“Certainly there have been better actors than me who have had no careers. Why? I don’t know.” — Richard Gere

For Richard Gere’s birthday, here’s an old piece I wrote, one I’m pretty proud of, and one that is practically a rough draft of another more recent piece, one years in the making: Mirror, Mirror: When Movie Characters Look Back at Themselves. The proof it was years in the making is that I wrote the below piece probably a decade before I finally made it official in that “Mirror Mirror” piece for Oscilloscope.

Without further ado:

The Narcissist at Home: Richard Gere in American Gigolo

Who we are when we are alone and we feel totally private is worlds away from our social selves. Even extroverts, people who “put it all on the table” out in the social world probably also stand in their kitchen in a fugue state, eating an entire jar of peanut butter with their fingers … an activity they would NEVER do if someone else was present.

Private moments are very difficult to portray. It’s a different head-space. Actors are used to showing emotions that normal people subdue or hide. This is part of the job of being an actor. But creating a “private moment” that truly FEELS private? Even though, of course, the actor is creating said private moment in front of an audience? It’s so challenging that Lee Strasberg designed an entire exercise called The Private Moment.

Perhaps the most classic example of a “private moment” is Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, talking to his reflection in the mirror, but there are many more. The genesis of all of them, as far as I can tell, is Peter Lorre’s horrifying child-killer in M manually manipulating his face while looking in the mirror.

I like collecting them. DeNiro as Rupert Pupkin in the basement, pretending he is talking to life-size cutouts of Liza Minnelli … classic Private Moment. Others I love: Holly Hunter in Living Out Loud, drunk, in her kitchen, murmuring to herself, lost in a private zone. Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, looking at his reflection and practicing the joke (private moments often involve mirrors) he wants to tell Adrian the next day. The zone of privacy created by the actor in such moments needs to be so vast that it is impenetrable. A tough feat when key grips and boom operators surround the actor, the least private setting possible. In such moments, the person circles around himself, into himself, a fantasist, an ouroboros of self-reflection, self-concern, self-dramatizing. These private worlds are often grandiose. A fantasy of ease, and not just ease – but ease that is then perceived by others. (Rupert Pupkin in the basement.)

Julian, in American Gigolo, as played by Richard Gere, is all about masks and appearances. His personality has been carefully crafted so that 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. His home is impenetrable, his private fortress. He is seen working out, listening to Swedish language tapes. One scene in particular stands out as a quintessential Private Moment. A mirror, of course, is involved.

But there’s more.

A variety of ties and shirts lie on Julian’s bed, everyday objects transformed into glittering possibilities of persona, just because of how Gere looks at them. He has a merciless connoisseur’s eye, but that eye does not obliterate warmth. Every tie, every shirt, opens up worlds in his head. They’re all beautiful. What matters is putting the right tie together with the right shirt. That will take some time.

Smokey Robinson sings in the background, “The love I saw in you was just a mirage …” Apt words, since Julian’s dreamspace of persona, of projected self – normally a woman’s job – is also a mirage. Julian’s whole life is 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. He is 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. This is what happens when we feel truly private. We don’t sing along to a song like we’re in a karaoke bar. We weave into the song, we weave back out. It’s not performative. It’s something else. Here, the song is all part of his dreamspace of self-absorption. The moment is so private that if someone walked in, he would stop 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 we see it in a man. In the movies, when women look in the mirror (in public or by themselves), they usually do so to check the perfection of the mask: Powder applied, lipstick applied, how do I look, all still okay? But when men look in the mirror, they attempt to either look beneath the mask, trying to find the self, brutalized in the outside world by having to “Be a Man” all the time – OR to pump UP the mask, to step into a world where they dominate. It’s a different relationship to Self.

Here, Julian is engaged in the same process as women looking in the mirror, except that while his mask is being chosen (the brown tie with the blue shirt, etc.), he is also communing with something intensely pleasurable, visceral. He is not analytical. He languishes in his own possibilities. He wallows in aestheticism. 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, the way he purses his lips happily in a moment so vulnerable that no one on the outside has ever seen him in that way.

He doesn’t look at women the way he looks at those ties, with the same lazy satisfied sensual appreciation. With women, he is kind, the kindness coming from an extreme knowing-ness. He knows how to make them come. He is proud of that, not in a cocky way – as a matter of fact it’s the opposite. He knows how to serve them. Other men are brutes with them and don’t care. He cares and takes the time. It makes him feel like he’s “really done something”. Still, there’s a distance there with women, and it is that distance that draws women to him. The ties, though? He looks at those ties with a satisfaction so deep he’s practically satiated. 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. It’s part of what he brings to the table, part of who he is. 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 of the limo and just stands there, as she, in her long gown, gets out of the car by herself. It’s an unconscious moment from him, it’s not “highlighted” as a character bit by Garry Marshall or by him. It doesn’t even occur to Gere to lend her a hand – this would have been interesting if they had made more of a point of it. In its own small way, Richard Gere not helping Julia Roberts out of the limo completely obliterates the fairy-tale narrative the film is trying to tell. I am not criticizing the moment. I think it’s FASCINATING. Julia Roberts strolls away with that movie. He doesn’t stand a chance. (In a way, his performance in Pretty Woman is the most generous thing he could do: he got out of the damn way to make room for this brand new powerhouse, STEALING the movie from him. He LET her steal the movie.)

Remember: she was practically an unknown. She got attention for Mystic Pizza, but … all of those actresses did. It was an ensemble piece. Nobody was ready for Pretty Woman. She didn’t even do a press tour for it. She was making Sleeping with the Enemy. Nobody was ready. Not even her agent. So here’s Gere – this major MAJOR sex symbol since the 70s) – playing support staff for this much younger woman – allowing her to shine.

But let’s get back to Gere’s narcissism.

Narcissistic self-regard is not a flaw in Richard Gere, I am not judging him for his lack of manners. I’m not that middle-class. I am saying that that dynamic is interesting and very 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.

In Officer and a Gentleman, a love story, his isolation and self-absorption is what made that character so deadly as a boyfriend. The arc of the film is that he had to give that up in order to truly become a “gentleman”, but for the entirety of the story we watch him circling only himself. It is a fascinating and not quite likeable combo, and that is Gere’s sweetest spot: fascinating and not quite likeable.

Gere needs that narcissism as an actor. He doesn’t seem to register as an actor without it. Withholding. Self-consumed. Narcissists drive women crazy. Women want to capture, to be captured, to get “in there” with him, to be allowed entryway into the precious interior space. Women go NUTS for guys like Zack Mayo, and women get their lives WRECKED in the process.

In American Gigolo, we are given a brief glimpse of the narcissist “at home”. Gere the actor knows that this is a glimpse 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. Let us see what he does when he’s all alone.

American Gigolo wouldn’t be the same movie without that short sequence. The film is bleak, it echoes with loneliness. Julian, sleek and perfect, maneuvers his way through the underworld, trying to maintain his standards (no “rough tricks”, no “fags”), and as he begins to lose control, as his friends abandon him, he starts to face the heart of darkness, the abyss at the center of his life, at the center of his personality. The problem is his personality HAS no center. Maybe there’s no “there” there in the first place. Nothing is real.

But in this short scene, where he places his ties on his shirts and sings to himself, 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 portrays 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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4 Responses to “Certainly there have been better actors than me who have had no careers. Why? I don’t know.” — Richard Gere

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, you so often, and so well, put into words, written words, thoughts I can barely “gather” in my mind. Many years ago, my best friend in NYC, had gone to college (U Mass) with Richard Gere and had written several musicals that Gere actually performed in. They did not get along (quelle surprise) but Jason loved working with him. We saw American Gigolo together and after seeing it, we talked for hours. I think a lot of people underestimated Gere. Jason didn’t. He got him. And you get him. Gere either had to get out of his way to be really good. Or maybe run smack into himself. I’m not sure which. But this article always brings up so many memories for me. Wonderful memories. Thank you.

    • sheila says:

      Melissa – such interesting thoughts!! I love that your friend didn’t get along with him but still loved working with him – this is so possible and I wish more people understood this!

      // Gere either had to get out of his way to be really good. Or maybe run smack into himself. //

      I think this is really true. He came up in a very fortuitous time – in a time when character actors like Dustin Hoffman were leading men. But very few people at that time could have pulled off American Gigolo. He really REALLY stood out. He might have gotten lost in the shuffle otherwise.

      Have you seen The Hoax? I thought he was so fantastic in it – it shows his understanding of himself – he is NOT a Prince Charming – or, he IS, but his “charm” can also be used for … evil. lol. Or … he can get away with murder because of what he looks like AND because of how he can dominate a room with his charisma. I was disappointed that The Hoax didn’t get more play or chatter. It’s such an interesting story. If it had come out in the early 90s, people would have been all over it.

      The Hoax is in Richard Gere’s sweet spot. it’s a pretty small sweet spot – he’s not versatile – and that’s not a bad thing – but when something is right for him, you can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • Melissa Sutherland says:

        YES, I did see HOAX. A long time ago. Have not thought about that movie in years. And I remember the “real” guy, too. Gere was so good in that. And you are right about his “sweet” spot. All actors have one, but some never find it. Gere was really smart and self aware. I want to re-watch Gigolo because of this thing you wrote, but, truth, I didn’t love the movie. But I could watch clips of him, over and over again. Damn, he can be so good.

        • sheila says:

          // All actors have one, but some never find it. Gere was really smart and self aware. //

          Totally agreed. and Looking for Mr. Goodbar! He came and spoke at my school and was great – he said he was in college ? – and got a call that he had been cast in something – I think it might have even been summer stock or something – I don’t think it was a huge break, just a FIRST break. He said he was so exhilarated he put the phone down and took a 10 mile run, his heart pounding. He knew his life was going to change, that something was starting.

          It was a very illuminating anecdote – and shows the whole “well, he’s beautiful, of course he’d become a star, or have a leg up” to be a lie. In many ways, his looks were probably detrimental. He had to work HARD to be taken seriously. Same was true for Paul Newman!

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