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Career Arc: Richard Gere

Future sociologists may well learn more about how America works from studying Gere’s movies than they will from Robert De Niro’s filmography.

A marquee name for longer than Channing Tatum has been alive, Richard Gere is a movie star the way Joe Biden is a politician or Bernie Madoff was a stock swindler. Not only are all three so patently unfit for any other vocation that something in the cosmos would feel awry if they’d even considered a different line of work — at this stage of the game, there isn’t a whole lot they can do to alter people’s opinions of them.

Most likely, that includes the now 66-year-old Gere forswearing sexiness and swank to play an obtuse and sometimes maddening homeless man who hopes to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Jena Malone) in writer-director Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind, which opens today. Can it be he’s craving respect as codgerhood creeps up? Even if the Dalai Lama thinks the world of his foremost celebrity disciple, one lousy Golden Globe — for Gere’s work as a shyster lawyer in 2002’s Chicago — isn’t much for a career that dates back to Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

As for my fellow critics, most of them have never taken Gere seriously at all. To say he’s not the kind of actor who makes a show of pretending commercial entertainment debases his genius is putting things mildly; over the decades, he’s been what lets me kid myself I’m not wasting my time on gussied-up trash more often than I can count. Because I love Richard Gere — and I do, I do! — I’ll be happy if he gets great reviews for not shaving and turning that 40-carat face of his as lumpy and grumpy as a fire hydrant on strike.

All the same, enhancing his credibility by playing against type in a self-consciously bleak indie has very little to do with what I love him for. If he’s annoyed by his rep as a lightweight, it’s sure taken him a long time to show it; he hasn’t gone the art-flick route like this since Terrence Malick’s 1978 Days of Heaven, back before his screen persona had jelled. But he took a rare producing credit on Time Out of Mind, suggesting that his initiative had a lot to do with getting it made.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he’s awfully good. Gere has acquired oodles of craft over his 50-plus movies, including shrewdness about how to hold the audience’s attention without ostentatiously bidding for it. He’s even quasi-credible at passing himself off as the sort of unappetizing nonentity that Manhattanites brush past every day without seeing — although we, of course, don’t overlook him at all. That’s partly because there’s practically nobody else in the movie to latch onto until Ben Vereen turns up as a more garrulous street outcast who takes our hero under his wing, and Gere shows admirable restraint by using this not entirely welcome attention to turn even more recessive and balky. He doesn’t sentimentalize the situation by letting us see him warming to human contact.

Instincts like those are a reminder of how much practice he’s had at recognizing what kind of movie he’s in and reconfiguring his M.O. to match. This isn’t a skill Daniel Day-Lewis ever needed to develop, because using his noble forehead like a ship’s prow to deliver capital-G Greatness in an acclaimed director’s latest prestige project is all he ever gets hired for. Gere, by contrast, has a roué’s familiarity with what you could call tactical acting, from amping up his roguish streak to add mischief to routine thrillers to underplaying winsomely in rom-coms otherwise devoid of subtlety. Only a fool would think his scrupulous work here is “better” than what he usually does. It’s just the latest demonstration of his knack for keying in on what a given movie needs from him and foregrounding that side of his toolbox.

Gere’s understanding of what a movie needs has been the virtue of a career that cinephiles look down on for the perplexing reason that he’s usually too entertaining to awe anybody. Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, using guile and magnetism to add zest to slop used to define a star’s job. But delivering pleasure for pleasure’s sake has been a low priority for far too many of our most ambitious male actors ever since Marlon Brando reinvented the gig when Gere was in diapers.

Up against Day-Lewis or Robert De Niro, of course the dude who carried An Officer and a Gentleman, made American Gigolo almost not preposterous, and handed off Pretty Woman to Julia Roberts with expert finesse will seem like a fluffmaster. But he’s far more reflective of the kind of appeal that made everybody’s great-grandparents fall in love with Hollywood. We’ll always have the clenched likes of Sean Penn with us, at least until that joyless brand of fatuity stops winning Oscars. But the history of not-so-great movies in the past 30-plus years would be a lot poorer without Gere’s gifts for keeping people amused in semi-smart crap.

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Gere in 'American Gigolo' from 1980.

Paramount Pictures Gere in ‘American Gigolo’ (1980).

He actually started out as yet another baby Brando, with pretensions to burn, but he was plainly too shallow to be convincingly tormented. His breakout part as the guy you think will end up killing Diane Keaton (but doesn’t) in 1977’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar flashing a switchblade, leaping around in bikini briefs, hollering breathy slogans about living on the edge — might have sunk an actor with any capacity for embarrassment. Instead, his performance is the only thing you remember. In crude form, it displayed three qualities he’d learn to be a lot slyer about manipulating: (1) He had intuitions about the comedy lurking in drama, (2) he was infectiously thrilled by his own sexual dynamism, and (3) he had no shame. All of those were to stand him in good stead.

Next came Days of Heaven, which served to launch Gere’s Soulful Young Prole period: as the blue-collar kid who wants to be a teacher in Bloodbrothers, as an untutored World War II G.I. courting an English lass in John Schlesinger’s Yanks.1 Then — purely for the money, he later admitted — he played the wannabe Navy flier romancing Debra Winger as drill instructor Louis Gossett Jr. hounds him in An Officer and a Gentleman, his first huge box office hit.


1.

That one features a classic Gere line, delivered with predictable charm: “I ain’t like nobody you’ve ever met. But not like that — not bragging.”

This was long enough ago that Gere was taking the parts John Travolta turned down. If people didn’t appreciate his increasing craft, that was partly because he was as gorgeous as Ava Gardner’s long-lost male twin — so ridiculously good-looking as to make skill seem irrelevant — and partly because the kind of talent it takes to sell a hunk of guff like An Officer and a Gentleman nearly always goes unrecognized by the cognoscenti. Gere knew what he was doing, though. His big howl to Gossett of “I got nowhere else to go” hits home because it registers as an exposure of everything the character’s determined insouciance has masked. His skill is all in how you don’t quite see it coming.

His most original take on the Soulful Young Prole, however, was in another part Travolta backed out of — as the title character in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, a movie you can’t imagine working on any level without Gere’s contribution. It wasn’t just that his slightly indolent physical beauty had never been so right for a role (among other things, this was his debut as one of the screen’s most enjoyable clotheshorses). He put a lot of care into devising subtle ways to signal that Julian Kaye’s elegance was an acquired veneer covering a past as rough trade, and the character’s naive, insecure narcissism is clearly being observed by an actor who’s gotten sophisticated enough to have his doubts about that ingenuous brand of self-love. If Schrader ends up not having the courage of his own prurience and backs off from exploring the kinks of sex-for-hire to put Julian to work clearing himself of a convenient murder charge — and finding true love with Lauren Hutton — that’s hardly Gere’s fault.

Even so, he had a few bumpy years later on in the ’80s, mainly because nobody could figure out what he was good for besides hunkiness. He was crass in Jim McBride’s Americanized remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, woefully miscast in King David, and a gaudy irrelevance — the white star of a movie about Harlem’s most legendary Jazz Age cabaret — in Francis Ford Coppola’s famously bungled The Cotton Club. But in 1990 came the one-two punch that more or less defined the Richard Gere we know a quarter-century later.

That was the year when his role as Julia Roberts’s Prince Charming in Pretty Woman upgraded him from not-so-young hunk to Mature Ladies’ Man overnight. But it was also the year when his dynamite performance as a gleefully wicked, sexually menacing rogue cop in Internal Affairs made him the go-to guy for nasty psychological thrillers. When you consider what a grotesque fantasy Pretty Woman is not so deep down — America’s sex workers should have kidnapped good-humored director Garry Marshall and made him turn Hollywood Boulevard tricks for a week to atone for pretending that only a shopping spree separated their life from movie-stardom — it’s a wonder people remember Internal Affairs as the sleazy one.

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Gere and Julia Roberts in — duh — 'Pretty Woman'.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images Gere and Julia Roberts in — duh — ‘Pretty Woman.’

Rewatching Pretty Woman today can make you chortle at how Fifty Shades of Grey just added S&M to a very durable fairy tale that at heart has always been about the romance of money, not sex. Gere does the Poor Little Rich Boy bit with commendable tact, knowing it’s just a device to make the movie’s capitalism porn more palatable. But Pretty Woman also gave him a new identity as the incarnation of wealth’s perks — a well he went back to as recently as 2012’s Arbitrage and he’s every bit as comfortable in those parts as he used to be playing upwardly mobile palookas. Being equally credible as a millionaire or a lug may be the most overlooked aspect of his versatility; plenty of actors we think of as having more range than Gere couldn’t pull off that spectrum of income brackets and backgrounds.

As atypical as his new vehicle is in most ways, it’s almost comically apt for him to end up as a homeless man in Time Out of Mind. Insofar as Gere’s career has a recurring topic — and that’s always at least partly an accident, since actors can’t totally plan these things — nobody else in movies has so busily illustrated the theme-park delights of this country’s muddled, fluctuating conceptions of class hierarchy. Even when it’s a marginal concern to the filmmakers, the subject usually interests him. Without making a big deal of it, he always pays attention to the way speech patterns and diction reveal a character’s social background.

If he’s most often done it in movies with all the heft of cotton candy, that’s generally the only way Hollywood broaches class issues at all: as the stuff of Cinderella romance, fish-out-of-water comedy, or up-where-we-belong wish fulfillment — rarely as politics or instructive tragedy. Because those projections and evasions reflect real popular desires, future sociologists may well learn more about how America works from studying Gere’s movies than they will from Robert De Niro’s filmography.

Among the upsides: They’ll definitely see a lot more women, which may be the most paradoxical reason Gere is undervalued. His peers all dote on playing alienated loners. Gere, by contrast, thrives on female costars. Not only is he always happy to let actresses shine — they never need to steal scenes from him, because he’ll hand them over with a twinkle — but few actors are so good at communicating that they really enjoy sex. Even though Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women wasn’t the movie it might have been, mainly because Altman’s cheapjack misogyny wrecked a lot of it, Gere was ideally cast as a guy who can’t live without ’em. When he played the cuckolded husband in 2002’s unduly neglected Unfaithful, his performance was all about the pain of the broken marital bond. It wasn’t just a pretext for taking revenge.

Overall, Gere has also been smart about knowing what he does best without overreaching. Not always, of course, since his idea of how to capitalize on his renewed box office clout in the early ’90s was 1993’s Sommersby — the kind of overproduced period drama whose important-looking trappings substitute for any discernible purpose. You’d think King David would have cured him of believing historical settings could ever be his forte; to make sense, Gere needs the sleekly shoddy contemporary world around him every bit as much as John Wayne needed Stetsons and Monument Valley.

It’s not that he’s bad in Sommersby, exactly. He’s just at a revealing loss for ways to make himself enjoyable. Any hope that he’ll have fun with his impostor role slips away once he shaves the beard that, along with a Confederate uniform, makes him look oddly like Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Then he spends the rest of the movie forcing his small and not especially expressive eyes — a drawback Gere usually overcomes by keeping the rest of his face animated — to stay wide so as to indicate largeness of soul opposite conscientious Jodie Foster.

Still, to his credit, he hasn’t made the mistake of going the vacuous-prestige route since. Even Tom Cruise has gone in for more miscalculated Oscar bait over the years than Gere, and who knows? Maybe Buddhism is a better career guide than Scientology. On the flip side, if you think commercialism is Gere’s be-all and end-all, don’t forget that he turned down Die Hard just as action movies were starting to look like the laziest acting paycheck in sight.

Nor are we likely to see him cashing in as the villain in a superhero flick. He may have spent the past 15 years turning up in mostly off-the-radar crud, but that doesn’t mean the man doesn’t have standards in crud. Now that even a good little piece of psychological-gotcha shlock like 1996’s Primal Fear is too arcane for Hollywood, it suits him to stay old-school in fluff like Shall We Dance or Hachi: A Dogs Tale. At least the latter let him figure out the diction and behavior appropriate to playing a college professor, even if the professor in question is head over heels about adopting a puppy.

In other words, delivering the goods in claptrap is still his business, just as it always has been. Unless you’re sentimental enough to count Days of Heaven nobody’s idea of a Richard Gere movie — his CV doesn’t include a single masterpiece. Though it tries harder than most, Time Out of Mind (which I’d call Higher Claptrap) isn’t one, either. But only the art of movies depends on the form’s ability to generate masterpieces. Gere’s career is proof of how often their magic does not.