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.