Many people look back at the 1980s through the soft focus lens of nostalgia. They think fondly of John Hughes’ teen movies or the music of The Police or television shows like Miami Vice or the novels of Stephen King. The people who grew up in that decade have attempted to pay tribute to that time in recent years with movies like the remake of It (2017), T.V. shows like Stranger Things and music by likes of Bruno Mars that invoke the era.
Nostalgia for the ‘80s has reached its saturation point and people tend to forget that there was a lot of awful stuff, too, like Reaganomics, the omnipresent threat of nuclear war, the explosion of Japanese fashion, T.V. shows like Alf, the proliferation of mindless synth pop, and the dominance of producer-driven Hollywood blockbusters.
One of the films that best encapsulated the superficial consumerism of the era was Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980). With its icy Eurotrash score by Giorgo Moroder, its expensive clothes by Giorgio Armani and luxurious cars like Mercedes and BMW, it established the stylistic template for popular culture that would be cemented by the equally influential Miami Vice show a few years later for the rest of the decade. Schrader’s film is often dismissed as a shallow exercise in style while failing to realize that its style is its substance. It is all surface, reflecting its materialistic protagonist.
Julian Kay (Richard Gere) is a high-end male escort specializing in wealthy women. He wears only the best suits and drives expensive cars. Schrader immediately immerses us in his world with a montage of him buying suits, driving his Mercedes and dropping off one of his clients all to the strains of Blondie’s “Call Me” while giving us a tour of boutique shops, expensive beachfront condos and affluent hotels – the playground of California’s rich elite.
His world is turned upside down when he meets a mysterious and lonely woman named Michelle (Lauren Hutton), the wife of a California state senator. They meet by chance and she becomes obsessed with him and he finds himself falling in love with her. His life gets even more complicated when he finds out that a woman he had a kinky one-off gig with in Palm Springs has been murdered. Julian soon becomes the prime suspect and begins to lose control of his life that he works so hard to maintain. He must figure out who set him up and why.
Schrader takes us through Julian’s process on getting ready for a job. He lays out his suits, opens his drawer of ties, then dress shirts and so on. It’s a ritual he’s done countless times and Richard Gere skillfully sells it, showing how all these clothes inform his character. In this case, the clothes truly make the man. For Julian it’s all about control. He prides himself in knowing what women want, providing them with a fantasy that plays into their desires. They both get something out of their transactions. They feel wanted and desired and he gets paid.
The impossibly handsome Gere is perfectly cast as the narcissistic Julian. He pays close attention to how he looks and dresses as they are integral aspects of his job. He has to look good for his clients. The actor certainly knows how to wear an Armani suit and has an engaging smile that exudes charm. Julian has his whole act down cold – a tilt of the head, a sly smile, the way he looks at someone, and the silky smooth voice are all parts of his arsenal of seductive techniques.
Gere had a terrific run of films starting in the late 1970s with a small but memorable part in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), Days of Heaven (1978), and then into the 1980s with American Gigolo and Breathless (1983), playing fascinating, complex characters that weren’t always likable but always interesting to watch thanks to his incredible charisma.
Lauren Hutton is excellent as the rather enigmatic woman that takes a shine to Julian. One imagines her being an unhappy trophy wife who is expected to accompany her husband to all kinds of political functions with an interested expression plastered on her face. The actor conveys an impressive vulnerability like when Michelle seeks out Julian and asks for a date with him. She is frank with what she wants and Hutton is very good in this scene.
The intimacy between Julian and Michelle is more than just being physical with each other. It is the conversation they have after making love for the second time that is interesting as she tries to get him to reveal personal details. When she asks him where he’s from he says, “I’m not from anywhere…Anything worth knowing about me, you can learn by letting me make love to you.” Julian is a blank slate and this allows women to project their fantasies on him. He can be anything they want, which is why he’s so good at what he does. He does tell her why he only prefers older women, which is revealing in and of itself. He cares about pleasuring women. He puts their needs before his own, often to the detriment of his own pleasure.
It is also interesting how Schrader objectifies both men and women in American Gigolo. Initially, as we see Julian ply his trade as it were and it is the women that are shown naked but when he and Michelle make love the second time the camera lingers on their respective body parts equally and, in fact, afterwards we see more of his naked body than hers in one of the earliest examples of full frontal male nudity in a Hollywood film. As he demonstrated in this film and a few years later in Breathless, Gere is a fearless actor very comfortable with his own body.
This translates to the character as evident in a scene that occurs halfway through the film between Julian and Detective Sunday (Hector Elizondo) who is investigating the murder when the latter asks the former, “Doesn’t it ever bother you, Julian? What you do?” He replies, “Giving pleasure to women? I’m supposed to feel guilty about that?” When Sunday argues that what he does isn’t legal Julian says, “Legal is not always right.” He arrogantly says that some people are above the law and at this point he loses Sunday who sees things in simpler terms.
In 1977, Paul Schrader sold his screenplay for American Gigolo to Paramount Pictures. The next year John Travolta agreed to star and the filmmaker felt that the character of Julian Kay was a natural progression for the actor after his role in Saturday Night Fever (1977). Schrader had seen Travolta in a photo shoot for Variety where he was unshaven and in a white suit and felt that he was right for the part. The actor’s participation set the wheels in motion and the film was given a $10 million budget. The director auditioned four or five actors for the role of Michelle and liked Mia Farrow the best but when he tested her with Travolta, “she blew John off the screen. She made him look like an amateur, like a kid, not like the seducer.” As a result, he had to go with someone else and cast Lauren Hutton who had tested well with Travolta. Unfortunately, several things prompted the actor to drop out of the production: his mother had died, recent movie Moment by Moment (1978) was a commercial and critical failure, and he was anxious about the homosexual elements in the script. His departure left Schrader with two days to cast someone else.
After strong performances in high profile films that weren’t very profitable, Schrader wanted to cast Richard Gere in American Gigolo. Then head of Paramount Barry Diller didn’t want him, preferring Christopher Reeve instead. Schrader didn’t think Reeve was right for the part, as he was “too all-American, didn’t have that reptile mysteriousness.” Unbeknownst to the studio, Schrader offered the part to Gere on a Sunday, giving him only a few hours to decide. Once Gere agreed, Schrader left a note on Diller’s gate at his home. The executive was understandably upset as the director wasn’t authorized to do that. Schrader argued that Travolta was better for Urban Cowboy (1980), which the studio wanted to make and Diller allowed Gere to be American Gigolo.
Schrader said of Gere’s commitment to the role as opposed to Travolta: “In one day, Richard Gere asked all the questions that Travolta hadn’t asked in six months.” Gere was drawn to the project by Schrader’s approach to how it would be shot, “with very European techniques – the concept opened up: less a slice-of-life character study and something much more textured, stylistic.”
When Travolta dropped out, Schrader was tempted to go back to Farrow, however, he didn’t want to push his luck with the studio after they let him cast Gere but regrets not sticking with the actor: “Obviously I did everything I could and Lauren did everything she could to be as good as she could, but Mia just had stronger chops.”
When it came to putting Los Angeles on film, Schrader realized that it had been photographed countless times and wanted to bring a fresh perspective. He hired production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who had worked on Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Giorgio Armani for the clothes, and Giorgio Moroder, who had scored Midnight Express (1978), to compose the film’s score. Scarfiotti, in particular, was an important collaborator as Schrader admired his visual style and the “idea that you can have a poetry of images rather than a poetry of words.” He put Scarfiotti in charge of the look of the film, which included production design, wardrobe, props, and cinematography.
Schrader picked Moroder to compose the film’s score as he liked the “alienated quality” of his music and “how propulsive it was, how sexual yet antiseptic. A sound for a new Los Angeles.” Moroder had originally wanted Steve Nick to sing the film’s theme song but she turned him down. He sent a demo to Blondie with the music and lyrics already written. Their album Parallel Lines was a massive hit but they had not been approached to contribute to a film. They admired both Moroder and Schrader’s work and agreed to do it. Debbie Harry didn’t like the lyrics and asked if she could write her own. She saw a rough cut of the film and the opening scene was in her mind along with Moroder’s music when the first lines came to her.
Clothes were also an important aspect of the production. According to Schrader, when it came to Julian, “the clothes and the character were one and the same. Remember, this is a guy who has to do a line of coke just so he can get dressed.” Armani had gotten involved at the suggestion of Travolta’s manager back when the actor was still attached to the project. The fashion designer was getting ready to go into an international non-couture line and the timing was right. When Gere came on board they kept all the clothes and tailored them for the actor.
To prepare for the role Schrader had Gere study actor Alain Delon in Purple Noon (1960), telling him, “Look at this guy, Alain Delon. He knows that the moment he enters a room, the room has become a better place.” According to the actor, the nudity wasn’t in the script, rather “it was just the natural process of making the movie.” He also didn’t know the character or his subculture very well: “I wanted to immerse myself in all of that and I had literally two weeks. So I just dove in.”
In retrospect, Schrader regrets that the homosexual aspects of the script were toned down to get studio backing: “At the time, we thought we were being brave, promoting this androgynous male entitlement. Now I look back, and we were being cowardly. It should’ve been much more gay. Then again, I probably got it made because Julian pretends not to be gay.”
At the time, American Gigolo received mostly negative reviews by several mainstream critics. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Julian Kay is someone of absolutely no visible charm or interest, and though Mr. Gere is a handsome, able, low-key actor, he brings no charm or interest to the role. Then, too, the camera is not kind to him. It's not that he doesn't look fine, but that the camera seems unable to find any personality, like Dracula, whose image is unreflected by a mirror.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “By the time it sputters to a fade out, Gigolo pays a heavy price for such sustained pretentiousness in tawdry circumstances. This movie invites a sort of sarcasm that destroyed Moment By Moment without ever generating as much naive entertainment value.” Roger Ebert, however, gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The whole movie has a winning sadness about it; take away the story's sensational aspects and what you have is a study in loneliness. Richard Gere's performance is central to that effect, and some of his scenes – reading the morning paper, rearranging some paintings, selecting a wardrobe – underline the emptiness of his life.”
If the thriller genre elements don’t work as well as they should in American Gigolo it’s because the aspects of Julian’s profession and his developing relationship with Michelle are infinitely more interesting. It feels like Schrader was still trying things out and would be more successful at marrying these aspects in the film’s spiritual sequel The Walker (2007) decades later. American Gigolo is a fascinating fusion of the commercial sensibilities of slick movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Schrader’s art house inclinations (in particular, the films of Robert Bresson), establishing a stylistic template whose influence would be felt throughout the rest of the decade. Gone was the gritty, looseness of the 1970s, replaced by a slick sheen with style and spectacle over character development as epitomized by Bruckheimer produced blockbusters like Flashdance (1983) and Top Gun (1986). American Gigolo has aged better than many of these films thanks to Schrader’s thematic preoccupations, most significantly a self-destructive protagonist that finds redemption, and Gere’s strong performance that anchors the film. It may seem like a happy ending inconsistent with the rest of the film but Julian has survived at a great cost to his reputation. Everything he is has been torn down and now he must find some way to rebuild his life.
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