In sports, there’s something called the “signature win” — a victory against a formidable opponent that makes the case for the winning team’s worthiness as a favorite/contender/world-beater. In Hollywood, there’s something similar — the signature role. Actors need a few before they’re given consideration as legends — they’re what elevate them from beloved to iconic. Think of any acting hall-of-famer, and a few signature roles instantly spring to mind, the ones that automatically enshrine them in movie history. Without them, their careers just aren’t the same.
Richard Gere has had hits, and there are movies with which he’s closely associated. But I’d submit that he’s never had that signature role — the one film that encapsulates all that’s great about his elusive onscreen presence. As a result, he seems destined to be criminally underrated.
The reasons why are all summed up in his latest movie, the deft character piece Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, in which he plays a wheeler-dealer constantly ingratiating himself with the city’s elite, even though his own finances are dwindling and his influence isn’t nearly as mighty as he pretends.
In Norman, Gere plays a charming man who’s also a sham, and the role works perfectly for an actor who feels most comfortable slipping through our fingers. Even when he’s had his greatest commercial success, he’s reluctant to let those wins define him. Where other stars have sought to shape a persona, he eludes us — and, sometimes, he eludes his own aspirations, too.
In another life, he might have been a musician. Born in Philadelphia in the late summer of 1949, Gere grew up playing everything from sitar to piano to banjo to trumpet. He was in different bands — sometimes he was the drummer, other times he was the frontman. So what made him decide to pursue acting? “It doesn’t have to be a conscious decision that you’re making,” he said cryptically in a 1983 Interview profile. “You find a direction and go one way.”
He studied philosophy and film at the University of Massachusetts before trying his hand at theater. He also did an episode of Kojak — “Television is a disgusting, humiliating experience,” he later told Rolling Stone — but ultimately opted for becoming a film actor. His reasoning? “More people see your work,” he explained in that Interview profile. “You perform in front of a camera, so in that sense it’s the same as theater; the crew, the cameraman, the director, they’re your audience.” And then he said something that hits at the fleeting nature of his performances: “You have a basic theatrical experience in film, but you can temper it, you can pull it apart, assemble it and recreate it any way you want,” Gere suggested. “You have more leeway, to create an experience, to create an emotion.”
His first major film role was in 1977’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar. He played Tony, an Italian-American hustler who seduces Diane Keaton’s sexually curious schoolteacher. The character was impossibly beautiful and also probably nuts — and Gere portrayed him with utter boyish conviction:
It was his breakout, and instantly, he learned that he had to be careful not to let a role define him. “After Goodbar, I had enough offers to play Italian crazies for the next 15 years,” he later complained. “The bastards want to put you in a box with a label on it and crush it. If you have any hope of growing, of being taken seriously, you have to control the vultures.”
Gere hardly steered away from sexy roles — he was the titular character of 1980’s American Gigolo — but early on, he was determined to zig and zag. Long before Goodbar or Gigolo, he had fallen in love with an atmospheric 1973 crime drama called Badlands, wanting to collaborate with its maker, writer-director Terrence Malick. As Gere once recalled, “I remember talking to my agent saying, ‘Look, if this guy’s making a movie, that’s something I would be interested in.’” He got his wish, playing the lead in Malick’s follow-up, 1978’s gorgeous, fable-like Days of Heaven, which was actually made before Goodbar but took two years to hit theaters. By that point, Gere was leading-man material, and the attention that American Gigolo brought him set the stage for what, when adjusted to reflect ticket-price inflation, remains his biggest hit.
His path to An Officer and a Gentleman began with a fortuitous dinner he had with some friends at which director Taylor Hackford was also in attendance. “I didn’t know Taylor well,” he recalled in 2012. “I think at that point he had made one film.” During the meal, Hackford talked to Gere about the project, trying to convince him to read the screenplay. “I always looked younger than I was. I was probably like 30 or 32-ish when I made the movie,” the actor later said. “But he started to get an obsession about me playing this part. So, I read it and admired it but didn’t really connect with it. I thought it was a little too sentimental for my taste at that time.”
The script chronicled the exploits of Zack Mayo, a cocky naval officer who butts heads with his drill instructor (Louis Gossett Jr.) while pursuing a relationship with a local woman (Debra Winger) who helps him break out of his shell. Gere’s initial impression was correct — the movie is too sentimental — but An Officer and a Gentleman made the most of its actors’ chemistry and their salt-of-the-earth believability. New York Times critic Janet Maslin singled out Gere, writing, “Mr. Gere has never been this affecting before; there’s an urgency to his performance, some of it visibly induced by the hard physical work of the basic-training sequences, that cuts right through his manner of detachment.”
Like Rocky, the movie was a gritty, inspirational tale of a nobody trying to make something of himself, and Gere sold it beautifully, bringing real feeling to the mawkishness:
But even then, he wasn’t sure if the movie he was making wasn’t too sappy. Gere famously balked at An Officer and a Gentleman’s ending, which would become its indelible scene — and one of the most famous in the history of Hollywood romances. After a screening in 2012, Gere related the conversation he had on the set with Hackford as they were getting ready to shoot it. “I said, ‘Taylor, c’mon, we’re never going to use this. This is the dopiest ending. We did this really tough movie — c’mon.’ … After we shot it, I still didn’t think it would work.” Later, when he saw the final version with the completed score, he realized he’d been wrong. “I got chills on the back of my neck.”
Audiences did, too. An Officer and a Gentleman was the third-highest-grossing film of 1982, bested only by Tootsie and E.T. Nominated for six Oscars (winning two, including Best Supporting Actor for Gossett), the movie made Gere a movie star, even though he was the only one of the three main actors not to get an Oscar nomination.
He proceeded, however, to star in a series of commercial (and often critical) duds: an American remake of Breathless, The Cotton Club, Power, King David. None of them connected the way that An Officer and a Gentleman had, but they also suggested an actor who wanted to keep pushing and take risks. For instance, he was drawn to his role as a down-on-his-luck trumpeter in The Cotton Club because “I think I always wanted to do a character who, on some level, wanted to be black.”
His 1983 romantic thriller Beyond the Limit, about a doctor caught in the crosshairs of Latin American politics, barely got released; Gere later blasted the studio for trying to sell it as “a sex-in-the-sun movie.” In that same 1988 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he seemed aware that what he wanted to make didn’t square with what Hollywood wanted him to make. “I have very close friends at the studios,” he said, “but most of the parts I would want to do they wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot-pole.”
In a 1996 profile in The Washington Post, Gere’s longtime agent Ed Limato confessed, “We made bad choices. … Richard was getting depressed about it. … At a certain point it was obvious to him that he didn’t have anything that he wanted to do.”
His Hollywood renaissance came in the form of Pretty Woman, the fourth-biggest hit of 1990. It was hardly a challenging film, but as the movie’s predatory businessman Edward Lewis, who softens while falling in love with a prostitute, he radiated old-school charm. The film, however, really belonged to his young costar, Julia Roberts, and like An Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman has an incredibly sappy ending:
In recent years, Gere has sometimes been dismissive of Pretty Woman, saying in 2012, “People ask me about that movie, but I’ve forgotten it. That was a silly romantic comedy. It made [Wall Street types] seem dashing, which was wrong. Thankfully, today, we are all more skeptical of those guys.” (When Graham Norton asked him about the comments later, Gere said he hadn’t made them.) But the fact remains that the rom-com gave him a career redo — which he proceeded to waste with more bad projects. For every Sommersby, a smart romantic drama, there was a Mr. Jones or First Knight. And when he was part of something good, like the 1996 thriller Primal Fear, it was his costar, Edward Norton, who got all the attention — and the Oscar nomination.
The curious, frustrating unpredictability of Gere’s career was perhaps best summed up by The Guardian’s John Patterson, who wrote in 2013: “I’ve been rolling my eyes at Richard Gere for 30 years, alternately alienated and charmed by his good looks and his shockingly evident narcissism and self-regard; his abidingly terrible taste in projects, and the fact that somehow, no matter how many [bad] movies … he makes … sooner or later there will come an end to his lengthy career-drought and, like a flailing magician, he will somehow revive his good name and box office rep.”
Gere’s next commercial magic trick involved reuniting with Roberts for 1999’s Runaway Bride, in which she was now the clear star. But in the aughts, he finally began pursuing projects that allowed him both to take chances and to showcase his talents. He played the lead in Robert Altman’s overlooked Dr. T & the Women, where he starred as a kindly gynecologist under the sway of the many women in his life. He was the husband being cheated on in 2002’s Unfaithful, for which Diane Lane got an Oscar nomination. He won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of a crafty lawyer in Chicago, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.
In 2007’s The Hoax, he played Clifford Irving, a journalist who famously claimed to have co-written Howard Hughes’ autobiography, an assertion that was eventually shot down by the real Hughes, leading to the journalist’s public humiliation. That same year, he was one of the different Bob Dylan guises in the unconventional, riveting biopic I’m Not There. And in 2012, he was the unscrupulous leader of a hedge fund in Arbitrage, completing an arc of sorts of playing failed or flawed men who were far more interesting than the pinups of his early career — men who wanted to be seen as heroic or imposing but who were obviously too crippled by their personal failings to ever become those men.
Referencing his Arbitrage character — but also his recent career choices — Gere confessed, “I’m drawn to playing these characters that you could probably take them in many different ways. They’re definitely an archetype. You could either go whole-hog and make them really dark kind of characters, or you can keep them on the human scale and see the gradations and say, ‘He’s a real asshole, but I kinda like him.’” Gere laughed. “And that’s the way most people are in our real world: We’re all kind of assholes, but we kind of like each other anyhow.”
His character in Norman isn’t an asshole, but he is a person who’s always flirting with darkness — the darkness of being exposed for the failure that he is. And yet nothing stops him. “You’re like a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner,” he’s told in the film. To which Norman simply responds, “But I’m a good swimmer — don’t forget that.”
For Gere, the character reconnected him with his younger self. “It helps that I moved to New York when I was 20,” he said this month. “Everyone goes there as a hustler, on some level. You’re inventing yourself, reinventing yourself, you have some idea of the life you want to live — and you make choices. So his mindset was something I didn’t have to work hard to bring up from the deep recesses in me. I understand that very well.”
And like Gere, Norman just keeps punching. “We see Norman bounce back from incredible insults,” Gere said in the same interview. “People treat him very badly, but he doesn’t hold a grudge. If I was treated that way I’d be destroyed. But there is something extraordinary in him that keeps him in motion.”
If you wanted to conflate the two men, Gere probably wouldn’t object.