Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Three Shades of Gere

I've always felt that Richard Gere is an underrated performer. While often criticised for coasting on his looks in movies like Pretty Woman (Gary Marshall, 1990) and Runaway Bride (Marshall, 1999), Gere also displays a willingness to subvert the very qualities which make him a star. What is often overlooked in overviews of Gere’s career, is that his rise to prominence was based on a series of darker, more ambiguous characters such as a violent thug in Looking For Mr. Goodbar (Richard Brooks, 1977) and as a male escort accused of murder in American Gigolo (Paul Schrader, 1980). In his romantic features, Gere generally plays a successful, superficial cynic who learns how to feel through love (for example, his cold business executive in Pretty Woman ends up rejecting the business practices which have sapped his humanity). It’s a conventional, predictable arc that has been both the source of Gere’s success and the basis of the criticism levelled against him. However,  this arc - a superficial man discovers depth - is also the foundation for some of Gere’s more interesting work.

American Gigolo (dir. Paul Schrader, 1980)

In his breakout performance, Gere plays Julian, an emotionally detached male escort. Throughout the first half of the film, Julian is shown to be all about surfaces - whether exercising, picking out clothes or meeting clients. His perfect existence is unbalanced by a murder investigation, and his detachment, till now an asset in both in his personal and professional lives, proves to be a major weakness when he becomes the chief suspect. As the noose tightens, the formerly cool Julian finds out that his ability to detach himself from intimacy of any kind has left him with no alibi, and no one to turn to. 

Gere’s natural reserve is perfect for the role of Julian, his natural containment and lack of overt emotional outbursts complimenting his director’s objective approach to the material. He is unafraid to make Julian unlikeable, and plays up the character’s ambiguous sexuality - an aspect of the role that scared off early contender John Travolta. Gere’s best moment comes during a pivotal monologue to his new girlfriend. Julian tells the story of how he managed to loosen up a frigid client, as an example of the benefits he provides - not just physical pleasure, but emotional catharsis for a middle-aged woman in a loveless marriage. “Who else would have taken that time? Cared enough to do it right?” This story highlights the way Julian believes his job is a vocation - a selfless way to help others - while emphasising his ego - melting a repressed client is is an endorsement to his skills as a professional lover. Gere plays the whole scene in a long shot, completely nude. Physically and emotionally exposed, Gere underplays Julian’s total self-absorption. He is more like a priest than a street hustler, someone who sees himself as divorced from the seedier aspects of his profession, but who can still reap the benefits. It is one of Gere’s best performances and served as a template for the kinds of remote, damaged characters he would return to over the course of his career.

The casting of Gere in the title role is partially dependant on his physical presence. Gere’s well groomed appearance does not project the kind of aggressive machismo represented by contemporary sex symbols like Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood. Compared to these examples, bastions of Seventies masculinity, Gere projects a softer, more metrosexual appeal based on more attention to aesthetic details (hair, clothes). Schrader’s camera objectifies Gere in a manner more consistent with a female sex symbol. The first act features Gere in various stages of undress, in sequences which foreground his physical attributes. The most famous of these scenes, one which helped cement Gere’s status as an Eighties sex symbol, features the camera following Gere around his apartment while he exercises wearing a pair of extremely small shorts. These early scenes of Julian preparing for work resembles the ‘makeover’ sequences the female lead in a romantic comedy goes through (such as Pretty Woman).  There is even a scene in which Julian lays out a variety of outfits while strutting around bare-chested and dancing to music in a way that cannot help but evoke this hoariest of cliches. This alignment of Gere’s body with a visual strategy that recalls images of female sexuality plays into the ambiguity surrounding the character’s motives and deepest desires.  While Gere’s physical attributes play into the character’s central goal to be an object of desire, his performance provides few clues as to to exactly what kind of ‘customer’ Julian is trying to attract.   

Internal Affairs (dir. Mike Figgis, 1990)

Following a decade of flops such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984) and King David (Bruce Beresford, 1985), Gere marked the dawn of the new decade with a pair of diametrically opposing roles. Released in the same year as his comeback hit Pretty Woman, Internal Affairs features Gere as corrupt police officer Dennis Peck. Playing both sides of the street, Peck has created a mini-empire for himself - running protection rackets, blackmailing fellow officers, taking out contract kills and maintaining a collection of ex-wives and mistresses. However Peck’s perfect little world is tested when Internal Affairs begins to sniff around, and he takes drastic action to maintain his operation.

Peck is probably Gere's best performance. Oozing contempt from every pore, Gere excels at playing a complete and utter sociopath. Where the American Gigolo had been cold, Peck is an iceberg - coldly manipulating lovers and fellow officers with equal skill and little compunction about sacrificing anyone who comes under his sway. Peck’s good looks and easy charm mask a murderous home fatal, a spiritual father to Denzel Washington's equally corrupt cop in Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, 2001). 

Rather than the blue-collar tough guy the script implies, Gere’s portrayal of Peck is a more refined, preventing the character veering off into the cartoon bad guy he could have been. Lacking a physically imposing physique, Peck’s power is more insidious. Like a combination of Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard III, he is a master manipulator, with an almost supernatural ability to sniff out a person’s weakness and exploit it. Refracted through Gere’s performance, Peck comes across as a seducer, both in terms of his ability with women and with the small cadre of fellow cops and criminals he has under his thumb. Unlike the American Gigolo, who is defined by his isolation, Dennis Peck ingratiates himself among both colleagues and friends. There are no boundaries between his job and personal life. Throughout the film, Peck  constantly refers to himself as one of the team - a martyr who will lay down his life for his fellow officers. The opening scene introduces us to Peck and his modus operandi. While on a drug bust, a fellow officer shoots an innocent bystander by mistake. Peck places a knife in the dead civilian’s hand. While doing so, he convinces the cop that this is part of the job. Like the central character in American Gigolo, Dennis Peck justifies his actions as a necessary service to his fellow officers: “How many cops you know, huh? Got nothing. Divorced, alcoholic, kids won't talk to them anymore, can't get it up. Sitting there in their little apartments, alone in the dark, playing lollipop with a service revolver.” He treats their various infractions as part of an unstated reciprocal agreement between street cops and the system they are supposed to protect - if the system is going to use them, they should use what power they have to get a piece of the action. Like Julian in American Gigolo, Peck masks his selfishness in humility. Peck loves his fellow officers, his ex-wives and his many kids, but only as symbols of his own success. 

Richard Gere’s smile has been a prime component of his appeal in his romantic comedies. Its presence as a selling tool - the posters for Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Mr Jones (Figgis again, 1993) and Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) - highlight how much of a convention this smile has become to his performance style. In Internal Affairs, director Mike Figgis juxtaposes this smile with Peck’s actions. A prime example is the scene where Peck is caught having anal sex with another man’s wife. Gere’s smile becomes a punchline - not just as a signifier of Peck’s debauchery, but a meta-textual commentary on the vaucuous sincerity Gere’s smile had become associated with in his more crowd pleasing roles.  

Gere’s best moments are in his confrontations with the film’s protagonist, a fresh faced Internal Affairs officer, Raymond Aliva, played by Andy Garcia. Throughout the film, Peck plays upon his opponent’s frayed marriage, turning the initially contained Aliva into a paranoid, violent wife-beater. During an early confrontation in a public park, Dennis Peck provokes the normally cool Raymond into beating him up. This scene is unsettling for several reasons. Firstly, the location - a public space, filled with ordinary people heading to work or playing with their kids. Then there is the unflappable, jocular way Gere plays the scene. With no tact, he interrogates his adversary about hissex life and makes (correct) assumptions about his adversary’s past infidelities. Gere’s casual delivery, and his mocking tease of smile contrast well with Garcia’s crumbling, volatile performance. The speed with which Peck is able to provoke the ostensible hero of the film into assaulting him would be laughable in any other context, but Gere’s preening, measured cruelty makes Aliva’s reaction all the more understandable. 

Having already discussed the importance of Gere’s smile to his performance, it is fitting that the film ends on it. Even after Aliva has filled him with lead, Peck gloats at how he was able to bring turn his opponent into a deranged paranoiac. “You're so fucking easy, Raymond. Like a big baby with buttons all over.”  Gere’s grin has become a grimace, a sign of his failure to defeat Aliva, but also a sign of the pyrrhic victory he has scored over the hero’s soul. In this way, Dennis Peck is like a vampire. While Raymond is able to kill Peck, the damage has already been done - Peck’s corruption has been passed on to his conquerer. 

Gere’s performance, as well as the film, went under the radar on its initial release. While a modest success, its dark tone and compromised characters did not catch on with contemporary audiences. Gere’s best work thus far was overshadowed by the blockbuster success of Pretty Woman, which jumpstarted his career and gave him a second wind in Hollywood. One can only wonder what his career would have been like had Internal Affairs, and not Pretty Woman, had caught on. Gere’s trajectory may have been completely different, and possibly more interesting.

Arbitrage (dir. Nicholas Jarecki, 2012)


Watching Arbitrage, one is struck by how much the character of Robert Miller feels like an extension of his previous roles. Taken as a triple bill, it's possible to see how the character in American Gigolo could have grown up to become his character in Internal Affairs and then failed upwards to become the character in Arbitrage. The Gere character has grown up, both in age and social status. While the American Gigolo strived for upper class sophistication, and Richard Peck rebelled against it, Arbitrage’s Robert Miller is everything they are not. A giant in the financial industry, like Julian, Miller is a man with everything at his fingertips. However, like the protagonist of American Gigolo, once again Gere plays a man with a seemingly perfect life (at least in his own mind) - complete with a French mistress. And like Julian, his life is thrown into turmoil. 

We are introduced to Robert Miller explaining his personal philosophy in the context of a television interview. With an adoring audience of technicians and family in the wings, Miller provides an initially innocuous soundbite of financial prudence that is ultimately rendered meaningless by the character’s future actions. In hindsight, this interview sequence performs the same function as the openings of American Gigolo and Internal Affairs - showing that the character Gere is playing is himself involved in a type of play-acting. In this scene, and throughout the film, Miller plays the role of successful businessman. Like the protagonist of American Gigolo, the perception of other people is an essential part of the character’s life. It is important to both characters because both of their jobs are dependant on the characters’ abilities to sell themselves. Robert Miller plays the role of a principled, tough businessman and a dedicated family man. These aspects of his character are introduced right at the beginning. This perfect facade is destroyed shortly thereafter when we are then introduced to Miller’s other life - first, a mistress he stashes in an apartment on the other side of town, then the fallacy of his business success. Like Julian in American Gigolo, Miller’s world is one of constant performance.

Like the central character in Internal Affairs, Robert Miller’s success is dependant on a lie. While Gere had given the role of Dennis Peck a diabolical vitality, he gives Robert Miller an air melancholy. Like an ageing prize fighter, Miller knows his best days are behind him, but is unwilling to let go of another shot at a title fight. Gere is good at scenes where he has to maintain his cool while his back is to the wall. Arbitrage features a great example of this. As his personal and professional lives hang in the balance, Miller tries to win over a sceptical buyer for his company. Allowing his usual slick veneer to crumble, Miller launches into a profanity-laden tirade. Finally cutting through the niceties of their class, Miller’s candour wins over the buyer, and the scene ends with each of them complimenting the other on their respective performances - even when they are being real, they are still acting. 

Ultimately, Miller’s victory comes at the expense of his personal happiness. His marriage and his business are now as one - financial transactions have trumped emotional connections. The ending provides an ironic mirror of the opening, with Miller holding court before an adoring audience as he accepts an award for his humanitarian efforts. However, unlike the opening, Miller has lost everything. He has all the material trappings of success, but he has lost his daughter’s respect, and his marriage is now sham.

Final thoughts
Casting is an important piece of of the filmmaking process - put the wrong person in a role and the entire picture can be thrown off course. The casting of stars makes this process even more complicated. Even if the star is talented enough to play the role, the baggage he or she brings from previous roles can completely undermine the credibility of the entire film. However, when intelligent filmmakers take established stars and place them in roles which undermine the qualities viewers have come to expect from them, the results can be spectacular - take Robert Mitchum playing the villain in Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), or Sean Connery completely destroying his Bond persona as a cop confronted with his own failings in The Offence (Sidney Lumen, 1972). Rather than a two dimensional pretty boy, Richard Gere has shown that he is at his best playing against the very qualities which make him a star. In films such as American GigoloInternal Affairs (Mike Figgis, 1990), and Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012), the characters Gere plays reject and invert the character arc associated with his more popular work. In many ways, these films act as a thematic trilogy, in which Richard Gere embodies three different iterations of morally ambiguous characters. Like his mainstream work, in these films, Gere plays a self-made man who is incapable of intimacy. Unlike films like Pretty Woman, the characters in American GigoloInternal Affairs, and Arbitrage  recognise and justify this superficiality. The only change that takes place is their recognition of their superficiality, combined with the knowledge that they are unable to escape the lives they have created for themselves.

While contemporaries such as Michael Douglas have built their careers on playing morally compromised anti-heroes, Richard Gere has been stuck in the image of his popular roles - a teflon-coated yuppie in search of love. With his days of being a matinee idol long over, with roles in films such as Arbitrage, Gere has made the transition into a being a character actor. With its relative critical and commercial success, hopefully this bodes well for both the next stage in Gere’s career, and a critical reappraisal of his body of work.    

Further viewing
Days of Heaven (Terence Malick, 1978)
Sommersby (Jon Amiel, 1993)
The Hoax (Lasse Hallestrom, 2007)