Somehow, I’d never previously given much thought to the fact that Richard Gere starred into two very different (yet both iconic in their own ways, rightly or wrongly) movies about prostitution a decade apart. The earlier film, Paul Schrader’s 1980 American Gigolo, is currently serving as inspiration for a new TV series on the Showtime network, which gave me reason to revisit it.
In retropect, I wonder what the actor was thinking when he signed on for the light and frothy rom-com Pretty Woman (1990) after having already made a weighty drama about the sex trade. Did that cause him any cognitive dissonance, or did he just shrug it off as a nice paycheck and not concern himself with such worries? Then again, both films could be accused of glamorizing what is typically seen as a very unglamorous profession. Perhaps the star didn’t feel much of a conflict after all.
|Year of Release:||1980|
|Also Available On:||Blu-ray|
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms
Make no mistake, American Gigolo takes the subject very seriously without romanticizing it the way Pretty Woman would. Sex work is a recurring theme for writer-director Paul Schrader. It played a major role in his screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976), in which deluded protagonist Travis Bickle saw himself as a hero who needed to rescue a teenage prostitute from her violent pimp. Schrader’s Hardcore (1979) then delved into the seediest aspects of the pornography industry. American Gigolo also goes to some dark places and portrays prostitution as a dangerous business, but much of that comes down to the main character’s poor decisions and actions, and the way he treats people. Until that point, the movie spends a lot of time showing us exactly what appealed to him about his questionable career choice.
Then 31-years-old and at his most fit and virile, Richard Gere plays Julian Kay, a high-end male escort in Beverly Hills. If you asked him what he does for work, Julian would tell you that he’s a chauffeur, a translator, or anything else a client needs. Of course, with a clientele consisting primarily of wealthy older women who feel neglected by their husbands, mostly what they need is some attention and affection – both emotionally and physically.
Julian is paid very well and enjoys the perks of the job. He dresses impeccably (movie wardrobe by Giorgio Armani), drives a fancy Mercedes convertible, and is known by name at all the best restaurants and clubs. He takes pride in his appearance and works hard to maintain his physique. His luxurious lifestyle suits both himself and his clients. If the most difficult part of the job is making love to a very appreciative woman… well, that’s not such a hardship, is it? It’s a pretty cushy gig, all things considered. If anything, he believes that the service he provides is almost noble, in a way.
Although Julian doesn’t like to be attached to regular clients (“too possessive,” he insists), he becomes the object of obsession for Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton), the wife of an important U.S. Senator. She can’t get Julian out of her head, and even tracks him to his home, the one sanctuary he never brings clients. For his part, Julian doesn’t mind having Michelle around either. He may even have some feelings for the woman – as much as a narcissist like Julian is capable of feeling for another human being, at least.
As I said, however, this isn’t some romantic fairy tale. After his longtime friend Leon (Bill Duke) asks him to fill in on what turns out to be a rough trick, the client is later murdered, almost certainly at the hands of her abusive husband, whose powerful connections and resources put him above the law. All evidence points to Julian as the prime suspect, and a persistent police detective (Hector Elizondo, who would also appear in Pretty Woman with Gere!) doesn’t buy his story that he’s been framed. Soon enough, Julian’s perfectly-ordered life crumbles around him. The more he tries to clear his name, the worse the situation gets. As a result, he becomes increasingly paranoid and desperate, no longer able to trust any of the people he once relied on to support or enable him.
A decade after Midnight Cowboy, the subject of male prostitution was still mostly taboo in film, certainly in a mainstream Hollywood film produced by a major studio like Paramount. Nevertheless, Schrader was able to parlay his success as the writer of Taxi Driver (as well as the pending release of Raging Bull) into trying something edgy, possibly subversive. American Gigolo entices audiences with its lurid subject matter and promise of illicit thrills (including a bit of full-frontal nudity from its hunky star) and paints it as exciting, even fun. This isn’t a movie about street hustlers struggling to survive. Julian is a man of expensive tastes and habits. Watching him indulge in them is seductive, especially when driven to the beat of a Giorgio Moroder score and a catchy pop song (Blondie’s “Call Me”) as the film’s anthem. Only then, after viewers have been reeled in, does the story turn and begin its descent into darkness.
As is his typical style, Paul Schrader directs most of the movie with a sort of clinical detachment, like a specimen under his examination. He doesn’t necessarily cast judgment on Julian’s lifestyle, but the character is ultimately responsible for his own downfall. He neither seeks nor deserves redemption. At the same time, this isn’t nearly as harrowing a journey as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Julian may be an unsympathetic cad, but Gere is a likeable star who can’t help but bring the audience to his side.
A final plot turn is a bit too convenient and I have to wonder if it was the result of a studio note. Despite that, American Gigolo remains a compelling drama and character study. Watching it now, four decades later, it’s also a very fun time capsule back to the early 1980s, loaded with that era’s fashion, music, and atmosphere.
American Gigolo was released on Blu-ray back in 2016, but I don’t own that disc and can’t vouch for it. A spur of the moment decision prompted by the new TV reboot convinced me to seek out the original movie on streaming. I found it on Paramount+ and Epix, and chose the former. Assuming that the Blu-ray is sourced from the same underlying video master (which it seems to be, based on some reviews I dug up), I’m glad I didn’t pay money for it – beyond my existing subscription fee, of course.
The 16:9 full-screen image, opened up marginally from the theatrical 1.85:1 ratio, comes from an ancient transfer. The picture is extremely soft and noisy, with weak colors and a fair amount of speckling on the source elements. The video also has evidence of some edge sharpening that doesn’t help in the slightest. It’s barely watchable.
On the other hand, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is surprisingly good. The Giorgio Moroder score (comprised significantly of Blondie’s “Call Me” and extensions of the music Moroder composed for it) has excellent stereo separation and presence. Dialogue is always clear and the rest of the track’s fidelity is fine. The movie may not have much bass or dynamic range, but it doesn’t really need any. The audio sounds great overall, even compressed for streaming.
Regardless, the movie is in desperate need of a video remaster and I can’t advise a purchase until that happens. In its current state, rental or subscription streams will have to suffice.