NEW YORK — WOMEN hold second place in today's movies, on both sides of the camera. Old traditions and institutions largely prevent women from making films or from deciding what films will get made. Actresses also have a much harder time than actors in finding good roles that express their talents. Problems like these aren't limited to the movie world, of course. In one form or another, they poke their way into many levels of modern life. So the last thing we need is more films that celebrate raw male power. But that's what we have in ``Pretty Women,'' the current movie with Julia Roberts, straight from her popular appearance in ``Steel Magnolias,'' and Richard Gere.
Mr. Gere plays, Edward Lewis, a powerful businessman whose business is making money. He also has a terrible problem: It's virtually impossible for him to establish meaningful relationships with a woman. Even when he really tries, business gets in the way, and he's suddenly alone again. The story begins when he's starting on a really big deal to buy and rip apart a huge corporation. He doesn't want distractions from women, or from loneliness either, so he hires Vivian Ward, a prostitute, to keep him company for a week.
Since she's played by Ms. Roberts, it's not surprising that she turns out to be likable, attractive, and endowed with the ``heart of gold'' that prostitutes had in old-time melodramas. The two of them strike up a friendship, and even get romantic after a while. The suspense comes from wondering what'll happen when the week is over, and her $3,000 fee is all used up. The bad taste comes from the way Vivian is treated - not only by her employer, but by the movie. Her friendship with Edward takes place entirely on his terms; he tells her how to dress, how to talk, even how to eat, and she follows his instructions like a kid going to school for the first time. The message is plain: Men, especially rich men, have all the power. So be sure to do what they tell you, and maybe they'll treat you nicely.
True, the picture is a bit more complicated than this. If you're interested in Freudian psychology, you'll find the biggest Oedipus complex of the year in Gere's character, and the sexual symbols of the movie are painfully numerous once you start looking for them. But there's nothing subtle about how the film pretends to improve its heroine's life, while it's really subjugating her to male control in scene after scene. And making fun of her in the process. She's often like a female version of Eddie Murphy in ``Beverly Hills Cop,'' only much more helpless. She also reminded me of the title character in ``Educating Rita,'' whose every step away from working-class tastes and habits was celebrated as an unqualified victory.
``Pretty Woman'' is well acted by an attractive cast that includes veteran Ralph Bellamy and relative newcomer Laura San Giacomo, among others. It's also slickly directed by Garry Marshall, who's best known as a TV producer. Many moviegoers find it very entertaining, but don't overlook its barely hidden message. It's not one I like to hear.