To the sounds of “Call Me” by Blondie, an Armani outfit Richard Gere cruises along the California coast in an open-top Mercedes. Sleek and perfectly styled, the opening scene of Paul Schraderthe 1980 movie, american gigolo, seems to be welcoming a decade of wealth and opportunity with open arms. However, Gere’s character is an upscale sex worker whose lifestyle unfolds much like so many of Schrader’s other protagonists. Soon to be reimagined by Showtime, it is reported that Schrader does not like the idea of returning to the character or the story. No matter how the new show turns out, the original film is still powerful – one of Schrader’s darkest despite its sun-kissed look.
In american gigolo, Julian Kay (Gere) is a sex worker whose client list consists of older, wealthy women. He starts sleeping with Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton), the wife of a state senator and is implicated in the murder of a former client. As the police investigation draws to a close and he is abandoned by his wealthy friends, Julian becomes increasingly desperate in his attempts to find out who framed him.
Who is Julian Kay?
“Why me?” Julian finally asks Leon James (Bill Duke), the pimp who sent him on the “hard blow” (sex with a sadomasochistic married couple in Palm Springs) that put him on suspicion of murder. “Because you’re frameable,” Leon replies, with no further explanation needed at this point. He had previously warned Julian that his wealthy clientele would eventually turn against him, as they do elsewhere.
At the beginning of american gigolo, Julian’s way of life seems far from precarious. He lives in a stunning apartment filled with expensive artwork and a designer wardrobe. He frequents the bars and restaurants where his customers go and fits in very well. He gets jobs from a woman, Anne (Nina Van Pallandt), in an inversion of the pimp/sex worker dynamic usually depicted on screen. In his house on the beach, they fight over the percentages and an important client who arrives from Sweden (Julian learns the language in preparation for the meeting). “Do you know anyone else who goes into the LA Country Club?” he snaps when Anne complains about her cut. There is a shimmer of respectability to the proceedings, and most certainly the suggestion that in the wealthy circle in which Julian moves, he provides a well-accepted and much-needed service.
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american gigoloThe iconic moment comes when Julian, at the peak of his powers, takes the time to lay his many Armani jackets on the bed, pairing them with various shirts and ties over a piece of Smokey Robinson. (The 80s liked a dress-up scene to music, especially Sleep with the enemybut american gigolo was the best.) There are references throughout the film to Julian’s carefully constructed image – the clothes, the car, the good taste – which allows him to fit into affluent society. Anne claims that she created it, in order to exercise ownership. The look and feel of american gigolofrom the pastel tones of Julian’s apartment to the Giorgio Moroder soundtrack, was incredibly influential in future films. On the surface, Julian exudes confidence and success, though there is a lingering sense of unease common to many Schrader protagonists.
How does Julian compare to the other Schrader protagonists?
Socially and geographically, Julian is perhaps thousands of miles from Travis Bickle (robert deniro), the protagonist of Schrader’s screenplay for Taxi driver, yet similarities abound. They are both men who give their all in their work. “It’s a long hustle, but it keeps me very busy,” Bickle proudly writes of the hours he spends in the cab, suggesting work as an escape from darker thoughts. Equally dedicated to his job, Julian talks about spending hours bringing an older client to orgasm. “Who else would have taken the time and cared enough to do it right?” he thinks.
Schrader writes about men who define themselves through the minutiae of their work. It’s a list that includes drug dealer John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) in A light sleeperPastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) in First reformedand the gambler William Tell (Oscar Isaac) in The card counter. Like Julian and Bickle, they have their rituals and routines, as well as a psychologically ingrained set of rules that ultimately leave them vulnerable. They most often end up in jail, talking to someone through a glass screen, or in a liminal state where the viewer no longer knows if they really exist.
It’s not hard to see that the vigilante image Bickle builds in front of his mirror (with hidden weapons and a combat jacket) isn’t too far removed from Julian’s designer clothes. The misery of Bickle’s New York apartment is a far cry from Julian’s in Westwood, but it’s also a refuge from the world. “This is my apartment, women don’t come here,” Julian tells Michelle when she shows up at his house uninvited. He is offended after Michelle jokes that she expected a red carpet and mirrors on the ceiling. Julian may be the most affluent of all of Schrader’s protagonists, but his home is an escape and the job is a way to both engage and protect himself from the world. Her relationship with clients is more a job well done than a real connection.
When Julian begins an affair with Michelle, it’s first a business, but the film suggests that it becomes a romantic relationship without ever specifying when (or if) the transactional element ends. It is certainly one of the most attractive couples in cinema. In the eventual sex scene – the only really explicit one in the film – they come together in an eerily static series of nude images (almost paintings) that suggest a cool detachment. It’s as if too much movement was undermining the formal perfection of the moment. Sex is as neat as Julian’s image. A subsequent scene features full-face male nudity which was outrageous at the time.
Julian is portrayed as a narcissist, but Gere makes him relatable. As an actor, he’s never looked better on screen, whether he’s floating around the luxury haunts of Los Angeles or just hanging out in his apartment. John Travolta was originally considered for the role, although Gere brings a more androgynous appeal to Julian. It is an object of desire that both women and men can appreciate. At first he is a cipher, although the plot to frame him for murder progresses, his relentless composure begins to slip.
A downward spiral
Paranoid that someone has planted incriminating evidence, Julian tears up his apartment in the style of Francis Ford Coppolait is The conversation then (most painfully of all) dismantles his Mercedes. Another low comes when he goes to a restaurant that looks unkempt and without a suit or tie, resulting in Anne being rejected. At this point, we began to see something of Julian’s buried past as he searches for answers among sex workers on the streets and in gay clubs. In his most desperate moment, Julian offers to work exclusively for Leon, which would involve taking on gay clients. It’s a terrible downfall, not because of the nature of the job (for Julian, sex is a job where there’s no distinction between gay or straight clients – although he doesn’t like sadomasochists), but because it compromises his precious freedom. “I can’t be possessed,” he told Leon in more comfortable times, referring to his reluctance to work for anyone or any client for too long. However, facing a prison sentence, Julian is ready to go back to where he started, which is clearly the streets.
What future for Julian Kay?
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1991, Schrader linked his protagonists in Taxi driver, american gigolo and A light sleeper, stating that they are “not really a person but a soul looking for a body to inhabit”. There is definitely a disconnect in Julian, the feeling of someone searching for meaning the 80s way – through material possessions. These are taken away from him throughout the film, to the point that he is found guilty of a crime he did not commit. His refusal to drag Michelle’s name to the press to save himself is a belated show of moral strength that gives him a kind of fairy tale ending. However, Schrader’s framing of the final moments (black cut between successive scenes) seems deliberately stilted and out of step with the rest of the film. Like many of the director’s endings, it asks a question about what is real and about wish fulfillment.
Schrader said he wouldn’t watch Showtime american gigololike an older version of Julian (Jon Berntal) magically walks out of prison after 15 years and into the present. Only time will tell if Schrader is right to look the other way and entrust his creation to a moment in history. As his 1991 interview suggests, Schrader has been writing about this alienated character for many years and in many guises, so we haven’t seen the last of Julian – however he may manifest.