Two treasured movie memorabilia items from my own home: the gushingly written Judith Davis "unauthorized biography" of Richard Gere, published 1983...and a picture sleeve single of a Jerry Lee Lewis cover by the LA band X that served as the theme from the 1983 film Breathless.
Richard Gere. Ah, Richard Gere.
The man holds a peculiar place in American popular consciousness as a candy box sex symbol who honestly has not made a lot of, let's say, positive career choices. Gere consistently fills movie seats with now-fortyish women who loved him in a long, smuckery line of romantic comedy near-misses and ill-advised deviations from that path into thrillers (political and otherwise) and drama. His name still conjures up an image of "People's Sexiest Men Alive" circa 1993, and he is still making movies with Diane Lane. YET. I hate just about 85% of his movies. Which is problematic, as he is also one of my favorite movie stars.
Allow me to explain.
Richard Gere is one of many actors from the last thirty years that I think could have benefited from the strong hand and guidance of the now-dead classical Hollywood system of publicity. There would be fewer false homosexuality allegations (gerbils or no), less involvement in bandstanding on the behalf of the Dalai Lama (bored, bored, bored), and a bigger deal made out of the fact that he married Cindy Crawford (so hush hush when it should have been the media event equivalent of a 50's or 60's Liz Taylor marriage). We very probably wouldn't know that his middle name is Tiffany until after his death if he simply had the kind of cloutish PR that say, Tyrone Power, had in his heyday.
Examine: this guy (right) versus this guy (left). What happened to the career of the guy on the right when the guy on the left went over like gangbusters?
Richard Gere, movie star, is the Richard Gere of Pretty Woman. Richard Gere, for the rest of his life, as long as people are seeing his name in print, will be the Richard Gere of Pretty Woman. It's an almost perfect chick flick--an end all be all of a wish fulfillment fairy tale. However. Richard Gere, for all his rumpled hair charm, believable as a millionaire charm, seeing Julia Roberts for who she really is charm, is just not acting.
"Just not acting" is something many Hollywood icons have made a career out of. Some people just can't act-- they are, which should be enough for their fans. I wouldn't mind that, with reference to the easy-on-the-eyes screen presense of this man, if I didn't remember an era in his career in which he DID act, and which he WAS good. Better than good, very good. These three movies are the best examples of an alternative Richard Gere, who, in an alternate world, could have been a different kind of leading man than the Sta-Puft version we have now. And that's something I think people should know when they mention my man's good name. So:
AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980, Paul Schrader)
The soundtrack that gave the world "Call Me" by Blondie (additionally, the greatest theme song choice outside of the Rocky movies for the whole of the 80's), came from a film that was a BIG smash hit-breakthrough-star making role for the man in question, in a role that John Travolta turned down. Something about either the full frontal nudity (which Gere seems to go after with the same feral nonchalance as Ewan McGregor) or control of final cut of the film, which Paul Schrader was, rightly, not going to give him. In any case, can you see John Travolta, even 1980 John Travolta, in this role? Sometimes things work out for the best, and where I can't forgive a world that denied me Cary Grant in the Lucien role in Sabrina, I appreciate the same just world keeping John Travolta's screen career in check for the sake of Richard Gere's. This happened again in the casting for An Officer and a Gentleman and Days of Heaven. John Travolta's agent probably came from the same school of deciding on client's movie roles as Colonel Tom Parker.
But I digress.
Richard Gere is Julian, an executive-level male escort draped in Armani and often less, trying to stay above an increasingly complicated web of crosses and double crosses in Los Angeles, 1980, that eventually involve a murder, a possible set up, and a politician's wife with whom he's slowly falling in love. Lauren Hutton plays the love interest, and for the first time, with that gap tooth smile below flashing eyes, I understood the appeal of Lauren Hutton (her print ads just don't do it for me...ps I love you Jerry Hall). What's so great about Schrader's direction and script is the creeping uneasiness that pervades the onscreen mood...something about the blue twilight and grey-Venetian-blinds-shadows of the photography is offputting in the correct way. The scene can be very pretty, but just a little wrong...feeling, I guess. When things start to go downhill for Julian, who, at the opening of the film, is at the pinnacle of his professional life-- gorgeous, sought after, closets full of expensive clothes, an apartment out of an 80's music video-- they don't just barrel out of control as in a 50's noir. It's very slowly, and with a great sense of finality, that Julian's beautiful life falls apart.
Gere is obviously painfully attractive and slickly done up in this movie, but his characterization of the lead role, of the empty, mirrored surface of Julian's life, is more acting than he's done in the last twenty years, at least. While people remember the moon boots scene and the tiny grey boxer shorts, this movie was not just about eye candy-- it's really a very dark, engrossing picture from the man who wrote Taxi Driver, for God's sake. If you've only caught it in snippets on TNT, it's time to give it a serious look.
BREATHLESS (1983, Jim McBride)
This movie was slightly doomed from the outset. A bout de souffle (1960) is one of the most important, if not THE most important, movies to come out of the French New Wave. A movie that put one Jean-Luc Godard on the proverbial map (for better or for worse... I prefer Truffaut or Chabrol for my top French film directors honors, but there's no denying his influence or the number of times a film hipster will casually drop his name in the course of a conversation). This movie is, to the very hilt, "cool". Expat American waif Jean Seberg plays the at times attainable, at times unattainable object of americanophile Jean Paul Belmondo's affection. Belmondo has only a short amount of time to get out of France with Seberg before the consequences of a hasty cop killing that opens the movie catch up with him, but the plot is mostly secondary to a long game of "let's see what we can do with cinema". "Groundbreaking landmark in French cinema" and "remake" are not two words you usually like to see together. And yet!
Gere made this movie after wrapping his second massive blockbuster success in An Officer and a Gentleman (a movie that I really like, but have issues with-- see below). The plot is similar to the original, but the tone, boy the tone. Jim McBride went on to make one of my favorite "fun" movies, the bubblegum biopic of Jerry Lee Lewis Great Balls of Fire, and that comic book style is unmistakable. The swagger Gere gives to Jesse, our protagonist, in this film is similar to the swagger Dennis Quaid gives JLL in that film. Jesse drives a big 50's finned behemoth. He listens to JLL on a cassette deck at top volume. He identifies with the Silver Surfer. He wears unbelieveably gauche 50's outfits-- pink ruffled tuxedo shirts with blue jeans, black and white plaid slacks with big white buckskin loafers. He interrupts his girlfriend's thesis defense by jumping up in the window and miming Elvis, before literally breaking up the meeting by barging in unannounced and removing the thesis committee's table. Like Belmondo, he's a big puppy, but distinctly UNLIKE Belmondo, he's kitsch Americana to the gills. While the French protagonist of Godard's film aped Bogart, again, Jesse is more Elvis-in-his-film-roles, a goofy, swaggery piece of pop culture that the Nouvelle Vague director probably would've cringed at. Quentin Tarantino, so big a fan of Godard he named his production company Band Apart after the film Bande a part, names this as one of his favorites:"When I saw this in '83, it was everything I wanted to do in movies." I wonder if Butch's girlfriend in Pulp Fiction owes something to Kaprisky's Monica.
NB: The big difference between Great Balls of Fire and Breathless, and the reason that I don't 100% whole heartedly recommend the latter, is the rampant amount of onscreen sex in the earlier film. Probably my only real disappointment with the movie was how much early 80's, put-movie-goers-in-seats-with-topless-girls sex you're going to get for your movie going dollar. Richard Gere in a gratuitous hopping around and out of the shower scene (full frontal RG incident #2...like it's nothing to him). Valerie Kaprinsky, slightly irritating as it is with a distractingly heavy French accent, just can't keep her clothes on. If I looked like Kaprinsky, I might never wear clothes either, but it was not in the movie's already-critically-conscious favor to spend a good 35% of the screen time in bed. If the eroticism of your movie undermines the plot, pacing, and characterization of your players, you're not doing your audience any favors, either.
DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978, Terence Malick)
The rare pleasure of a Terence Malick movie! Teamed up with Brooke Adams as a pair of transient hired hands, the two hatch a plan to have Adams married off to the wealthy, though chronically ill, man-of-the-manor Sam Shepard. The film has the gentle, epic quality of the setting-- watching it reminds you of the mental image you would get reading My Antonia or O. Henry short stories. Needless to say as it's Malick, the pacing and cinematrogaphy both are GORGEOUS. This is the kind of role that in later years would be inaccessible to RG as being "too arty". He would be Zack Mayo or Edward Lewis, and not blank enough to create a character like this. So much the worse for him. As his earliest role on this list, it's actually one of his stronger films. There are not many other Gere movies that are going to get a glossy Criterion release, I'll tell you that at least.
AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (1982, Taylor Hackford)
Things you need to know:
1) Zach Mayo sounds like an early 90's cartoon character. Why did they choose this name for this man. Why.
2)Debra Winger was on FIRE for a couple years in the 1980's. Terms of Endearment, Urban Cowboy, AND this? She's like guranteed woman-traffic at the box office.
3) One scene that knocks me flat everytime I see it even though it's probably not even that good: When the drill sargeant tries to break him and you get this exchange:
Foley: You can forget it! You're out!
Mayo: Don't you do it! Don't! You... I got nowhere else to go! I got nowhere else to g... I got nothin' else.
Gere's SPITTING at this point. Again, you will not see him act like this again after 1983. I am serious.
4)Everybody loves that last scene. Even me, I love that last scene. And yet:
5) I'm not entirely sure, however romantic it is, of Debra Winger and Richard Gere's characters getting together in the end being a good idea. Some people you can't fix with enough love...I don't see anywhere in the movie where Mayo makes huge leaps in character growth. I'm sure some girls see this and go, "Look at his looks! Look at his problems! He's a big mess I'd like to fix!" but that kind of weird abandonment stuff just doesn't wash in real life I'd like there to be An Officer and a Gentleman II where Debra Winger's lost her looks and Richard Gere's turned into his dad. Add some kids. It's not the right kind of fairy tale ending for me, as the rest of the movie plays it mostly straight for the viewer. But again, who am I to stand in the way of runaway box office success?
LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977, Richard Brooks)
I don't remember much about this movie other than it's shocking final sequence (if you'd scene it, you'd know what I meant), but I vaguely remember a very, very young RG bedding Diane Keaton and then hopping around on her bed in his shorts. Always, this man was in his shorts. I think he threatened her with a glow in the dark switchblade at some point. Again, these aren't roles you're going to see him tackling anytime soon. WHY WON'T THEY RELEASE IT ON DVD? A really strong movie.
I was going to make a list of movies you should definitely avoid with RG in it, but the list was too complicated. Let's just say No Mercy (1986) and leave it at that. Otherwise, fire up those VCRs and get reacquainted with what was good, once, about this actor.