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Richard Gere: Heart-Breaker

The hard times and high hopes of the star of ‘American Gigolo’

Richard Gere

American actor Richard Gere, circa 1980

Terry O'Neill/Getty

Isn’t it ridiculous that I look sexy in American Gigolo?” says Richard Gere as he gulps down a glass of orange juice in his Greenwich Village duplex. “I laughed out loud when I saw the print of it. I mean, each night I put on my makeup and I look like this — a lobotomy victim. Then I see what I looked like eight months ago. You can see the absurdity of appearance.”

His countenance is a bit disarming, though no more so than Bent itself, the provocative Broadway play in which Gere is currently starring as a homosexual in Nazi Germany. Shorn of his wavy locks, Gere looks like a lobotomized teddy bear. His undulating hairline broadens his features, making his ears stick out like saucers. It’s quite a metamorphosis from Julian Kaye, the soigné escort of lonely dowagers in Paul Schrader’s new film, American Gigolo.

Gere, I learn, has metamorphosed in other ways, too. The angst he once carried like a shield has given way to a benign calm, and the change, I suspect, has a lot to do with his new status as a “bankable” star.

Back in the old days — two years ago — the industry cautiously labeled Gere “semi-bankable” after his impressive performances in a string of movies that flopped like bloated fish. His mannered, understated handiwork nicely complemented the allegorical visuals in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, but the most trenchant dialogue in that plotless beauty was between Malick and his cameraman, and much of Gere’s performance was left on the cutting-room floor. He brought an animalistic intensity to the rootless, jock-strapped hustler Tony in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, exacting orgasm after orgasm from Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton). For the film’s most breathtaking scene, Gere created a balletic excitement in a violent, sinuous snake dance while brandishing a switchblade. But director Richard Brooks’ moralmongering reduced the film to a leaden dialectic.

Gere affected the only believable performance in Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers as Stony DeCoco — a young man at the crossroads in an otherwise shrill family of Bronx construction workers. And in John Schlesinger’s Yanks, Gere carried a large ensemble through a sweeping, richly textured World War II period piece that was visually beautiful, romantically touching but somehow hollow at the core.

Now, with the release of Gigolo, the word in Hollywood is that the thirty-year-old Gere is “industry hot.” And that’s more than just scuttlebutt. In Julian Kaye — $1000-a-trick male whore, master of five languages and superstud in the emotionally numb world of Southern California — Gere has a red-blooded role that could make him the male sex symbol of the Eighties.

“I never consciously thought about becoming a sex symbol when I accepted the part,” Gere says, rubbing his burr head. “But I suppose if you want to be up there — as a movie star, rock star, whatever — part of that is, yes, you want to be desired. And I suppose that is basically sexual. I wouldn’t say I did the movie specifically for that reason, but it’s part of wanting to be up there, of wanting to be watched and appreciated.”

That statement alone represents the transformation Gere has undergone. It was only a year and a half ago, during our first meeting, that he said with a defiant shrug, “Even right now, I could walk away from the whole thing.”

Holed up in a suite at New York’s Sherry-Netherland Hotel, Richard Gere is snarling. The “leeches, vampires and hustlers” — those faceless, nameless industry types who determine an actor’s draw — have been haunting him since he rolled out of bed.

It’s puzzling. These should be high times for an actor who not so long ago was practically unknown. He’s right off the plane from England, where he spent six months making Yanks with the highly respected director John Schlesinger (Marathon Man). And next week, he will attend the opening of two films in which he has major roles — Days of Heaven and Bloodbrothers.

“You know why I decided to do publicity,” he offers, making it clear he is doing me a great favor. “There have been situations in which I was not allowed to play a part because I was not bankable. After I did Goodbar, people thought I was that punk Tony. When you have no public profile, what else do they have to go on? I was strangling myself.”

It occurs to me, five minutes into our first conversation, that it wouldn’t bother me a bit if he strangled himself. He seems to reserve for interviews the sentiments a dog has for flea baths. The day before, a reporter from The Ladies’ Home Journal had asked him, “How does it feel to be a sex symbol? Are you gay or what?” Gere responded by dropping his pants.

The answer, apparently, was that life as a semibankable sex symbol is an entirely flaccid experience.

“It’s nobody’s business but mine who I’m fucking, who I’m not fucking,” he tells me. “The rack sheets, the press blurbs, the gossip pages — it’s all crap. And in an interview, there are just so many different levels to respond to. You can’t possibly understand my deepest emotions.”

But he seldom hints at what they are.

“It’s all a moot point. All my values are in my work. They’re all there.” He stops and looks at the moot point who has just emerged from his bedroom. She kisses him on the cheek and disappears out the door.

But doesn’t he have a life beyond his work? I ask, pretending not to notice that he is, indeed, of the what persuasion.

“That’s got nothing to do with anybody else. I’ve always maintained that an interview is more about the interviewer than the interviewee. It’s really more an evaluation of how you see things than how I do … but nobody knows that.”

One of the reasons for all this vented bile, it turns out, is that Gere has just lost, temporarily, the part of Julian Kaye to John Travolta. Realizing his film and public personas are still tied to the punk in Goodbar, Gere is seething.

When he cools off, Gere fills in some details of his impoverished years. One of five children born to a family of upstate New York farmers — his father now sells insurance — Gere took an early interest in music, learning guitar, trumpet, piano, banjo and sitar. He wrote the scores for several high-school productions, which eventually led to acting. He was also an active gymnast, developing the sinewy, fluid musculature that now resembles a Michelangelo statue. At night, he prowled the neighborhood bars, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness tucked under his arm. Angst-filled days in Syracuse.

“After high school, I felt pretty confused,” he says. “But I knew I wanted to be involved in music or theater. So I left. My father got pretty upset. ‘Dickie,’ he’d say, ‘you’ve got to do something constructive.’ I didn’t understand his fears; thought they were bourgeois. But he knew I’d have to go through hell and he just didn’t want to see it.

“I went through a young-man-paranoid stage,” Gere continues. “I was dead middle class, and I felt I had to do something special. I didn’t want what I thought was that amorphous middle-class nowhere status. Even though my parents questioned what I was doing, they were loving, sweet and supportive. But they had no frame of reference for understanding what I was going through. They’re proud of me now, though, and it’s funny to see how my father has mellowed. My brother just told him he’s going to India, and my father said, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ I guess I paved the way.”

In 1967, Gere enrolled in the University of Massachusetts, where he studied philosophy and film for two years, then spent one season with the Provincetown Playhouse and one with the Seattle Repertory Theater before deciding the stage was “bullshit.”

“In Seattle, I was living in a house that had a hippie-Mafia dope factory upstairs in one of those ‘senseless-killing’ neighborhoods,” he says with a sly grin, his cheeks creasing into a grid of dimples. “Ax murders and all that. These guys gave me a car and a map and told me to contact Felix at the Rio Grande bar in Tijuana. I drove down to San Diego, but they wouldn’t let me cross the border because I had hair down to my tits. When I crossed in Arizona, I saw all these roadblocks with federales tearing apart cars riddled with bullet holes. I decided I wasn’t ready for this, wrapped up the map and headed home. Those were ridiculous times.”

Gere bought a used Econoline van, invested in a new muffler and headed for Vermont, where he organized a rock band with old high-school and college friends. It took them six weeks to hate each other’s guts.

He sought basement quarter with a friend in New York and got a part in a rock opera called Soon, which folded faster than its name might imply. With no prospects for work, Gere moved to a waterfront dive in the East Village. “Wrist-slitting times in Manhattan,” he says about those days.

Then the roles started to materialize. He played Danny Zuko in the Broadway and London productions of Grease, did Shakespeare at Lincoln Center, put in the New York actor’s obligatory appearance on Kojak and landed a part in the TV movie Strike. He is not likely to repeat the latter two career moves. “Television is a disgusting, humiliating experience,” he says.

By 1975, Gere’s reputation as an actor who could unloose an almost pathological intensity onstage began to infiltrate Hollywood. He was cast as a streetwise pimp in M.J. Frankovich’s Report to the Commissioner and as a shellshocked raider in Baby Blue Marine — both croppers that disappeared quickly. A role tailored to his startling stage presence came along in Sam Shepard’s Killer’s Head. His solo performance as a blindfolded, condemned killer strapped to an electric chair remains his favorite.

“It was a bizarre play,” he recalls. “I had to manufacture energy totally outside my body, a totally nonnarcissistic thing. It was as though my body did not exist.”

In 1977, Gere decided to ice his stage career when he was offered a chance to work with Terrence Malick in Days of Heaven. “Terry is a very cerebral and sensitive director,” says Gere, who carefully studies all the directors he works with. “He had this very metaphysical view of the movie, and there were scenes that were delicate and difficult to communicate. At times, scenes that weren’t working were abandoned and we [costars Sam Shepard, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz] would improvise.”

A few days after finishing Days of Heaven, Gere went to work on Goodbar. Then came Bloodbrothers, a short shoot, and Yanks. “I don’t vacation well,” he says, considering that period of nonstop activity. “So I was happy to have Yanks lined up. That really was an incredible year for me. In one streak I worked with Malick, Brooks, Mulligan and Schlesinger.”

Suddenly, his face hardens and his eyes narrow to a squint. “You know,” he explains, “after Goodbar, I had enough offers to play Italian crazies for the next fifteen years. The bastards want to put you in a box with a label on it and crush it. If you have any hope of growing, of being taken seriously, you have to control the vultures.” His gloom seems to chill the room, and Gere rises to get a blanket. “This business is a roller-coaster ride,” he continues when he returns. “Once you get on, you can’t get off, and there are a lot of peaks and valleys. When you hit the valley, the hustlers and vampires like to probe the kinks way down at the bottom. But as soon as you make a buck, they show up again, friendly as can be.”

Richard Gere is distracted, distant, as he picks at a mixed salad in a modest restaurant in Hollywood, where American Gigolo is nearing completion. The angst has been replaced by exhaustion, and Julian Kaye. Twelve-hour workdays have made Julian a haunting, possessive poltergeist, a character the obsessive Gere will not be able to shed until production is finished next week. As befits the tony male courtesan, Gere looks slick. His hair is swept straight back and his soft, malleable features still reflect the highlights of a makeup artist’s pencil. The lizard-skin boots, tight jeans and dark linen sport coat expropriated from the movie’s Giorgio Armani wardrobe don’t look bad, either.

“When I’m there, I’m there,” he says. “There are other actors who can jump in and out. I can’t, and there are plenty of times I wish I could.”

Gigolo is the latest of Schrader’s moralistic dissertations on the American human condition. The gigolo is his metaphor for man’s inability to accept love, grace and good outside himself. Julian Kaye is the doyen of the Hollywood escorts who prey on the hopelessly rich in pursuit of capitalist mobility. He is ethereal. He has no past. “I came from this bed,” Julian replies when asked about his background. “You can learn everything there is to know about me by fucking me.”

The plot, which meanders in different directions throughout the first hour of the film, follows Julian’s initial encounter with a state senator’s wife (Lauren Hutton) and his gradual, reluctant romantic involvement with her. Without warning, the plot veers off into a sex-murder mystery for which Julian is being framed, and which threatens to drag her and the senator, not to mention the film itself, down with it. But Gere, by virtue of his sheer sexiness and charisma, rises above the wreckage and manages to create sympathy for Julian, an otherwise cold, greedy, degenerate prostitute. That’s no mean feat.

“It was a good script, but an odd one,” Gere avers (generously, I think). “There was an element there I hadn’t seen before. When Paul and I talked about how the film would be shot — with very European techniques — the concept opened up: less a slice-of-life character study and something much more textured, stylistic.”

We cut short the dinner apertifs. Richard has scripts to read before morning — he appears in nearly every scene in the movie — and wants a half-hour workout before going to bed. There will be a chauffeur buzzing his room at the Chateau Marmont at six a.m.

Outside the hotel, I ask Gere whether he feels self-conscious on the soundstage. The set has been closed for a week.

“No, not really,” he says, slumping in the seat. “But it is an environment I like to have control of. I don’t like to have aliens there, new faces. They don’t feed the work. And I don’t like people around the set who know Richard. They’ll start projecting Richard on me, and it ain’t Richard there.”

He hops out of the car, then pokes his head in through the window. “By the way, are you coming on the set tomorrow?”

I tell him the “vultures” who control such things have arranged a visit.

“Well, enjoy yourself,” he says, making it clear he would not.

The Gigolo set is all curves, soft, muted colors and dappled light. This is Julian’s apartment, subtly, tastefully appointed, reflecting the ease and style — down to the leather-bound French novels in the bookcase — of a man of distinction. While technicians fiddle with equipment, Gere, dressed in a mauve shirt and tie, pleated linen pants and soft-leather taupe shoes, paces the stage, drawing quick puffs off a cigarette. Then he stubs the butt in an ashtray, stands erect with both arms in front of him, inhales and exhales with a great whoosh and whirls around to assault an imaginary attacker. Tai chi, he says, helps ease the tension between control and lack of control.

The scene calls for Julian to enter the apartment, look around and rifle through the bookcase in search of jewels he suspects were planted to incriminate him in the murder. Breathing slowly, deeply, his face sallow and frozen, his eyes flaming with anguish, Gere nods to Schrader. The camera rolls and it’s Julian plodding heavily across the thick beige carpet. He pauses briefly, then pulls an amplifier and turntable from the bookcase. They smash on the floor. With a sweep of his arm he sends a row of books flying, then grabs a huge porcelain urn and flings it across the room. “Cut,” yells Schrader. “Richard, your back is too much to the camera.” Gere goes limp and scans the set. His eyes eventually meet mine; he has located the “alien” presence.

“You saw how he does it,” Schrader says later in his office during a lunch break. “If he has to come up for a big scene, he’ll be up for it. On the other hand, he doesn’t chew scenery. He knows when to be aggressive and when to be recessive.”

Schrader looks tired, harried. He is in the ninth week of production, with one more to go. But he is exhilarated nonetheless, running on nervous energy. He says this is the only script he’s been satisfied with since he wrote Taxi Driver, and there have been many in between: Rolling Thunder, Obsession, Blue Collar, Hard Core and Old Boyfriends.

“The other films I’ve been involved with have primarily been about sin and redemption, guilt and blood,” he says. “This is the first film I’m doing that’s involved with the notion of grace. The thesis is opposite that of Taxi Driver, which was a film about urban loneliness, about a man who could not express himself and was driven to an act of explosion by a girl he wants but can’t have. Gigolo is about a character who can express himself quite well and needs to be driven to an act of implosion, of accepting rather than thrusting out.”

Schrader sold the Gigolo script to Paramount almost three years ago. With John Travolta penciled in on the deal, the studio set all sorts of monies into operation — about $10 million, including $1 million for the Ferdinando Scarfiotti sets.

“John liked the title, liked the clothes, liked the poster,” says Schrader, “but he was afraid he would fall on his face. When Moment by Moment failed, he was just too damned scared it would happen again.

“When Richard got involved, I got back to making a real movie again, a story about people, themes. In one day, Richard asked all the questions that John hadn’t asked in six months. All the questions actors are supposed to ask. I think he’s got it all — a look, a style, a temperament, a talent. He blows the screen apart in this movie, I tell you.”

The man who blows screens apart is surprisingly relaxed as he leads me through the spacious living room in his rented Malibu house. “That’s where I spend my weekends,” he says, indicating a corner where a small upright piano, guitar and amplifier are set up. “I plug in the stereo and guitar and I play along with Eric and Robbie.” Above the piano is a life-size poster of Alain Delon. Gere turns and mimics the French actor. “There was a time when I tried to pick up on his pouty narcissism,” he says, laughing. “Look at his face. Don’t you just want to slap him silly?”

We settle on the sun deck, high above the water, amid the long shadows of late afternoon, and gaze out at the rubber suits navigating their surfboards through the green and brown kelp beds. Gere sighs. “Three more days of shooting,” he says. “Yeah, I guess I started easing up about a week ago. That’s when it started to get weird. I realized, oh fuck, I’ve got to take responsibility for him now, for Richard. It’s a shock to have to go back to him — to me, I mean.”

It’s curious the way Gere refers to himself in the third person. He is extremely calculating about separating Richard from any role he plays.

“I feel I have to be,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “If I don’t, Richard’s going to come through in places where he’s not needed and not welcome.”

And it works the other way, too? Where Julian and Tony and Stony come through when Richard is being Richard?

“You have to be careful there,” Gere says. “They’ll come knocking on your door. They’ll want to come out. It’s also the fact that we all fantasize about who we are and who we want to be. But I actually, physically do them. So it’s a little dangerous when you’re playing with that.

“I learn so much through these people I play, no doubt about it. After you play so many roles, you start to feel the reincarnation aspects of reality, the multipersonality aspects of a consciousness. They’re all right there, bubbling in this core, which is where the real creativity comes from. I used to be afraid of that, jumping in and not being able to get out. But the more you play around with it, the more you realize how fluid it is and you don’t have to be locked into it.”

The late spring sun dips below the horizon and Gere, dressed only in swim trunks and a thin cotton shirt, starts to shiver. We go inside, where he brews a pot of coffee.

“There are a lot of bizarre elements you get into in this,” he says from the kitchen. “Like the nature of time, the puzzle of how reality fits together. Like the scene you saw, where I’m hunting for the planted jewels. The end had to be shot first because of the way the room had to be lit. I had to explode out of nowhere. Then we shot the beginning. When you do films, you start to feel that intense moments are not as logical, as clear, as linear as you thought they were.”

I glance at a script for the Hank Williams story, written by Schrader. Would Gere like to play a musician?

“Yeah,” he says. “I don’t know exactly who. I’ve had some ideas, but they’ve gotten fucked up. Somebody goes and does something and they do it badly and ruin the territory for a while.”

What about comedy?

“Definitely. It’s a different way of seeing things. As I get older, I don’t take everything as seriously as when I was doing Bloodbrothers and Goodbar. It’s an absurd universe, and it can be explored that way — intelligently. Buñuel — I mean, that’s comedy to me. But the scripts just aren’t there. Americans don’t do intelligent comedy.”

He looks again at the poster of Delon. “Maybe American humor isn’t that intelligent,” he says with a thick French accent.

I went to Dachau,” Gere says, sprawled on a dressing-room couch after a recent Saturday matinee performance of Bent. “The texture of death and misery was everywhere. It was frightening and incongruous at the same time. There were old men cultivating these gardens alongside the crematory. I saw a couple of drag acts in Munich, about ten miles away, and they seemed so violent, so aggressive.”

Gere was in Germany last fall, right after he decided to do Bent, Martin Sherman’s powerful, riveting play about Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Few people, least of all Gere, believed that Broadway’s usually cheerful audience would make Bent a hit. It contains vivid images of brutality, naked evil and shattered lives, not to mention glimpses of the homosexual lifestyle — a subject still proscribed by the general theatergoing public.

In Bent, Gere plays Max, the flighty scion of a wealthy German family who, following a night of booze, cocaine and rough sex, is arrested by SS storm troopers and forced to beat his lover, then watch him the on the way to the Dachau concentration camp. Once there, Max is given the chance to wear the yellow star of the Jew — a status slightly higher than the pink star worn by homosexuals — if he can prove he is not “bent” by making love to a thirteen-year-old girl who has been shot in the head.

At Dachau, Max meets Horst, a pink star, and it is their relationship — culminating in an erotic, sensitive act of lovemaking while standing three feet apart in the prison yard — that consumes the rest of the play.

“The gamut of emotions in the play … I’ve never had a part like it,” he says softly. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to be shattered every night. Like when I break through my own selfish defense and gently make love to Horst when he’s so sick, because I need him, too. That’s a beautiful moment. Then the guards say, ‘Watch. Watch.’ Then they kill him. Eight times a week I’m destroyed.”

Gere’s decision to return to the stage was considered a risky move. Film audiences forget fast. And because the play is about homosexuals, it was also considered a bold one.

“Yes, I’m gay,” Gere says hoarsely, still weak from a lingering case of the flu, “when I’m on that stage. If the role required me to suck off Horst, I’d do it. But I didn’t consider it a bold move. I’d been thinking for quite a while about getting back under that theatrical proscenium arch, and this was the best play I’d read in years. It has so many layers to it. It’s about the nature of love, about accepting yourself and other people for what they are. It’s ultimately life-affirming.”

The parallels between Bent and Gigolo are striking. A man, under extreme conditions, grows to accept another’s love. I wonder if there are parallels between these characters and Richard Gere, the actor. He seems less hostile, more accessible.

“You know,” he says, rubbing his black carbon beard, “my brother saw the play a few times. After one of the shows, he told me, ‘I really like the Richard Gere I see now. You’re in a totally different place than the last time I saw you.’ That was one of the nicest things anybody could have said to me.

“Yeah, I feel good about all of it. I’m doing things that excite me, interest me, help me grow both professionally and personally. For instance, I think we have Rainer Werner Fassbinder interested in a film version of Bent. I now see my career in terms of a wider spectrum. Certain aspects about the profession don’t piss me off the way they used to. I guess I’ve managed to escape most of the madness.

“I don’t project what the movie will do for me,” he says, glancing at a large poster of himself in full gigolo regalia. “There are enough people around me who worry about things like that. But yeah, I give a shit. It would be fantastic if this movie did incredible business. I wouldn’t have to worry about being third in line for a part I wanted to play.”

He sinks further into the warmth of his bathrobe. “You see, it’s not a question of who’s the best actor. The corporation just says we’ll make more money with this person. Knowing that, I play accordingly.”

His eyes twinkle behind his painted beard. “Within reason, of course.”

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