American Gigolo holds a somewhat odd position in Paul Schrader’s career. The first two films he directed, Bue Collar and Hardcore, were grim and gritty. While no one would mistake Gigolo for a laugh riot, it’s one of the two slickest films on his resume (1982’s Cat People being the other). Stylistically, it exists somewhere between Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (note all the gorgeous, fluid tracking shots) and DePalma’s Scarface, with which it shares a love of fashion and popular music. In fact, both Gigolo and Scarface sport the disco legend Giorgio Moroder as their composer, as well as Debbie Harry-sung tunes on the soundtrack. Still, if you look closely, it’s clear Schrader is trafficking in the same themes he’s cared about all of his life. Sex, death, and guilt.
Despite its flashy veneer, the match between director and subject matter could not be more on the money. Nor could the match-up of actor and role.
It might be odd to think of it this way, but I’ve always felt it never entirely happened for Richard Gere. That’s not to say he hasn’t had a long, varied career with both box office and art house success – he certainly has. It’s just that it’s often come in fits and starts. Much of his success has arrived in smatterings. Despite being a remarkably beautiful man and a sincere artist, he’s seldom spoken of as one of the greatest actors, or even stars, of his generation.
It’s a fact that befuddles me – this lack of high-level esteem for his career. Is it because in his younger days he was too pretty? Too cocky? Too off-putting? Was it jealousy? I’m not sure. I do know when he stepped into his first scene in Looking For Mr. Goodbar over 40 years ago, he positively leapt off the screen.
He was electric. Cat-like. Masculine and feminine in almost equal measure. And breathtaking just to look at. He followed up that relatively small part with a lead role in Terence Malick’s masterpiece, Days of Heaven. Then came Robert Mulligan’s unjustly forgotten NYC Italian-American drama Blood Brothers (based on a wonderful Richard Price novel). One year later Gere held down the lead in John Schlesinger’s mild disappointment, Yanks
As the 70s closed out, Gere would find his signature role in the first year of the new decade with Schrader’s American Gigolo. All the promise he had shown from Goodbar in ’77 through Yanks in ’79 met with the perfect, quintessential role of his career.
As Julian Kaye, a high-class male escort specializing in rich older women, Gere’s specific talents and charisma came into full bloom. Gere only got the role after John Travolta turned it down (it’s worth noting that Travolta also turned down An Officer and a Gentleman, as well as Chicago – I hope Gere sends him a nice fruit basket every fa-la-la).
On the surface, you might be able to see the appeal of Travolta in the part. He was white-hot at the time, impossibly good-looking, and a fine actor. He would not have been nearly as good as Gere though. There is an inherent sweetness to Travolta that would have negatively countered the dark and often grimy vision Schrader was bringing to bear. No, Schrader needed an actor who could embody dichotomy. Superficial and vain, but also thoughtful and capable of a kindness that is almost a mystery to his own character.
Richard Gere is American Gigolo.
When we meet Julian, we find him at the peak of his profession. He’s so good that he can freelance between two pimps. One, a Scandinavian beauty played by Nina van Pallandt who scores him most of his high-class older-woman tricks, and the casually menacing Bill Duke whose assignments carry a darker edge. Both of them hold a barely-contained resentment against Julian. These are two people who are not used to being dictated to and clearly don’t like a untamed mustang in the stable – even as they keep funneling Julian work.
The core of the film is Julian’s relationship with Michelle (the never better Lauren Hutton), the wife of a California Senator. Their first connection in a lounge is one of the most cleverly written “meet-cutes” of its era. Schrader has always been a gifted screenwriter (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, First Reformed), yet he’s seldom given credit for being a sly scribe. But as you watch Gere and Hutton face off in a state of instant attraction (how could they not be?), talking alluring circles of dangerous liaison around each other, you are exposed to a fabulous bit of “I know that you know that I know” dialogue delivered in a precise and austere manner. Gere describes himself as a “translator” and a “guide” for women visiting the city. To which Hutton replies, “And they pay you.” Nothing explicit. All insinuation. It is wonderfully deft.
As Julian becomes embroiled in a murder mystery connected to a “rough trick” he performs early in the movie with a wealthy (but deeply dysfunctional) couple, the question becomes how far might Michelle go to save Julian from being framed for the crime? As a well-respected woman in a high-profile marriage, the answer is not a simple one.
American Gigolo is one of those great examples of what Hitchcock used to call “the MacGuffin,” which refers to a plot device that exists not so much for itself, but to illuminate the characters as they react to it. To put it another way, what American Gigolo appears to be about – a man trying to save himself from going down for a crime he did not commit – is not really what it’s about. What Schrader seems to truly care about is this man who has avoided any real commitment in his life – and not solely due to the nature of his job – and how he might change once he encounters someone that he can give more than his body to.
There’s a great scene early on of Julian dancing around his apartment, singing along to Smokey Robinson, while laying out his clothes on the bed, mixing and matching accessories to find the perfect outfit for the night. At first what appears to be playful and decadent is later revealed to be quite sad when Julian destroys much of his apartment looking for planted evidence. What we realize when Julian is turning over his bed and knocking vases off of tables, is that his possessions are all he has in his life to fulfill him, and now that he is at risk, those pricey items are of no use to him. And Julian knows it too.
There’s a great speech by Joe Strummer from The Clash that ends with him saying, “Without people you’re nothing.” As everyone Julian thought cared about him turns away, he learns this lesson. His pimps won’t help him. In large part because they find him too difficult to work with. As Bill Duke’s Leon practically hisses, “I never much liked you myself.” As well, all the women he’s given pleasure to turn their backs on him as he asks for their help. As much as they might enjoy his company, none of them will risk their reputations for a prostitute.
Which brings him back to Michelle. Even as Julian is going down for a crime he won’t commit, he will not ask for help from the one person who might be willing to save him. Without ever saying it, and perhaps for the first time in his life, Julian is in love. At one point he offers to work for Leon exclusively. Without any position to negotiate from, he tells Leon he will accept a 40/60 split. When Leon is not moved, he moves to 30/70. When that doesn’t work he offers to go back to doing gay tricks and “kink” (it should be noted that Gere has admirably never been afraid to be ambiguous with his sexuality). It’s impossibly painful to watch. Even as his desperation peaks, and he finds all of the bridges he’s built burning in front of him, he still won’t reach out to the best and most likely option – the one that has been in front of him the whole time. As it turns out, he doesn’t have to. Michelle decides for herself.
It’s easy to view what happens at the end of American Gigolo as a bit of fantasy. Would the wife of a wealthy senator really come forward to save a gigolo on a high profile murder case? I think the answer to that question would typically be “no.” But that’s the wrong question to ask. What’s important is whether you can believe this particular person would be willing to risk her status in society to rescue this man she has almost invisibly fallen in love with. I believe Michelle would. And when you see the two of them look at each other through jailhouse plate glass at the end of the movie (an ending Schrader loved so much, he all but repeated it shot for shot in his criminally overlooked Light Sleeper from 1992), I believe you will too.
What might be easy to miss here is that Julian isn’t the only one living an empty, vacuous life surrounded only by the trappings of money and class. Michelle is too. Stranded in a loveless marriage full of too many nights as nothing more than the eye-candy on the arm of a man held in “un certain regard,” Michelle is not so different from Julian. While there are people all around her, there are none to keep her warm. That is why she saves Julian. Because Julian, without even realizing it, has saved her as well.