The Narcissist At Home: Julian In American Gigolo

Who are we when we are alone and we feel totally private? Private moments are difficult to capture on film. You know it when you see it. Perhaps the most classic example is Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, talking to himself in the mirror, but there are many more. The zone of privacy created by the actor in such moments needs to be so vast that it is nearly impenetrable. This is a tough feat when key grips and boom operators surround the actor, the least private setting possible. Julian, in American Gigolo, as played by Richard Gere, is all about masks and appearances. His personality has been carefully crafted to make his elderly female clients feel special and cared for. When he is alone, he drops the public swagger. There are a couple of scenes showing Julian at home, working out, listening to Swedish language tapes. But one scene in particular stands out as a quintessential private moment.

A variety of ties and shirts lie on Julian’s bed. Smokey Robinson sings in the background, “The love I saw in you was just a mirage …” Julian, in his underwear, stands by the bed, looking down at the ties and shirts, considering the combinations, colors, textures. He cocks his head, thinking. He purses his lips after a moment. He seems pleased at what he sees. There is a unique blend of laziness and focus on his face, like a confident athlete or an animal. He is not in a hurry, but his eventual choice (which tie goes with which shirt) is very important. Sometimes, as he moves the ties around from shirt to shirt, he sings along with Smokey Robinson. “You led me on …with untrue kisses …”, but he appears to be unconscious of the fact that he is singing. He is in a dreamspace of self-absorption. The moment is so private that if someone walked in on him, he would not continue what he was doing. He would have to grapple, quickly, for his public persona.

There’s something stereotypically feminine about such private moments of unembarrassed self-regard, which is why they can be so unbalancing and riveting when it comes from a man. In the movies, when women look in the mirror (in public or alone), they usually do so to check the perfection of the mask: Powder applied, lipstick applied, how do I look, all still okay? Here, Julian is engaged in the same process, except that while his mask is being chosen (the brown tie with the blue shirt, etc.), he seems to be communing with something deep, something intensely pleasurable and visceral. He is outside of Self, outside of Thought. It’s there in the boyish cock of his head to one side as he looks over the ties, and the way he purses his lips happily in a manner so vulnerable that no one on the outside would ever get to see it. He doesn’t look at women the way he looks at those ties, with the same lazy satisfied sensual appreciation. The ties are what matter. Yes, yes, those colors are just right. Just right.

Manohla Dargis once pointed out that Gere’s “gifts as a film actor are located in his body, in his silky walk and fluid gestures.” True, and when Gere is allowed to incorporate his own natural narcissism into a role, he shines. He is not convincing as a conventional romantic leading man. He is too self-centered. He gives himself away in a scene in Pretty Woman where he and Julia Roberts get out of a limo together on an airfield. He gets out and just stands there, as she, in her long gown, gets out of the car by herself. It’s an unconscious moment from him, completely natural, it doesn’t even occur to him to lend her a hand, which would have been interesting if they had made more of a point of it. This is not a flaw in Richard Gere, I am not judging him for his lack of manners. I am saying that that dynamic is interesting and important to explaining his talent and how it expresses itself. There he was, trapped in a Cinderella story, supposedly the Prince, but he doesn’t give her a helping hand out of the car. Classic Gere, but misplaced in that story, where we are supposed to see him as a “catch”, a prince. Even in Officer and a Gentleman, a love story, his isolation and self-absorption is what made him so deadly as a boyfriend. Yes, he had to give that up in order to truly become a “gentleman”, but for the entirety of the film we watch him circling only himself. It is a fascinating and not quite likeable combo, and is a slam-dunk in terms of its effectiveness when embodied by such a gorgeous specimen as Richard Gere. Gere needs that narcissism. He doesn’t seem to register as an actor without it. Narcissists make women crazy. In Officer and a Gentleman we can see why. In American Gigolo, we are given a glimpse. A brief glimpse of the narcissist “at home”. Gere the actor knows that this is a glimpse that only the privileged are allowed to witness. He understands that that is the purpose of the scene: Release the character, momentarily, from his public persona, unfetter him from his “role” and let us see him.

American Gigolo wouldn’t be the same movie without that short sequence. The film is bleak and dark and echoing with loneliness. Julian, sleek and perfect, maneuvers his way through the underworld, trying to get what he needs and maintain his standards (no “rough tricks”, no “fags”), and as he begins to lose control, as his friends begin to abandon him, he starts to face the heart of darkness, the abyss at the center of his life, his personality. Nothing is real. But in this short scene, where he places his ties on his shirts, sings to himself, and inhabits a private space, we see behind the mask, and we realize that everything else we have seen, every varied role he slips into, has been “just a mirage”. Gere has to portray a tailspin of increasing vulnerability over the course of American Gigolo, but nowhere is he more vulnerable and naked than in that one minute of film when he looks down at the ties, cocks his head lazily, and purses his lips in satisfaction at what he sees.

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18 Responses to The Narcissist At Home: Julian In American Gigolo

  1. Matthew says:

    Interesting, what did you think of Gere in Dr.T and the Women?

  2. sheila says:

    I loved him in that. He’s hit or miss for me, and it’s because of that narcissism thing. When it is used and admitted to, there’s nobody quite like him. When we are supposed to not notice his narcissism, he is not as good. An interesting dynamic.

    I liked his isolation in Dr. T. He is best when alone – even if he is surrounded by people.

  3. sheila says:

    I mean, his emotional isolation, not actual physical isolation. Surrounded by fawning women, yet set apart, distant somehow.

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  5. tracey says:

    There is something in his eyes, I’ve always thought, that doesn’t seem to actually SEE others. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s always struck me as if other people don’t register for him, as if where others see a person, he sees a blank page. If this is possible or even makes sense — I think there’s an emptiness in him that comes from his narcissism, from being so FULL of self.

    Kind of antithetical to his Buddhism, which has always struck me as weird.

    But I agree with you. When he plays to that narcissism, it works. Otherwise, not so much.

  6. sheila says:

    Tracey – Yes, he’s best when he is considering himself, I think. He’s not as powerful when he has to give over to the woman in the scene. That’s what was wrong with Chicago, in my opinion. I think he believed that HE was the star of that movie. On some level, I can understand that: this man was a huge huge sex symbol. I mean, Officer and a Gentleman? Come on! He was used to being the center of a romantic film – when normally it’s the WOMAN that is the center. That’s why he gives himself away when he doesn’t hold out a hand to Julia Roberts. He still thinks HE’S the center.

    Again, don’t want to sound like I’m judging him personally. I don’t know the man. And I honestly don’t care who he is in his real life. This is just what I observe in his acting, and I think it makes him interesting and very much himself.

    Early on, I think he was very lucky to get the parts he did. He wasn’t interested (oddly enough) in being a conventional pretty boy. He was too ambitious for that. He is very ambitious. Looking for Mr. Goodbar is INSANE, he’s just out of control in that (hard to believe it’s the same actor as the one in American Gigolo). He’s good-looking, but maybe almost too much so – so it can make him seem a wee bit untrustworthy, which has worked in his favor (in the right material).

    I love love him in The Hoax – have you seen that, Tracey? – and couldn’t understand why he didn’t get more acclaim for it. Terrific performance. The hair, the tight pants, the easy yet slightly off grin – and the ENERGY in his body.

    Maybe his Buddhism helps keep him humble or calm. I took a workshop with him, and he was very nice in person. Very funny and self-deprecating, but also made no bones about it when he talked with us about how HUNGRY he was in the beginning, how ferociously ambitious – It’s not something that is easy to admit. He talked about how his heart THUNDERED in his chest when he would “get the call” that he got such and such a part – like this man wanted it. and yet also, weirdly, because of his music career (which was, for a time, going just as strongly as his acting career) – he had a little bit of distance from the whole acting-career thing – It WASN’T the only thing he was good enough at to make a living at … He was a studio musician, who got steady work. So maybe that gave him a bit of distance from his contemporaries, like: “This isn’t ALL I can do” – and that distance can come off as arrogant or self-centered.

    I don’t know – he’s quite mysterious to me (when he’s in the right role). I really sense his competitive nature – that athlete’s sense of needing to be the best – Nothing else will do – but then there’s also this “cool” thing he has … and the good looks – these elements when combined in the right amounts (like in Gigolo) is riveting.

  7. sheila says:

    And I guess I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his best acting (in my opinion, this scene in American Gigolo) is done by himself.

    Like I said: a private moment is really hard to accurately do. He can do it. He is in that zone of Self here, in a way that only he could do. Robert DeNiro’s “private moment” in Taxi Driver was a fantasy of violence and “sticking it” to someone – having the last word. Sort of pumping himself up into something big and scary where he was the bad-ass.

    But Gere’s private moment here is womanly, soft, whimsical – almost like a Tween getting ready for a school dance … Not every male actor would let an audience see him like that.

  8. Bruce Reid says:

    Several years ago I saw Gere on a chat show discussing his recent vacations to remote parts of India and Tibet. Both times he mentioned to the audience they should go there themselves someday. Not with the mawkish enthusiasm of a Hollywood New-Ager (like Drew Barrymore, say–of whom I’m also a fan), or even the self-deprecating demurrals of a wealthy movie star excusing his privilege. Gere just turned his head toward the crowd and gave a by-the-by suggestion, the way you’d casually recommend a day trip to wine country or checking out that new restaurant a few blocks over. It’s become my default image of Gere: self-absorbed, sure, but with such casual serenity that it almost blossoms into a philosophy.

    Hit or miss, no doubt, but the hits (and I agree with you, Sheila, The Hoax is one of his strongest) are practically unmatched.

  9. sheila says:

    Bruce – I like your observation about the way he told people they should go to Tibet. That sounds to me just right.

    His physicality is his greatest asset (I am thinking again of that nutso scene in Looking for Mr. Goodbar where he is high on coke, dancing around, waving a knife at Diane Keaton) – and when he has to rein that in, he seems far more hamstrung than other actors do. Many actors rely on closeups to do most of their work for them, and I get that, that’s part of the job. But he’s a medium-shot actor, or a long-shot actor through and through, as good-looking as he is. When he gets really physical (even just the way he races around and drives his car in The Hoax) – he really seems to inhabit himself in a way that is singular and unique. That’s what makes Officer and a Gentleman so memorable (in my opinion) – his physical challenges, his commitment to those challenges (the sit-ups – and screaming and crying, the fight between him and Gossett – the sex, too, I guess – but when I think of that movie I don’t think first of the romance and the nudity and the sex – I think of the boot camp, and his struggle to join the group, his resistance to the group (running a racket where he provides fully shined belt buckles, etc.) The script even comments on it. Lou Gossett Jr. saying something to him like, “You’re just in this for yourself.” Perfect part for him. It’s not just about him deciding to become a good boyfriend/husband, although that’s a huge part of it. It’s about him deciding to become a good officer, and that means submitting to the rules, putting the group ahead of himself, and learning how to be a Leader. He’s so good in that part. I went back and watched it recently and I am amazed at how unlikable he allowed himself to be – I hadn’t remembered that. He is a sonofabitch. He’s GREAT at it. He knows exactly what he is doing. He knows the guy he has to play – maybe it is close to him, who knows – but he is totally sure of himself in that material.

  10. Bruce Reid says:

    Sheila: “His physicality is his greatest asset….”

    Laugh if you must, but I’m oddly fascinated by Breathless, not least for that shivering, spread-fingered dance he does to the tune.

  11. Jeff says:

    As much as I liked “American Gigolo,” I think my favorite Gere movie was “Internal Affairs,” where he played a very nasty, self-absorbed bad cop. Have you seen that one?

  12. sheila says:

    Jeff – I loved Internal Affairs – it’s been years since I’ve seen it. That was a very good movie, if I recall.

  13. sheila says:

    Bruce – Ha! I forgot about Breathless!

  14. Don Dealgan says:

    “He gives himself away in a scene in Pretty Woman where he and Julia Roberts get out of a limo together on an airfield. He gets out and just stands there, as she, in her long gown, gets out of the car by herself. It’s an unconscious moment from him, completely natural, it doesn’t even occur to him to lend her a hand,”

    How did Gere give “himself” away in the scene described above? It is a scene in a movie..he was acting, playing a role, following directorial instructions. His character did “not lend a hand”….

  15. sheila says:

    You sound out of your depth, forgive me. This is your first comment here.

    I am a writer. I write about movies and actors. I come from a theatrical background. I am interested in how actors work. You tell me “It is a scene in a movie.”

    Yes. I know. So let me break it down for you. There was no “directorial instructions” from Garry Marshall who is the most hands off director known to man about whether or not to “help the lady out of the car”. They barely had a script for Pretty Woman. There was much improvisation. Garry Marshall, in no way, shape or form, pulled Gere aside and said, “Listen, I think it would be really interesting if you don’t help her out of the limo.”

    So. There’s that. So I didn’t see it as a character moment at all (I was very clear in my piece about that). It was Gere just not thinking to help the lady out of the car – despite the fact that it is supposed to be the most romantic scene in the movie. It is supposed to be where he shows her the best time of her life: gowns, jewels, airplane rides, opera … but Gere forgets to help the lady out of the car. An unconscious slip-up, but interesting, because it is truthful. It is what makes Gere so riveting as an actor, that self-involvement, that consumption with Self.

    I think I’m interested in talking on a deeper level than you are about not only Gere, but acting itself. Again, forgive me. You seem to want to stay on the surface. “It’s a movie, he was directed to do that”. No, he wasn’t. And – that’s the LEAST interesting way to look at actors’ choices. That’s not what I’m about at all.

    But this is just your first comment here, so time will tell.

    • Esther says:

      I know it’s been 3 years since your last comment, and I doubt you still look at this blog, but I just stumbled across it searching for more info on parallels between “Pretty Woman” and “American Gigolo”, and I must say I love your analysis. It’s my first time to watch “AG” (you must understand, I am a child of the 80s, but was allowed to watch little having to do with prostitution at that age, and I am fine with that-I’ll probably do the same with my kids), and so far it is drawing me right in.

      I never thought about Gere much deeper than really loving him in “Pretty Woman” as well as “The Hoax” (WAY underrated performance and movie all around) and disliking him in “Unfaithful”. Your insights seem to hit the nail on the head as to explaining something that should be so simple but apparently isn’t for the general public. I just want to say thank you. I very much enjoyed reading your comments.

  16. Lee says:

    This was an interesting read. I enjoyed your analysis as well, and also like the last commenter I doubt you check this because it’s 3 years since she said 3 years was the last time you commented, however, this was so entertaining I had to comment that I will be reading more of your entries. And the comments were great too!

  17. sheila says:

    Now I am checking it – your comment just came in – thank you so much (and the other commenters I didn’t acknowledge – which is unlike me – I try to respond to all comments I get here).

    I love the “narcissism as virtue” that Gere brings to his roles – it makes him unique and kind of a conflicting figure onscreen. American Gigolo is its apex – but it shows up elsewhere, and I love it. I love how it affects his body language.

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting!!

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