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Garry Marshall’s Movie Magic

Celebrating a handful of perfect moments from his long rom-com career

Getty Images
Getty Images

I don’t love Pretty Woman: a little too tidy for my tastes, and [Richard Gere hot take redacted]. But whatever my criticisms, even I have to admit: It has its moment.

I mean that literally: Pretty Woman contains one moment — a true moment: no more than a couple of seconds long — that I would rank among my top few favorites in all of film.

It’s at the end, the very end, when Vivian (Julia Roberts) is back at her apartment. She’s gotten closure with Edward (Richard Gere), bittersweetly, and is ready to leave L.A. for good. She’s packed. She’s said her goodbyes. She’s put on an extremely dope blazer. And she’s minutes away (which makes no sense — a major move would take me WEEKS? Like, weeks, plural. I’m not mad, I’m impressed) from being off to San Francisco. This is it. It’s last call for love.

That is, until — well, you know what happens: Edward shows up in his limo. Dear, dear, rich-as-fuuuck Edward: honking horns, and biting roses, and blasting Now That’s What I Call Opera! Vol. 23. And you know why he’s there: to live happily ever after. But enough about Edward: What I love about Pretty Woman — and specifically Garry Marshall’s direction of Pretty Woman — is how this scene plays out from Vivian’s perspective.

Most directors, I guarantee you, would let it play out one way: Vivian hears the car horns … then looks around in confusion … then slowly, slowly comes up with the thought, “Hmm, maybe I’ll check out this commotion out the window that involves an explicit diegetic callback to the time Richard Gere and I went to the opera and then PLAYED FANCY CHESS OVER CANDLELIGHT AND DIET COKE” … then steps to the window, still confused … then opens the window, maybe a little faster now … and then — right there: a quick cut, to a shot from Edward’s perspective. He sees Vivian: leaning out the window and beginning to smile. That’s the play — and it happens 99 out of 100 times in this movie. Set ’em up, and knock ’em down.

But instead Marshall does something different.

As Marshall directs the scene, Vivian hears the car horn from on the far side of her apartment. She’s at the door when she hears it — which is 11 steps from the window (I counted).

Touchstone Pictures
Touchstone Pictures

She pauses, and turns around, and looks across the room with confusion. She starts to walk toward the window — slowly — just as you’d expect. Eleven steps: One step … two steps … three … four … five … six … and this is where Marshall throws a wrench. This is the moment: At around her seventh step, Julia Roberts breaks out into one of the most iconic smiles I’ve ever seen.

Touchstone Pictures
Touchstone Pictures

It’s crazy: She’s about four steps from the window (I counted). We’re, like, less than two seconds away from a perfectly executed pattern out of the rom-com playbook. And yet, for whatever reason, Marshall can’t resist. He can’t wait two seconds — can’t wait for that out-the-window money shot. He needs Vivian to smile now — right then — at that very second.

The first time I watched Pretty Woman, I thought this choice ruined the scene. She can’t even see the limo! Why is she smiling! I didn’t think it made sense. It felt like Marshall switched up his flow, and then fell off the beat on his last couple of bars. It felt like he blew it.

But I watch it now … and I’m pretty sure it makes the entire movie. I realize now what Marshall clearly knew all along: that the money shot in Pretty Woman isn’t of Vivian and Edward. It’s of Vivian, just Vivian, alone with her thoughts. Everything that comes after — the look out the window, the climb up the fire escape, the dialogue, the kiss — means nothing if it isn’t preceded by Vivian’s own moment of recognition. We need to know she knows what movie she’s in.

Almost three decades of Julia Roberts films since have tried to match the magic of this smile. Some have fared better than others. But to me, they all fall short of Marshall’s original. Who knows why. My own theory, though? Every other director has thought to film Roberts smiling at someone.

Marshall, the TV and film director who died Tuesday at the age of 81, understood where this magic actually comes from. He understood that, yes, we smile at others in our “movie”-most moments. But in our best moments — when it really matters — we mostly just smile to ourselves.

And that’s Garry Marshall’s legacy to me, as a filmmaker: Not a great director of movies, and (for the most part) not even a director of great movies. But as a maker of moments.

Here are four others that I love:

‘Beaches’

Marshall accomplished a lot of incredible things in his career, but nowhere did he manage as pure and good and right of a public service as in 1988, when, while filming Beaches, he made the executive decision to LET BETTE MIDLER FUCKING COOK.

Beaches is the movie I point to in response to the charge that Marshall was a square. Because, yeah, sure, maybe he was a square. But if he was, then he also knew how to harness it. And when he really wanted to? He could even weaponize it. Which explains how Beaches — a drama about a lifelong friendship — is simultaneously (1) Marshall’s squarest film and (2) one of the most batshit crazy movies I have ever seen. And I really couldn’t mean that as more of a compliment.

Perhaps the moment that sums up Beaches’ dichotomous genius best is the scene where C.C. (Midler) performs in the Falcon Players’ new musical. (“Guess who got the lead in the Falcon Players’ new musical?” she asks. You did, C.C. — you did.)

Roll the footage:

What is even going on here? I have no idea, honestly — and yet I know it’s good. It’s like Marshall somehow combines “a total misunderstanding of New York’s 1980s theater scene” with “more understanding of New York’s 1980s theater scene than should be humanly possible to attain.” And in many ways, thought of more broadly, that interplay is par for the course for much of Marshall’s best work: Even when he was too square to “get it,” he could be so square as to transcend it.

‘The Princess Diaries’

Historians won’t believe this, archaeologists won’t believe this, the aliens that defeat us won’t believe this, and — if you haven’t seen The Princess Diaries — you won’t believe this. But rest assured, it’s true:

Marshall made Anne Hathaway into a likable underdog.

“Bullshit,” you’re thinking. But you have to trust me; this really happened. 2001 was a wild time: Shaq and Kobe were still functional teammates; Jay Z hadn’t yet rejected the idea that the whole point (the whole point!) of a blueprint is there’s only one of them; and Hathaway was believably playing characters who have a fear of public speaking.

But such was Marshall’s real and true and highly specific genius: There was just … something about his lens, sometimes, that could make you see someone in a light you never thought possible.

In The Princess Diaries, Hathaway plays Mia, a frazzled and goodhearted (and obviously beautiful — you’re not fooling anyone, Movie Glasses Trick) 16-year-old nerd. This characterization is important, because by the end of the movie, Mia will transform into — it’s not The Nerd Diaries — a graceful princess. If there is no shell to begin with, then there is no shell to come out of. Which means that Marshall has his work cut out for him: In just a few short minutes of prologue, he has to establish THE PERSON WHO WOULD GO ON TO SAY “IT CAME TRUE” AFTER SHE WON HER OSCAR as … shy.

Sounds like a disaster — except it somehow really works. Marshall doesn’t get cute (crucially, I think), and instead uses a classic “Marshall” setup: Mia has to present an argument in front of her whole public speaking class. This plays out like true horror: Presenting the first side of the argument is Josh, Hot Guy In School Par Excellence and the object of Mia’s (unnoticed) affection. He’s conspicuously unprepared but breezes through it: “School uniforms are bad, casual dress is good. [Takes off his shirt.]” The class applauds. (And, I mean, fair.) Mia, of course, has prepared rigorously. But when the time comes to go up to the front and present — she draws a blank. “What’s my point again?” she asks a friend … but it’s too late.

The look on Hathaway’s face says it all:

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

Mia stumbles … and sweats … and searches for words … but all that comes up is vomit. She sprints from the classroom, awash in dread. You watch that scene, even now, and it’s almost impossible not to feel for Mia — and to admire Hathaway’s performance. But mostly, it’s just a great example of Marshall’s MO: He needed to set up a universal emotion, and so he directed the scene in the most universal way possible. There was no need to get cute, or balanced, or ambiguous, or obtuse. Marshall had to make us pity someone — in a single moment — and so he did the simplest possible thing: He put them in the last place that any of us would ever want to be.

‘Mother’s Day’

Marshall’s “Holiday Trilogy” — which would end up being his final work as a film director — was, it must be said, not very well liked. (And that’s probably a bit of an understatement.) But I’m including Mother’s Day here because I think it’s a worthwhile example: of how, even in his most poorly received work — Marshall could still find a way to extract a memorable moment or two.

In Mother’s Day, the “memorable moment” for me is a scene between Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) and her ex-husband, Henry (Timothy Olyphant). One morning, Henry tells Sandy that they need to have a talk later. He’s seemed flirtatious of late — Olyphant would seem flirtatious while unfollowing you on Twitter, but that’s neither here nor there — and so Sandy convinces herself that Henry wants to talk reconciliation. She dresses up; she hypes up. Nope: It turns out that he’s getting — oh, fuck — remarried. To — oh, fuck — Shay Mitchell. And a few moments of, I mean this, truly inspired squirm-comedy follow.

Maybe I’m reading too much into things, or maybe I’ve just run “Brad Pitt x Abraham Lincoln = Timothy Olyphant” through one of those free facial-recognition algorithms too many times — but I couldn’t help interpreting this scene as a little meta: Jennifer Aniston, stepping up to the plate, and doing a funny riff on her own decades of endured public persona.

And that’s it, really. The rest of the movie isn’t much. But I think it’s a nice and earned counterpoint to the criticism that Marshall’s Holiday Trilogy was just a case of celebrities cashing checks. There’s surely another reason that Marshall worked with celebrity actors a lot: He was really good at it. Marshall is one of the best directors who’s ever lived, I think, at finding that tricky horizon line: of where celebrity ends, and cinema begins.

‘Overboard’

Last, but the opposite of least, is Overboard: By my count, Marshall’s best film by far. Starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Overboard is all of Marshall’s strengths as a filmmaker, rolled into one: two perfect star turns, a warmth, some bite, a wild sense of humor, a sneaky bit of meaningfulness, and yeah — true romance.

I’ll stop there, though — because, to be honest, Overboard doesn’t belong on this list at all. By which I of course mean: It’s too good. It is the one Garry Marshall movie in which the “moment” I’d point to would really just be … the movie itself.

But I’m glad to end on Overboard, all the same — because it’s as fitting a Marshall postscript as any. Overboard, to me, is one of the 10 or so best rom-coms ever made. It’s proof that Marshall directed a masterpiece. And — in a way not unlike Garry Marshall himself — it might be the most exciting thing for a movie lover to find: greatness in a strange form.