Embracing the Melodrama Part II #63: American Gigolo (dir by Paul Schrader)

American_gigolo_postWell, here we are!  A month and two days ago, I announced the start of Embracing the Melodrama Part II, a 126-film series of reviews.  At the time, I somewhat foolishly declared that I would manage to review all of these films in just three weeks!  Four weeks later and we have finally reached the halfway point.

So yeah…

Anyway!  We started this series of reviews with 1927’s Sunrise and we have worked our way through the films of the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, and the 70s.  And now, as we hit the halfway point, it’s appropriate that we start a new cinematic decade.

In other words, welcome to the 80s!

Let’s start the 80s off with the 1980 film, American Gigolo.  Directed by Paul Schrader, American Gigolo is — much like Schrader’s Hardcore and The Canyons — a look at the sleazier side of life in California.  Julian Kaye (Richard Gere) is the most successful male escort in Los Angeles.  He’s handsome, he’s confident, he speaks multiple languages, and he maintains a proper emotional distance from … well, from everyone.  He’s got a fast car, expensive clothes, a great apartment, and — because it is the 80s after all — a small mirror that is perpetually coated in cocaine residue.

We don’t really learn much about Julian’s past.  We don’t know much about who he was before he became the American Gigolo.  (If this movie were made today, American Gigolo would be a part of the MCU and would end up joining The Avengers.)  However, the film is littered with clues.  For instance, we know that he used to work exclusively for Anne (Nina Van Pallandt) but he’s become so successful that Anne has lost her hold over him.  Before Julian worked for Anne, he worked for Leon (Bill Duke), a gay pimp.

Julian’s sexuality is a big question mark throughout the entire film.  Though all of his current clients are female and Julian brags about his ability to leave a woman feeling sexually satisifed, the film leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not he actually likes women.  (It’s suggested — though never explicitly stated — that Julian slept with men while he was working for Leon.)  Ultimately, for someone who has sex for a living, Julian seems oddly asexual.  It’s hard not to feel that Julian is only truly capable of desiring his own carefully constructed image.

Is Julian capable of love?  That’s the question that Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton) has to consider.  Michelle is unhappily married to a member of the U.S. Senate but she’s having an affair with Julian.

Michelle’s relationship with Julian is tested when Julian is accused of murdering one of his clients.  While Julian begs both his clients and his business associated to provide him with an alibi, he discovers that he’s basically alone.  Convinced that someone’s trying to frame him, Julian destroys his apartment and his car searching for clues.  As he grows more and more paranoid, his perfect image starts to crack and Michelle has to decide whether or not to sacrifice her marriage to protect him.

American Gigolo is technically a murder mystery but the murder doesn’t really matter.  Instead, it’s a character study of a man who is empty inside until, in Job-like fashion, he loses everything.  It’s also a very watchable exercise in pure, sleek, and probably cocaine-fueled style.  Richard Gere has always been an oddly hollow actor (and that’s not necessarily meant as a criticism) and that suggestion of inner emptiness makes him the perfect choice for the role of Julian Kaye.

American Gigolo is making the premium cable rounds right now.  Keep an eye out for it and don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing Call Me afterwards.