Synopsis: Julian makes a lucrative living as an escort to older women in the Los Angeles area. When a client is murdered, Julian begins to suspect he’s being framed.
Stars: Richard Gere, Lauren Hutton, Hector Elizondo, Bill Duke
Director: Paul Schrader
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Barely a month into the new decade that heralded an atmospheric shift in culture, American Gigolo caused a stir with its frank approach to taboo topics. True, the concept of male escorts (gigolos) wasn’t exactly new having been explored in the Oscar winning Midnight Cowboy but what sets American Gigolo apart was its unapologetic embrace, examination, and eventual casting off of its main character. At the same time, the film introduced audiences to people, music, and clothing that would come to symbolize the eighties in all their glory.
Writer-director Schrader had already caught Hollywood’s attention for writing the gritty Taxi Driver at the time he crafted the film and he would close out the year with Raging Bull. Working from his own script, Schrader places the action in a Los Angeles grounded in reality whether filming in the high hills or in seedy clubs. You can tell that in blending two very different scenes that Schrader wants us to know he sees no difference between the country club set and those that have an affinity for the nightlife of Hollywood and Vine.
The titular character (Gere in a role originally offered to John Travlota and Christopher Reeve) moves easily among any crowd with his chameleon like nature – he can spot what people want and adjusts his approach to any situation. Up to this point in film male hustlers/escorts were usually portrayed as flaming gays that you wouldn’t believe anyone would pay money for. While the film does have a slightly homophobic slant (be it in the writing or directing), it’s not too concerned with sexual orientation because it can change depending on the clients that are calling.
Catering mostly to wealthy mature females, Julian is a top earner in the Los Angeles escort scene. The women love him, the men envy him and he knows it. Care is taken to show that this is clearly a job for Julian and that he’s in it for the money and only that – he’s become used to the high rolling lifestyle and that’s more seductive to him than any woman. Well…until Hutton’s character catches his eye one evening and everything goes to hell.
While Gere is well cast in his role it’s really Hutton that fascinates as a married woman that can’t quite get Julian off of her mind. Though Michelle is initially curious about what it would be like to be with him, she soon struggles with wanting to save him from the anonymous life he’s comfortable living. Moments between the two have an awkward sincerity about them – both actors have a heat that is hard to deny but the scenes with their clothes on have more spark than anything that happens between the sheets. Looking at the film now, I believe this was intentional to show contrast with the sort of relationships that Julian is used to.
The film delves into a murder-mystery subplot that is barely fleshed out and only exists to create conflict between Michelle and Julian as he becomes the target of a frame-up. With Elizondo as a cop on the case and Duke as Julian’s pimp, the two characters feel like intruders in a film that up to that point had our two leads as the central focus. As the doors that used to be open to him start to close, he’s forced to consider a life without money, Michelle, or freedom. All things considered, the thrust of the film is metaphorically very much about the values Americans had in the transition from the 70’s to the 80’s.
At nearly two hours, I think American Gigolo is about twenty minutes too long for its own good. Schrader includes many extraneous dialogue scenes that just restate what the previous scene had summed up about the scene before it. It’s not a boring film but one that probably was a little ahead of its time in its execution.
While not a huge hit for Paramount Pictures, American Gigolo did put Gere on the map as a hot commodity. Enjoying a successful career even today, Gere did have a chance to turn the tables a bit ten years later with Pretty Woman. Also introduced here was designer Calvin Klein who contributes much of Gere’s wardrobe and the clean-cut style of Klein hasn’t changed much in the resulting three decades. Oscar winning composer Giorgio Moroder provides a perfect score for the film with its heavy use of synth and pulsating rhythms. Most significant, Moroder and punk band Blondie collaborated on the now-classic “Call Me” and it’s featured heavily throughout the film.
All of the elements I’ve mentioned so far have made American Gigolo more of a time capsule than any kind of example of classic cinema. It’s a fairly straightforward depiction of a cross section of society in 1980 and there’s value in revisiting that time and place. Good performances and a stylish attention to detail under a solid director help push this into the recommended aisle for those looking for a sleek ride down memory lane.