The Narcissist at Home: Richard Gere in American Gigolo

I watched American Gigolo last night, so here is a re-post.

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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9 Responses to The Narcissist at Home: Richard Gere in American Gigolo

  1. This is a great post! I have a very clear memory of that exact scene and the truthful nature of it. In fact, it explains a lot of my problems with the movie. There was genuine insight into the shallowness of the Gere character. Paul Schrader’s instincts were clearly invested in that aspect. But, I don’t know, something got compromised in the over all slickness of the whole affair. That insight got lost…for me at least. What would an entire movie with Gere completely alone the entire time been like? It’s interesting to think about.

    This is my first visit here. Great site, and I’ll be back.

  2. sheila says:

    Dusty – thanks so much for the comment. I loved it! I agree that there is a slickness to some elements of the movie – and the most compelling aspect of the whole thing is this guy, this guy’s experience of what it is to be alive. It’s truly unique. I agree that that was Schrader’s instinct – that was what interested him the most.

    I would love to see an entire movie of Gere alone – to really explore the psychology that goes on in that privacy!

  3. Bob says:

    I’ve often seen Gere in the role of Capt. Willard in the opening part of “Apocalypse Now”. I also take much grief from my friends for this view. I think he might even have been able to pull off that character for the whole film. It certainly would have been different. His acting abilities are far from Sheen’s and certainly Brando’s; however, it would have added something to the movie that I can’t explain. I still don’t know how he projects that “something” onto film.

  4. sheila says:

    // I still don’t know how he projects that “something” onto film. //

    I totally agree. When he is in the right material, he is so compelling, so strange, so interesting to watch. Star quality. He remains mysterious and yet accessible. I don’t know how that happens either.

    Thanks for commenting!

  5. Todd Restler says:

    “Gere needs that narcissism. He doesn’t seem to register as an actor without it. ”

    Great observation on an interesting actor. He’s had quite an unusual career. Hollywood perpetually wants to trade on his looks in leading man roles, but he’s so much more interesting to me when playing somebody flawed or evil. My favorite performance of his was as the crooked cop in Internal Affairs, where he was able to take that narcissim and run with it. His self-absorbtion was the most terrifying thing about him.

    It is rarely mentioned when discussing Gere that he was basically out of Hollywood before a career resurrection with Pretty Woman. I remember reading William Goldman talking about this, and through the miracle of the interenet was able to find the excerpt (The Gere stuff is at the end, but this is all great, vintage Goldman):

    “More from William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?— which you must all go out and buy posthaste. I’m doing his chapter on Misery and I’m up to my favorite section — Casting Jimmy Caan. Who knew what this movie went through just to cast Paul Sheldon?? Oh, and his insights here about the character, about James Caan and why he was so special, so good in that part — really great stuff. So here we go.

    Casting Jimmy Caan

    It was as simple and discouraging as this: no one would play the part.

    We knew the role was less flashy. Had to be, the guy’s in the sack most of the movie. We also knew he was under the control of the woman, something stars hate. But we also felt the movie was essentially what the Brits call a “two-hander.” The Paul Sheldon character is not only the hero, he’s in almost every scene. Wouldn’t anyone say yes?

    We went to William Hurt –

    – didn’t want to do it.

    We rewrote it, went back to William Hurt –

    – didn’t want to do it yet again.

    Kevin Kline –

    – didn’t want to do it.

    Michael Douglas –

    – met with Rob, didn’t want to do it.

    Harrison Ford –

    – didn’t want to do it.

    Dustin Hoffman was called in London –

    – liked Castle Rock, liked Rob, didn’t want to do it.

    Understand, this entire casting process took maybe six months, and we are well into it by now and this is where my respect for Mr. Reiner reached epic size. Because, you must understand that well before this point, all the major studios would have had me in for rewrites or fired me, because they would have known the script stank. It had to stink. Look at those rejections.

    Reiner simply got more and more bullheaded.

    And, secondly, he needed a famous face as Paul Sheldon, because Paul Sheldon was famous, just an Annie Wilkes was an unknown. On he trudged.

    DeNiro –

    – didn’t want to do it.

    Pacino –

    – didn’t want to do it.

    Dreyfuss –

    – WANTED TO DO IT.

    Yes, Lord.

    You see, Rob and Richard Dreyfuss had gone to high school together. And more than that, Rob had offered When Harry Met Sally to Dreyfuss who said no. Biiig mistake.

    This time when Rob called him, Dreyfuss said this: “Whatever it is, I’ll do it.” Rob was, of course, amazingly relieved. But he felt it was silly for Dreyfuss to take a part without first at least reading it. Rob gave him the script. Dreyfuss read it –

    – oops –

    – didn’t want to do it.

    Well before this point, Mr. Redford was sent the script. He would have been extraordinary. He met with Rob. He felt the script would make a very commercial movie.

    Long regretful pause –

    – didn’t want to do it.

    How many is that? You count, it’s too painful. Understand, this is not the order of submission. My memory is that William Hurt may have been first but his second rejection came well after a bunch of others had passed. Anyway, it is all a swamp to me now.

    Enter Warren Beatty.

    Kind of wanted to do it. Met and met with Rob and Andy. Had a number of wonderful suggestions that helped close holes in the script. He was definitely interested. But there was this wee problem with Dick Tracy, which he was producing, directing, and starring in and which conflicted. To this day, I don’t think Warren Beatty has said no.

    Andy one day mentioned Jimmy Caan. Who had been in the wilderness. Rob met with him, asked about his supposed drug problem. Caan replied that he was clean. “I will pee in a bottle for you,” he said. “I will pee in a bottle every day.”

    He didn’t have to.

    The reason for detailing the above is because there is a lesson here. Two, actually. First is this: we will never know. Would Kevin Kline have made it a better flick? We will never know. Would any of the skilled performers listed? We will never know. They never played the part. They might have been better or worse, all that we can be sure of is that they would have been different. Jimmy Caan did play it and he was terrific.

    One special thing Caan brought to the party is that he is a very physical guy, like a shark, he has to keep moving, he cannot be still in a room. And playing Paul, month after month trapped in that bed, drove him nuts. That pent-up energy you saw on screen was very real. And it was one of the main reasons, at least for me, the movie worked.

    Second point. When we read about George Raft turning down The Maltese Falcon because he didn’t trust one of the great directors of all time, John Huston, it seems like lunacy. The movie, of course, went on to make Mr. Bogart a star. But Bogart was nothing then, a small bald New York Stage actor who was going nowhere. And Huston never directed. The same is true when we read of all the people who were offered the lead in East of Eden or On the Waterfront or Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    Careers are primarily about timing.

    Paul Sheldon is an attractive, sensitive man in his forties, a writer of romance fiction. If you ask me what star best describes that guy I would answer with two words: Richard Gere.

    Why didn’t we go with him?

    Wrong question.

    The real question is this: How is it possible for us to spend six months looking for an actor for a part for which Richard Gere would have been perfect and never once, not even one time mention his name? That’s how dead he was at the time we were looking. We were looking before Internal Affairs revived him and Pretty Woman put him back on top. We were looking in 1989, seven years since An Officer and a Gentleman. And in those seven years these were his choices: The Honorary Consul, Breathless, The Cotton Club, King David, No Mercy, Miles from Home.

    He was not just dead, he was forgotten. Happens to us all. Remember my leper period? There’s a good and practical reason Hollywood likes Dracula pictures — it’s potentially the story of our lives …”

    • sheila says:

      Todd – hahaha that is so awesome. and so right on. thank you so much for typing that out – it’s a fascinating look at not only the casting process but where Gere was at in his career.

      Internal Affairs was great. I think Gere still has some good stuff in him if he can keep the sanctimony to a minimum. He needs to be bad and dirty but WANT to be good. If he already is a “good” character, there is zero tension.

      I loved him in the Altman film, too – although that movie is kind of a mess. He didn’t have the tension either, there – and come to think of it, he is used in that film in the way that Presley could have been used – if he had lived longer. Sort of trading on the fact that every woman in the world wanted to fuck him so why not cast him as an ob-gyn? Brilliant choice.

      But yes: Gere is best when he is struggling with his own vacant-ness. His own desire to take short cuts. He’s so good at that.

      • Todd Restler says:

        “typing that”, haha, heard of cut and paste?! But yeah, thats good stuff, and if you’ve never read Goldman’s books they are really funny and insightful; this excerpt is pretty typical. My favorite line “To this day, I don’t think Warren Beatty has said no.”

  6. sheila says:

    Oh, it’s online?

    I’ve read Adventures in the Screen Trade a ton of times, but this anecdote isn’t in that, I don’t think.

    and yeah, hahaha, warren Beatty.

  7. Todd Restler says:

    William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?— is the name of the book. He’s written a few and they are all great. I’m actually not sure where I found the excerpt, but I googled Richard Gere + William Goldman as I remembered reading that and somehow it came up. Like I said, miracle of the internet!

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