Monday, August 25, 2008

(Bad) Portrait of a Hustler: American Gigolo

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

(Bad) Portrait of a Hustler: American Gigolo

Ever since the great humanistic film critic Manny Farber died last week at the ripe old age of 91, writer/director (and former film critic and Kael acolyte) Paul Schrader, who so eloquently has been making the tribute rounds to Farber, has been on my mind. I’ve always been a fan of Schrader’s writing – as much for his fearless risk taking as for his Travis Bickle triumphs. “American Gigolo, his very-1980 follow-up to Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” in which Richard Gere’s rent boy to rich older women Julian Kaye falls for Lauren Hutton’s senator’s wife Michelle Stratton while simultaneously finding himself a suspect in the murder of a “rough trick,” is typical Schrader, forever probing overlapping lurid worlds with the attention of an obsessive pathologist. Even with mediocre acting, earnest dialogue sometimes bordering on the heavy-handed, and predictable hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold asides, “American Gigolo” is still a fine slice of celluloid cheese, containing camerawork both sleek and fluid and that sexy sing-along anthem (“Call Me”!) complete with Debbie Harry’s French coos. Incidentally, I’ve always been a fan of male prostitutes as well. So why is it that I’ve never been a fan of this flick?

In a nutshell – Richard Gere. Because Julian Kaye is in virtually every scene he is the film, and Gere is simply not believable as a hooker. Now if Julian had been played by, say, Warren Beatty opposite Julie Christie (who originally was set to star in the role of Michelle) I’ve no doubt “American Gigolo” would have made my top ten sexy flicks of all time list. But the real deal breaker for me is knowing that it was John Travolta who was originally cast as Julian – the one actor who could have elevated Schrader’s film to “Taxi Driver”-level cult status.

Everything about this movie beckons for Tony Manero-like swagger, from the opening shot of an impeccably attired Julian literally cruising down the California highway to Blondie’s “Call Me,” to his hanging upside down in form-fitting briefs, working the weights while practicing his Swedish for an upcoming eight grand trick. (Yum!) The problem is, Gere attacks this juicy role with a seriousness more suited to tackling Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Take for example the scene in which he first spots Michelle sitting alone in a chi-chi restaurant and attempts to proposition her. After sauntering over to her table, introducing himself in French then subtly letting it be known that he’s “on the clock,” Michelle eventually asks, “How many languages do you speak?” “Five or six,” Julian answers. “Plus the international,” she adds. “That’s right,” he says, giving her a knowing nod. Yet when she states the obvious, asks him straight out how much he would have charged her for one fuck, Julian gets offended. “I don’t do that,” he huffs. Because Michelle doesn’t know how to play the game, doesn’t understand the code, she loses and he walks away. Schrader’s dialogue is terrific, but it pours out of a leading man who just doesn’t understand the game himself.

For Gere gives Julian no sense of enjoyment or satisfaction in this little power struggle, this chess-like rendezvous. Gere’s Julian is all work and no play – and this is a man who makes his living off of hedonism! Yes indeed, business is business and there are strict rules (in the following scene Julian tells a male client he doesn’t do fags or couples – but he’s free to watch while he’s screwing his wife, of course), for there’s always that fine fake line between high-end callboy and street-corner whore that Julian must maintain in order to mentally survive. However, Gere’s portrayal is just too stick-in-the-mud serious to be real. We don’t sense for one moment that he loves what he does (and he most certainly should since he’s living the bon vivant life courtesy of others, not unlike John Hurt’s Stephen Ward in “Scandal”).

And most importantly, we don’t feel his unwavering passion for the hustle that every successful businessman, no matter the business, must possess. Another scene in which Julian, lying in bed, sexually toys with a client on the phone while Michelle sleeps beside him contains more of Schrader’s delicious dialogue – which, unfortunately, Gere delivers without a trace of enthusiasm. Clearly Julian enjoys the head game, the pulling one over on a client, else he wouldn’t be juggling references to his hard-on while simultaneously asking for a stereo while cuddling with another woman. Yet Gere’s Julian looks downright awkward in his delivery, his laughs sounding nearly uncomfortable when they should be savoring roars.

For hustlers who are at the top of their game are there because they have the same absolute love of the hustle as Gordon Gekko. Yes this is a business, but it’s also a way of life, a dirty animal pursuit and not a “classy” profession like Gere portrays. Gere’s Julian is a refined, brooding snob, so cool he’s cold (he’d be lucky to score a hundred bucks with this attitude, let alone eight grand). Julian needs to be a hot seducer, for it’s warmth and charm that keep the clients coming back for more, while looks are merely secondary. Gere’s temperament, his metabolism, is just way, way off. The part is tailor made for a ravenously hungry, high-energy, physical actor who plays to win (a man, not coincidentally, like Travolta). Even when Julian’s menacing the kid who the senator sent to follow him, destroying his apartment in frustration he’s too damn controlled. This is completely wrong for the role – for anyone this unemotional has to be both boring and a lousy lay.

Gere gives a deep Method acting performance when all that is required is a thug in a suit like Daniel Craig as James Bond (or, yes, Travolta’s Tony Manero in a jacket and tie). Hustlers don’t shamefully “cover up” their rough trade background – they delight in exploiting it! When I recently interviewed Malcolm McDowell – who starred in “Cat People,” Schrader’s follow-up to “American Gigolo” – he mentioned that he’s “got no time” for actors who use the Method. While I wholeheartedly disagree with his disdain for the technique (his beef should be with any actor using the wrong “tool” and not with the tool itself), re-watching Gere in “American Gigolo” made me think that it’s missteps like this that give Stanislavski and his descendants a bad name. Gere is methodically calculating when the character needs to be 100% physical. Gere’s afraid of making his performance too “big” – but what he fails to take into account is that Julian is big. That’s how he makes his money (no pun intended, really). His clients are paying for a larger-than-life fantasy (and one who defers to them, which is even more of an ego trip!) Ironically, Gere’s lawyer Billy Flynn in “Chicago” has more sex appeal than his Julian Kaye – for it’s taken over two decades for Gere to catch up to Schrader, to finally fearlessly embrace his inner sexy dude.

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