By Megan Bianco

While watching “Pretty Woman (1990) it occurred to me how unique and slightly outdated the story line is in 2016. Then afterwards, I did some research to see exactly how many romantic comedies there are out there that involve a prostitute getting together with an ordinary, decent guy. In terms of lightheartedness and charisma, I found five: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), “Irma la Douce (1963), Night Shift (1982), “Risky Business (1983) and “Pretty Woman.”

“Tiffany’s is about a New York City escort (Audrey Hepburn) who falls in love with her male neighbor and new best friend (George Peppard). “Irma has a rookie police officer (Jack Lemmon) who tries to buy all the time of a pretty prostitute (Shirley MacLaine). “Shift” has two down on their luck guys (Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler) create their own brothel, and Winkler’s character falls for one of the employees (Shelley Long). “Risky Business has Tom Cruise in his first starring role losing his virginity to a young, pricy Rebecca de Mornay. And “Woman has a rich, corporate raider (Richard Gere) pay a Los Angeles hooker (Julia Roberts) $3,000 to be his date for a full week.

With the exception of “Risky Business,” which is Paul Brickman’s sole directorial effort, all of these movies were directed by men who know how to make hit comedies: Blake Edwards, Billy Wilder, Ron Howard and Garry Marshall. Of course it would take a filmmaker who’s a pro at making successful films to seriously see potential in a romantic comedy featuring prostitution. The most blunt, yet wholesome of the lot would probably be Howard’s “Night Shift,” which at its core basically has a pimp (or “love brokers” as Keaton’s character refers to them) falling in love with a whore. But the way the film is written and directed makes the whole comedic scenario charmingly more about business and courtship than sex, thanks to Howard’s whimsical style, and Winkler’s and Long’s likability.

Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Image from movie trailer

Wilder’s “Irma la Douce—which is actually the 1956 stage musical without the musical numbers—also has a lot of charm, thanks to the Wilder/Lemmon/MacLaine reunion after “The Apartment (1960). Here we see a very cute, sweet street walker, but the funny thing is MacLaine actually didn’t care for the final product. Calling the humor “clumsy and crude,” despite her eventual Best Actress Oscar nomination and audiences loving her flirt with a befuddled Lemmon after he’s lost his police job.

So what exactly is the appeal and what made this trope so intriguing back in the day? Can it be replicated again? Well, the 21st century did have its efforts, both with the “Risky Business knockoff “The Girl Next Door (2004), with Elisha Cuthbert as a pornstar instead of a prostitute, and “Easy A (2010) starring Emma Stone as a high schooler who gets paid to pretend like she hooks up with her male classmates. But both of those films barely found followings and only did modestly well at the box-office.

Over the years, some viewers have complained that these type of films glamorize prostitution and are overly unrealistic. It’s messy for young girls to love Hepburn’s Holly Golightly and Roberts’ Vivian Ward. But there is a point to be made about that—all of these movies are like modern fairy tales. Cruise in “Risky Business is Cinderella, and “Pretty Woman is a modern take on Pygmalion. And maybe the nay-sayers have a point to an extent.

I watched “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Risky Business” and “Pretty Woman when I was young, and thought they were great and romantic. I didn’t watch “Irma la Douce” or “Night Shift” for the first time until I was already an adult, and still found them enjoyable. But the enjoyment is definitely one where you have to suspend disbelief and accept the fantasy. And the easiest way to suspend disbelief with fiction is with comedy. I can now see why the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope is a little problematic. In the filmmakers’ defense, “Pretty Woman still manages to reference reminders of AIDS, pimp abuse and possible rape in the otherwise dreamlike view of prostitution; “Risky Business has de Mornay’s character constantly running away from her pimp; and Edwards keeps Holly’s backstory just as dark as it is in Truman Capote’s original “Tiffany’s.”

I don’t think “hooker romcoms” will probably ever make a comeback, what with how much more aware general audiences are on sex trafficking and third-wave feminism. But from a historical standpoint or just entertainment, they could still be enjoyed, and they could also be wake-up calls that happy endings don’t always occur in real life as they do in cinema.


Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.

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