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American Gigolo (1980): The Star-Making Film of Richard Gere

American Gigolo is a romantic thriller about a paid male escort who is accused of murder. It established its star as a leading man and was one of the first mainstream theatrical releases to feature full frontal male nudity. It’s a classic that still resonates and deserves a second look.

One of the first, most impressive things about American Gigolo is its atmosphere. There is a pervasive heat to the film that seems to color the corners of every shot, lingering like a soft haze as we peer into the lives of the affecting characters in this seedy story. High-priced male escort Julian Kaye (Richard Gere) is a favorite in the business and the women he sleeps with all pay top dollar for his companionship. For better or worse, it has made him self-centered, narcissistic, and of a very particular taste in clothes, food, cars, and lifestyle. One evening, after a night with an older widow, he meets Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton), a woman married to a powerful politician, in a hotel bar. She expresses interest and he likewise and they begin to explore some shared feelings. Meanwhile, on a gig, arranged by one of his pimps (Bill Duke), he is asked to perform some rough sex with a man’s wife as the husband watches. Kaye doesn’t like the job and afterward, lets his pimp know it. The problem is, soon after, he learns that the woman has been murdered and police detective Joe Sunday (Hector Elizondo) points a finger at Kaye. Julian claims to have an alibi, but the woman he was with, another married woman he met as an escort, refuses to back it in order to protect her marriage. As evidence mounts, Kaye is confident he’s being framed, and the pressure puts great strain on his illicit relationship with Michelle, who will, by its end, make a troublesome decision.

American Gigolo
Richard Gere (American Gigolo, 1980)

Written and directed by Paul Schrader, American Gigolo is a tense, stylish thriller that is a surprisingly deep and emotional character study, with a standout performance from Gere. Originally cast with John Travolta, who left the project after becoming uncomfortable with the script, Gere claims he was drawn to the film for its subtle homosexual undertones and a fascination with the tormented protagonist. Julian is a sensitive and vulnerable man who is wholly unprepared for the position he finds himself, a loner who is suddenly in need of someone else. This is the awakening in this highly memorable character, a man with everything but having nothing, a bittersweet portrayal of a highly-sought after lover who is desperately alone. This irony is how he sees himself above the sex, more than a lover but a fixer. He takes great joy in pleasing these women and it gives him as much personal satisfaction as it does them physical.

There are several remarkable moments in American Gigolo, especially as Kaye must depart his usual high-class lifestyle to disappear into the more darker avenues of the trade in search of why he’s being framed. These scenes and his encounters with Sunday are some of the best as Schrader builds a startling effective layer of tension as the walls close in on Julian. Sunday’s implacable conviction that he’s found his man is unnerving and Elizondo creates one of his best characters, a tough-minded, persistent investigator that sees things at face-value and is sure he’s got Kaye all figured out. Or does he?

American Gigolo
Richard Gere (American Gigolo, 1980)

There is a one moment that really exemplifies the tone and feel of American Gigolo and even after a number of viewings is still rich with subtext and hidden gems. That is the first meeting between Julian and Michelle in the hotel restaurant. She sits alone in a booth as he remains on a stool at the bar, noticing her watching him. She speaks French to a waiter and this becomes enticing. Julian speaks many languages, a necessity for his profession in escorting women visiting from other countries. He approaches her, believing she is French, speaking likewise to her. Soon after she invites him to join her, it’s learned she is American, like him, but also a politician’s wife. They switch to English and Julian believes he’s made a mistake in attempting a date, though she’s already seen right through him and guesses correctly at what he does, though he says he is only a guide and a translator. “How many languages do you speak?” she asks sultrily. When he replies five or six, she adds, “Plus the international language.” She wants to hire him for his services, and he asks for which one, translator or guide? She smiles and says, “Just one f*ck.” What happens next, I’ll leave you to learn.

American Gigolo
Lauren Hutton (American Gigolo, 1980)

American Gigolo is full of erotic and palpable moments like this, one devoid of music and manipulations. What might have been a thirty or forty second exchange in lesser hands, becomes a four and half minute sexual battle with only words, a near motionless moment of dialog and long probing glances that exposes each other though only one is affected. There is this lush pallid pink hue to the scene that dresses the set in the same flesh tones of Gere and Hutton, as if they are already stripped nude bared to see and generates a strong emotional reaction from the viewer.

Richard Gere become an international sensation following the release of this movie, a talented actor that become a magazine cover heart-throb as well. An intelligent thriller, it features a very adult story and a sharp script. This is a classic film, and one of the best performances in Gere’s long career.

American Gigolo (1980): The Star-Making Film of Richard Gere

Credits

Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Stars: Richard Gere, Lauren Hutton, Hector Elizondo, Bill Duke

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