect for him, that is, not for me. My perfect woman likes watching movies, and I leave the ones that like going to the opera to men like Edward.

Though this movie made no pretense about being realistic, yet there is one reality too stark to be ignored, and that is disease. Once upon a time, a man in a movie could marry a prostitute, and the audience would accept this without thinking about her having some kind of sexually transmitted disease. We never worried while watching Stagecoach (1939) when the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) decided to marry Dallas (Claire Trevor), who was a whore with a heart of gold. Because venereal disease was something people rarely spoke of, especially in the movies, they rarely thought about it while watching these movies.

But today we live in a world where it is impossible to think about sex without also thinking about getting an STD, especially if it is sex with prostitutes. And therefore, it was necessary for this movie to assure the audience that Vivian was in good health. Consequently, we are not surprised when Vivian says to Edward, when they first meet, that she is safe: “Look, I use condoms always. I get checked out once a month at the free clinic. Not only am I better in the sack than an amateur, I am probably safer.” Maybe prostitutes normally say that sort of thing to their customers, maybe not. I wouldn’t know. But if it sounds a little forced and artificial, we accept this bit of dialogue as necessary to keep us from thinking about disease when they eventually have sex. The movie could not afford to rest content with this one reference to condoms, however. To drive the point home, Vivian later produces her rainbow assortment of condoms for Edward to pick from.

But still, they are not quite ready for sex. That is, we in the audience are not quite ready for them to have sex. Apparently, we need a few more assurances. Therefore, in a subsequent scene, Vivian tells Edward that she does not kiss on the mouth. She says this is for emotional reasons: “Kit’s always saying to me, ‘Don’t get emotional when you turn tricks.’ That’s why no kissing. It’s too personal.” So, later in the movie, when they do start kissing, we know that they are getting emotionally involved. But the real reason for her having this restriction on kissing is so that we know there has been absolutely no exchange of bodily fluids, not even saliva, with any of her past customers.

In a movie about sex, we are not surprised if there is a bathtub scene, especially one in which both the man and the woman are in the tub together. But as there are two bathtub scenes in this movie, we have to wonder if the purpose is more than just erotic, if they are meant to make us think of Vivian as clean. This is not to say that taking a bath would act as a prophylactic against the transmission of disease. Rather, it is more about the association of ideas than logic. The cleanliness associated with bathing is supposed to support our belief that Vivian is sexually clean as well.

But the scene that really shows the extent to which this movie wants to assure the audience that she is safe to have sex with is the dental floss scene. Let’s face it. Most people do not floss during a date. I suppose a woman might, because she can carry the floss around in her purse. But even so, there is normally no need to have a scene involving personal hygiene in a movie, unless, of course, personal hygiene is important for some reason. As with the bathing, flossing will do nothing to prevent the transmission of venereal disease, but the movie is trying to suggest to us that any woman who flosses during a date must be so clean she could not possibly have AIDS, herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, or crabs.

Still, under normal circumstances, if a woman decided to floss her teeth on a date, she would close the bathroom door, and her date would not dream of just walking in. But if he did interrupt her while flossing, she would simply stop what she was doing to see what he wanted. She would not hide the floss as if it were something shameful or embarrassing, the way Vivian does in this movie when Edward walks in on her. But the purpose of Vivian’s hiding the floss is so that there can be a big dramatic scene and discussion about it, one which cannot escape the attention of the audience, much in the way that her display of condoms for Edward to pick from drove home the point in a way that could not be missed either.

So, with the condoms, monthly visits to the free clinic, a ban on kissing, a couple of baths, and some dental floss, the audience can finally relax and quit worrying about whether Vivian has a disease, even if the opera she and Edward went to see was La Traviata, a story about a courtesan who dies of tuberculosis.

Whereas the title character of Pretty Woman did not have a venereal disease, despite our apprehensions in this matter, given the fact that she was a prostitute, the protagonist of Philadelphia does have such a disease as a result of some risky behavior of his own.   In this movie, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a lawyer with a prestigious law firm.  In the opening scene, he successfully defends a client against what he calls a “nuisance suit,” as “an example of rapacious litigation.”  And so, if you did not know anything about this movie beforehand, you would correctly suspect that before the show is over, he will be bringing suit against someone himself.  And when he does, the lawyer whom he accused of bringing a frivolous lawsuit against his client, ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), ends up being his attorney.

In particular, the partners of the law firm he worked for say that they fired Beckett for incompetence, but Beckett claims they fired him because he had AIDS, which he concealed from the partners in addition to concealing the fact that he was gay.  Beckett explains during the trial that he decided not to tell the partners he was gay when he heard them telling crude jokes about homosexuals.  Those who produced this movie made sure that the jokes were not funny, lest we get confused and start siding with the partners.  Actually, the movie never makes it clear exactly what happened regarding Beckett’s firing.  Beckett believes that someone figured out he had AIDS and sabotaged his work in order to justify dismissing him for incompetence, but we never find out for sure.

This movie is contemporaneously set in the early 1990s.  It was a transitional period.  During the early 1980s, when AIDS was first identified, there was no treatment.  I remember seeing people whose bodies were ravaged by that disease.  The sight of them filled one with pity and dread (we see examples of such at the clinic where Beckett goes to have his blood monitored).  The dread was especially acute, because at the time, no one knew how contagious it was or what the vectors of transmission were.  Was it airborne?  Could it be transmitted by mosquitoes?  We knew that blood and semen could transmit the disease, but we also wondered about saliva and sweat.  By the 1990s, however, research had pretty much established that AIDS was caused by HIV and that blood transfusions, dirty needles used by drug addicts, and unprotected sex, especially between two men, were the primary methods of transmission. And while our fears of contracting this disease have been reduced by this knowledge, it also helps that treatment has advanced to the point that we seldom see anyone with obvious symptoms, such as extreme weight loss.

And so, the aversion to touching or being around someone with AIDS, a perfectly rational fear in the early 1980s, came to be regarded as a manifestation of ignorance and bigotry by the 1990s.  Throughout this movie, we see Beckett being hugged on numerous occasions, more than you would normally see in a movie, even a movie about someone dying of a disease.  In this way, we are informed that those doing the hugging are enlightened on the subject.  On the other hand, we also see other people trying to put distance between themselves and Beckett, whom we are supposed to regard as wrongheaded, if not morally bankrupt.

In any event, the issue of the case was whether the law firm illegally fired Beckett because he had AIDS, or fired him because of incompetence on his part, which would have been legal.  Therefore, the question as to how he contracted the disease was irrelevant.  Nevertheless, we are not surprised that the question arises as to Beckett’s behavior, whether he contracted AIDS through reckless actions on his part.  A woman who had once worked for the partner who first noticed Beckett’s lesion is brought on the stand to testify on the part of the plaintiff (Beckett).  She had had AIDS too, but she told her employers.  The point is that the partner would have realized what the lesion meant from his experience with her, in which case knowledge that Beckett had the disease by at least one of the partners would be established, a necessary condition of proving that that was the real reason for Beckett’s firing.

Under cross examination, it turns out that she contracted the disease when she was given a transfusion after giving birth.  In other words, she got AIDS through no fault of her own.  That the occasion was when she had a baby even associates the event with motherhood.  You couldn’t want a more saintly innocent victim than that.  So, we know what is coming, an attempt on the part of the defense attorneys to blame the victim.  Sure enough, when Beckett gets on the stand, he is asked about whether he had ever been to the Stallion Showcase Cinema, a gay pornographic movie theater where men in the audience sometimes have sex with each other.  Beckett admits to having been to the theater three times in 1984 or 1985, and that he had sex with a man in the theater one time.  He also admits that he knew about AIDS at the time and that his actions could have endangered Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas), the man he was living with at the time and still is.  The point of the defense is that Beckett is not an innocent victim, but someone who contracted the disease in rather seedy circumstances in full knowledge of the danger to himself and his lover.

Of course, the attitude of the movie is that it is wrong to blame the victim.  More importantly, it allows the people in the audience to be smug in their sense of moral superiority, self-assured that they would never blame the victim the way some in the movie seem to.  But let us note that the movie also lacks the courage of its convictions.  It establishes that Beckett was and still is in a monogamous relationship, as it were, and that he just had a moral lapse one night.  In other words, the movie did not have the courage to make Beckett a man given to promiscuity, someone who had had anonymous sex on innumerable occasions in movie theaters and restrooms for over a decade.  That would really have tested us.  Instead, the movie is saying that it is wrong to blame the victim, especially when the victim, while not being totally innocent like the mother who had a transfusion, is almost innocent.  In so doing, the movie makes it all too easy for people in the audience to congratulate themselves in how right-thinking they are in this matter.

After much testimony from various witnesses, the case is turned over to the jury for deliberations, if you can call it that.  All we hear is one man, presumably the foreman, telling the other jurors that the case for the defense does not make sense.  That’s it.  No one has a dissenting view.  In fact, no one else says anything, except to mumble agreement.  The closest thing we get to a dissent is when the jurors are being asked one by one how they stand on the issue, and juror number ten says, “I disagree.”  This is not supposed to be a jury movie, of course, like Twelve Angry Men (1957), where an Ed Begley character could express bigotry toward homosexuals or where a Lee J. Cobb character could reveal that his prejudice stemmed from the fact that his son was gay, before finally coming around to the proper verdict.  But surely they could have done better than what we got in this movie.  Alternatively, if time simply did not permit, it would have been better to leave out the jury-deliberation scene altogether.  That’s what most trial movies do.

Midway through the trial, Miller comes over to Beckett’s place to go over the testimony Beckett will be giving on Monday.  Instead, Beckett wants to talk about the opera music that he has playing.  Like most people, including me, Miller does not much care for opera.  Beckett explains what the opera is about and what emotions are being expressed through the singing.  The intensity of his performance is bizarre.  I don’t know.  Maybe if you are dying from a dreadful disease, you can get a little more worked up about things than you normally would, but it all seems to be a bit much.

While his overwrought description of the aria was going on, I could not help but think of the movie Pretty Woman, which is why I decided to discuss both movies in a single essay.  In that movie, when Edward takes Vivian to see an opera, presumably the first one she has ever been to, we see her crying during a particularly moving scene.  In other words, in both movies, a major character practices a form of sex that many regard as likely to result in contracting a disease.  And in both movies, these characters are deeply moved by an opera, as if to say they have such great souls that they can appreciate art in its highest form with a passion that we philistines, with our sexually respectable lives, can scarcely imagine.  It just wouldn’t have been the same if Beckett had been listening to N.W.A., explaining to his lawyer with great emotion, “And here is the part where he gets his sawed-off shotgun, and they have to haul off all the bodies.”

3 thoughts on “Pretty Woman (1990) and Philadelphia (1993)

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