Thursday Editor’s Pick: American Gigolo (1980)

by on March 2, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs March 8 at 7:00*, 9:30 at Chelsea Clearview [Program & Tix]
*Early show hosted by Hedda Lettuce

“I’ll do fag tricks. I’ll do kink. I’ll do anything you want me to do.”

David Thomson manages to encapsulate why so many people hated Paul Schrader’s rendition of Pickpocket, 80s California-style, why it’s actually amazing … and why a Chelsea drag queen might choose to intro a revival screening of Gigolo this Thursday.


From the entry in Thomson’s Have You Seen…?:

No one is ever short of reasons for laughing at the poise of American Gigolo, yet it seems to me a fabulous, nerveless walk on the high wire, with Richard Gere managing at every turn to indicate the chic of his clothes. There is one shot where a greased drawer in Julian Kaye’s LA home slides open to reveal a chorus of sleek Italian designer shirts – the silent cry from the shirts is every bit as choral and liturgical as the response from a real choir in a religious piece. In other words, the wire being walked here is that in which high art turns into high camp. If you find that distasteful or farfetched, then I can only assume that you have never lived in contemporary Los Angeles.
Paul Schrader directs from his own script and puts his every love and desire into the picture, so it thrills to the pulse of disco music, voyeuristic sex, Robert Bresson, the LA light, the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, driving on the freeway in a convertible, the “privacy” of Palm Springs, and the infinite blossom of corruption in Southern California. It is often like an advertisement (shot with exquisite taste by John Bailey), and it delights in streamlining moderne-ism and the sultry swish of the passing moment. The whole thing is poised on an edge where collapse or public mirth are equal possibilities, yet it survives and brings its fatuous Sirkian plot to a lovely finale. Within the delirium of cliches and pretension, something absolutely true strides forward, personified by Gere’s lounging walk and his shameless attitudinizing. This was a new kind of riveting trash. If you want to know about American in 1980, then go to American Gigolo and Raging Bull.


Hulu+ subscribers can watch Schrader’s Criterion Collection introduction to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, one of the major inspirations for Gigolo.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The bare outline of its plot makes “American Gigolo” sound like a fairly sleazy package: This is strong stuff — almost sensational enough for daytime soap opera. But the film “American Gigolo” is a stylish and surprisingly poignant handling of this material. The experiences in the film may be alien to us, but the emotions of the characters are not. The movie sets up the character of Julian Kay as so sympathetic that we forgive him his profession. That’s a tactic that “American Gigolo”‘s writer and director, Paul Schrader, is borrowing from one of his own heroes, the French director Robert Bresson, whose “Pickpocket” makes a criminal into an antihero.
The whole movie has a winning sadness about it; take away the story’s sensational aspects and what you have is a study in loneliness. Richard Gere’s performance is central to that effect, and some of his scenes — reading the morning paper, rearranging some paintings, selecting a wardrobe — underline the emptiness of his life. We leave “American Gigolo” with the curious feeling that if women weren’t paying this man to sleep with them, he’d be paying them: He needs the human connection and he has a certain shyness, a loner quality, that makes it easier for him when love seems to be just another deal.


Darren Hughes for Long Pauses:

Another loose adaptation of Crime and Punishment, this time by way of Robert Bresson and Jerry Bruckheimer (there’s a pairing!), Paul Schrader’s third film as director is never less than watchable, thanks largely to Richard Gere’s performance, which is appropriately charismatic, pathetic, and vacuous. Schrader now admits he’s unsure whether the moral transformation Gere’s gigolo experiences in the final scene is authentic or “one that was simply imposed on him by his maker.” I share his ambivalence. That American Gigolo places a distant third in a race with Bresson’s Pickpocket and the Dardennes’ L’Enfant isn’t a surprise, but given their radically different modes of production, I find it hard to fault Schrader. It’s an interesting narrative experiment from a Hollywood release of 1980.


Rouge has the interview with Schrader where he retrospectively questions the film’s effectiveness.

Billy Stevenson waxes academic, for A Film Canon:

American Gigolo rediscovers Marx’s definition of commodity fetishism as a cinematographic manifesto, poising the ‘cinematic’ at that moment between the audience’s awareness of “the objective form of something outside the eye” and their prescience of “the subjective excitation of the optic nerve.” Paul Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey frame high-end gigolo Julian Kaye (Richard Gere) with an almost impossible touchscape, transforming sex into just another iteration of a pervasive, velvety caress between surfaces and other surfaces. As the one object that can’t ever be an object of spectatorship, the spectator’s eye becomes the privileged surface upon which this imaginary relation is played out, implicating the cinematic experience itself in a pleasure so unbearable that it has been largely disavowed by criticism, awash with accusations of ‘self-indulgent’ or ‘irresponsible’ aestheticism. Equally unsettling is the way in which this positions Kaye as object of the audience’s desire, our affective response to him as another subject disarmed by our optic response to him as pure celluloid, until the act of looking segues into the elusive requirements of his clientele. Despite Kaye’s insistence that bringing older, sophisticated women to the point of orgasm is the very apex of his craftsmanship, it feels as if his services ultimately lie in the crystalline hush that his soft stare leaves in its wake, and the transcendent austerity that it casts over Schrader’s baroque palette. It’s a wonderful, haunting effort to aestheticise a relation that is both “perceptible and imperceptible”, through the unspeakable, pursuant gaze that drives Schrader’s ceaseless pans, while just preventing them from synthesizing into an orienting or stabilising pattern of tracking-shots


Andrew Sarris for The Village Voice:

Paul Schrader’sAmerican Gigolois Bressonian film with touches of Godard. It strikes me as much his best work as a writer-director to date. Not only does Schrader cut discreetly from his protagonist’s more sordid activities; he also keeps shifting color schemes in line with a conscious strategy of psychological disorientation. American Gigolo is the most elegant of Schrader’s directorial exercises, and there are never any lapses of time. [But it is sometimes as] if Bresson were trying to direct a Bunuel script. Bill Duke is marvelously arresting as a malignant pimp and self-appointed nemesis of Julian’s moral, social, and aesthetic presumption. Somehow the picture keeps moving along until that very startling moment when Schrader boldly lifts Bresson’s leap-of-faith ending from Pickpocket virtually intact.
I don’t know if American Gigolo will turn out any more accessible to audiences than Pickpocket, and I don’t suggest that Schrader has equaled or transended Bresson on either the spiritual or artistic plane. But for the first time I find myself on Schrader’s side as he strains to transfer dangerously internalized feelings onto the dynamic surfaces of cinema. American Gigolo remains an honorable and fascinating work by an American artist, who just happens to be spiritually abstracted from the world at large.



Filmmaker/actor John Turturro included it in his list of Guilty Pleasures for Film Comment (May/June 2001):

I really don’t like it, but I like it. It’s cold and has this veneer, it’s so foreign to me. I don’t see it as a movie exactly. It has something to do with its time. I don’t understand how Richard Gere does his things in it but it gets me in some way. He has this self-consciousness to him as an actor. Even when he’s wild and explosive it’s not like watching a wild and explosive guy, it’s like watching someone who’s the cogent version of it. It’s not that organic, but there’s a level of it that’s enjoyable – it’s like kabuki. People don’t realize, but there are a lot of kabuki actors who are really famous. This might get me in trouble, but I call them my Kabuki All-Star Team. Actors who run or move a certain way. I like the way Gere walks in American Gigolo. It gives me pleasure. It excites me. I like people who can move. Tom Cruise has some of that quality. You can enjoy watching him kick a wall, but it’s not him kicking a wall, it’s choreography. Gere’s definitely the captain. There’s nobody better. Val Kilmer is right in the middle of the infield. He’s got kabuki qualities. Brad Pitt in Fight Club could be on the kabuki team. I’m not saying it’s bad – it’s kabuki. There’s a level of narcissism involved. I think, How do these guys do that? But I like it. One of the problems with Eyes Wide Shut was that Kubrick was trying to strip Cruise of his approach, but couldn’t. That’s a movie that could become a guilty pleasure. The artificial level of angst that goes on in it – it felt like being in an acting class that you want to get out of.


Dan Yakir, also for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 1981):

In American Gigolo, Paul Schrader succeeds in a most difficult task. He explores the meaning of the physical touch within an overtly sexual framework – -that of prostitution. The suave Julian Kaye (Richard Gere) delivers more than a quick number to frustrated older women; he gives them the illusion of being wanted by touching them. Even in the “rough trick” sequence, which serves mainly to set off the plot mechanisms, we see him only touch his worried victim gently as the scene ends.
Julian’s problem is that he can’t accept pleasure; he can’t be touched. Therefore, when the Lauren Hutton character chooses to simply touch and kiss instead of making love (“When you make love you go to work”), she forces him to come to terms with his sensual and emotional (as opposed to sexual) self. In the final scene, when he rests his forehead against her hand, separated as they are by the glass partition of the visitor’s booth in jail, the glass is an obstacle more circumstantial than essential. They make contact. In the end, they-and the film-are touching.


Richard Jameson thinks critics failed in their negative analysis of the film, but still thinks it’s a bad movie, for Parallax View.



Richard Kelly on Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s art direction, for Critical Quarterly (republished by the blog 2thewalls):

When Paul Schrader asked Scarfiotti to perform a Milanese makeover on Los Angeles for American Gigolo, he found a collaborator minutely preoccupied ’with the look of things: locales, building of sets, colour schemes, clothing schemes, lighting schemes – everything‘. Perfectionism in matters of detail cannot guarantee perfection of the whole, but every director who procured Scarfiotti’s gifts was taxed to measure up to his brilliance, for he was an artist to the very tips of his fingers. Preparing to direct his screenplay American Gigolo in 1978, Paul Schrader was conscious of the need for ’high style’. The script told an improbable tale of a high-priced, socially aspirant male escort, Julian Kay, who faces retribution for his sins in a murder-frame, but is finally delivered from despond by a Bressonian intervention of grace. Schrader wanted to swathe this character (a walking commodity, a man of manicured surfaces) in a suitably tailored universe. Moreover, like any filmmaker in a city plagued by camera crews, Schrader sought a fresh perception of Los Angeles. His epiphany came when cinematographer John Bailey screened The Conformist for their mutual reference: ’I sent Nando the script and explained what I wanted and he rose to the bait. I think the whole sexual chic of the film appealed to him’.
As novelist Edmund White decreed whilst dallying in Los Angeles, ’in gay life the body as well as the soul is elected’, and Julian Kay, a sexually ambiguous creature, embodied this dualism. Schrader admitted to the influence upon his script of moving in modish gay circles, and Scarfiotti supplied the appropriately seductive surfaces. ‘In 1978 Los Angeles was on the verge of a big change,’ he recalled. ’So it was a big playground to rediscover and to reinvent’. A gay ambience pervades the film, not least because its protagonist is conspicuously groomed, there to be gazed at and to give pleasure. ’It was a very pro-gay time in the arts in general,’ Schrader recalls. ’The homosexual sensibility was dictating music, clubs, fashion, dance, design.
The film necessitated copious construction on Paramount’s stages, and Scarfiotti achieved a uniformly spare elegance. ’All of these sets, these spaces were built by Scarfiotti for an overall look and feeling’, confirms Schrader. Julian’s apartment is a monastic gymnasium shaded in ash-grey and sea-breeze blue, devoid of anything but structural decoration (’the on-going motif is whether to hang a painting’, Schrader joked). The achievement of American Gigolo in rendering plausible its gossamer-thin dramatic conceit owes much to the gorgeous solidity of that apartment, sealed by its hard ceiling specified by Scarfiotti, which in turn dictated the use of augmented source-light. Such was the discipline Scarfiotti had learned from Visconti and admired in Orson Welles.



Sheila O’Malley focuses on one scene, for The Sheila Variations:

Who are we when we are alone and we feel totally private? Private moments are difficult to capture on film. You know it when you see it.The zone of privacy created by the actor in such moments needs to be so vast that it is nearly impenetrable. Julian, in American Gigolo, as played by Richard Gere, is all about masks and appearances. His personality has been carefully crafted to make his elderly female clients feel special and cared for. When he is alone, he drops the public swagger. There are a couple of scenes showing Julian at home, working out, listening to Swedish language tapes. But one scene in particular stands out as a quintessential private moment.
There’s something stereotypically feminine about such private moments of unembarrassed self-regard, which is why they can be so unbalancing and riveting when it comes from a man. In the movies, when women look in the mirror (in public or alone), they usually do so to check the perfection of the mask: Powder applied, lipstick applied, how do I look, all still okay? Here, Julian is engaged in the same process, except that while his mask is being chosen (the brown tie with the blue shirt, etc.), he seems to be communing with something deep, something intensely pleasurable and visceral. He is outside of Self, outside of Thought. It’s there in the boyish cock of his head to one side as he looks over the ties, and the way he purses his lips happily in a manner so vulnerable that no one on the outside would ever get to see it. He doesn’t look at women the way he looks at those ties, with the same lazy satisfied sensual appreciation. The ties are what matter. Yes, yes, those colors are just right. Just right.
American Gigolo wouldn’t be the same movie without that short sequence. The film is bleak and dark and echoing with loneliness. Julian, sleek and perfect, maneuvers his way through the underworld, trying to get what he needs and maintain his standards (no “rough tricks”, no “fags”), and as he begins to lose control, as his friends begin to abandon him, he starts to face the heart of darkness, the abyss at the center of his life, his personality. Nothing is real. But in this short scene, where he places his ties on his shirts, sings to himself, and inhabits a private space, we see behind the mask, and we realize that everything else we have seen, every varied role he slips into, has been “just a mirage”. Gere has to portray a tailspin of increasing vulnerability over the course of American Gigolo, but nowhere is he more vulnerable and naked than in that one minute of film when he looks down at the ties, cocks his head lazily, and purses his lips in satisfaction at what he sees.



The blog DCPFilm has some good analysis of Schrader’s editing:

Continuing in Paul Schrader’s post-Scorsese decades of underworld sleaze, comes the Richard Gere vehicle American Gigolo. Perhaps, and unfortunately, best remembered as the film where you see Gere’s penis, this is actually a nice entry for the director, some of Gere’s best work, and more European than Schrader’s first two directorial efforts. In many ways, the stylistics of this anticipate his much more aesthetically diverse (and best) film from 1985, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Reminiscent of a sort of cross between the vague thriller ala Blow-Up and a David Mamet conspiratorial script for much of its 117 minute run-time, the conclusion of American Gigolo is much clearer than the former, and heartfelt than the latter.
While Schrader will forever be tied to Scorsese, his style is nowhere near that of Marty. American Gigolo finds Schrader amidst a true 80s world – something that Robert Towne was probably trying to achieve in Tequila Sunrise (but failing miserably). There’s heavy concentration on clothes here – multiple shots of Julian’s drawers and suits and dialogue with the police detective (Hector Elizondo) about how the clothes make the man – alongside an ominously synthy soundtrack from Girogio Moroder and light that seems perpetually filtered through the unseen neighboring neon storefront sign. Unlike some of those other 80s films, Schrader turns this not into a mood of forgettable period cheese, but a daytime noir, where the smoky pastels and neons take on the sinister flair of the shadows in your classic mystery flick.


Noah Buschel on Schrader’s ‘lonely man’ trilogy, for Hammer to Nail:

Paul Schrader’s lonely man trilogy—American Gigolo,Light Sleeper, and The Walker—are pretty much the same movie told in different settings with slightly dissimilar characters. These pictures all have a hero that is hung out to dry by his “friends” after a murder. Two of them end with the same exact scene—the protagonist in jail talking to the one person who actually does care about him. And the three films can all be seen, to varying degrees, as metaphors for being an artist in the movie biz. The worlds of these three films are swank with Armani jackets and cashmere scarves. There are sports cars and limos, smooth flesh and good drugs. But from the get-go, we’re uncomfortable. And the more glamour Schrader trots out in front of us, the more it becomes obvious that we’re watching a nightmare unfold. Here, Schrader seems to say. You want this? Do you really want this? Cross your heart and hope to die? But damn if these films don’t stick in the brain and the chest.
One interesting thing about all three is that the heroes realize there is no way, no chance of surviving in these worlds. They all come to the same conclusion: Escape. Get out. Because you can’t beat yourself. There are certain places and situations where one doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance. The way an NA member only walks down specific streets. The way an ex-con goes home early. The way veterans stay away from fireworks. Or they don’t. I guess salvation from one’s despair is not possible without feeling pain. There’s no trick or way around it. And so these three films are painful, fucked up voyages we’d sometimes like to turn away from. It is a sad and funny truth that Schrader is harping on, but it is definitely a truth. We don’t know who our real friends are until the shit hits the fan. Until it’s not easy to be friends with us. Then and only then do we get a real taste of the landscape. The characters played by Dafoe, Gere, and Harrelson all tell themselves that they are respected and valued. But they’re only respected and valued so long as they are charming and suave. Anything other than that is not acceptable. Especially any kind of trouble. Then they become lepers knocking on locked doors. We don’t normally see movies from guys like Paul Schrader. Just that he made these movies is deeply moving to me. They ring truer than a lot of virtuoso director films.


  • Raf Wagner

    The widely overlooked subject of this film is Michelle Stratton’s true role. She is enraptured by the cocky Adonis Julian Kaye and craftily pursues him. Her honed abilities are first revealed when she uncovers where Julian lives, arriving unannounced at his apartment at night wearing a sleuthy trench coat. Her in and outs through the storyline make her a difficult figure to place. And that’s exactly how she wants it as she secretly stalks her admired prey for conquest and desire.
    There are only very subtle hints throughout the film that this is what’s going on, and so it must be or else Julian would find her out, and even when the truth almost does come out, Julian misses it, he could simply never fathom the possibility.
    The moment of clarity comes when Julian corners the pimp Leon who admits he framed Julian. But Leon says two critical things when Julian tries to buy him: ‘It doesn’t matter, the other side will always pay more.’ Leon is not acting alone, he is not the shadowy mastermind, someone else is paying him to frame Julian. And then Leon continues by telling Julian that the bitch in palm springs is about to change her mind to identify Julian to the police and spell his end. Who is the financier? Who is the mysterious bitch? Michelle.
    After Leon’s death, Julian ends up incarcerated. Julian is dejected, he refuses Michelle’s help, he doesn’t want her to be consumed by scandal. She now sees Julian’s true character at the bottom, and admires him, like she desired him when he was on top. As the architect of his downfall, she now becomes his redeemer. Julian asks her why, and Michelle replies ‘I had no choice, I love you’. She now has the fallen gigolo all to herself, forever indebted he will be to her for saving him. The femme fatale.

    • marildi

      I just watched this film for the first time, on TV. At one point in the film, I too got the idea that Michelle was the one behind the framing. The directing seemed to subtly give it away. But by the end, I was fooled (perhaps) into changing my mind,

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