If you guys think Pretty Woman is worth complaining about, you must have never seen American Gigolo. This homophobic, racist mess is an unfortunate turn for my beloved Richard Gere, who may be certifiably Obsessed With Sex Workers. He and Steven Soderbergh and Tina Fey are going to make a pretty wild movie together someday, I can just tell.
But we can’t move into the future without looking into the past, and what a blast from the past this is. This film really ushered in trademark 80s male styles like blousy monochrome suits in grey and…well, that’s pretty much the only style. Also, hideous ties. The opening scenes of Julian Kaye (Gere) are of him in shockingly high-waisted, crotch-hugging silk blend pants escorting around an older lady in a fur. I would love to know what Bettie makes of these “fashions.” Also, there’s no way Gere is riding around with his convertible top down in weather that necessitates his date wearing a fur coat. (As if California weather could ever necessitate such a thing.) We see him and her shopping for clothes—for him, which he badly needs—and then nuzzling goodbye at the door of what appears to be a single level ranch home. Her smile seems to say “Well done! You spent a shit ton of my husband’s money and gave me not a single orgasm.” Welcome to the world of straight male escorting.
Julian’s main pimp is a blonde Swedish woman who says cringe-worthy things like, “It ain’t fair,” and encourages her girls to sunbathe topless on her balcony as she herself swans around in an unbuttoned man’s shirt. Apparently, madam professionalism hadn’t been invented yet, but she does have an upcoming date for Julian that pays $1,000. That was probably like $50,000 back in the day. Julian demands that he get a 60/40 cut, which the madam first protests and then consents to. He wins her over with his argument that all the other guys who work for her are “retarded faggots.”
I admit that I’m a little unclear on how Julian works. Sometimes he gets explicit dates through a pimp, I guess, and other times he finesses paid sex with women he chauffeurs. He wins one over by awkwardly spouting a bunch of stuff about how well he knows her hotel and how he used to work as a pool boy there. Because older women are aroused by inappropriate self-disclosure and a blue collar background? Most of the men I see do not want me to start nervously rattling off facts about myself, let alone how intimately familiar I am with a particular hotel. I would imagine that goes both ways, but I’m not a 50 year old woman with access to a millionaire husband’s back account, so what do I know?
Julian stays in shape by hanging upside down, lifting weights, and doing crotch thrusts in front of the mirror while he talks on the phone. (Not kidding.) His routine reminded me of Demi Moore’s in Striptease, where she goes all out to “Little Bird” in what is a blatant pander to the audience’s desire to stare at a barely dressed star for a few minutes without being accused of perving. (“The narrative arc made me do it!”) All of these shots of his apartment and his workout routine and his piles of indistinguishable shirts are, of course, to drive home the fact that the guy makes a lot of money with his body. But at what price to his soul?
Eventually it’s revealed that Julian is a suspect in the murder of a woman whose husband hired Julian to have rough sex with her. He didn’t do it—the rough sex or the murder, though we are treated to a traumatizing scene of him murmuring things to a bombed-out-of-her-mind wife like, “You’re a very sexy lady. You’re a very good looking woman. I’m going to get you wet. I’m going to get you very wet. I know how to do this.” Ahh!—and he was with another client at the time of the latter, but Alibi Client denies that when the police visit her. The Swedish madam admits that she believes Julian did it, and so our hero is left without a friend in the world save for Senator’s wife Michelle (Lauren Hutton,) a woman he initially tried to pick up as a client but with whom he then began a non-paying relationship.
Hutton’s acting is the best thing about the movie. (Yes, even better than the full frontal shot of nude Richard Gere, mainly because it’s more of a full profile shot, and flaccid Little Gere is mostly hidden by pubic hair.) Her performance is playful and nuanced, and she’s insanely beautiful, which makes her fun to have around. But her character is one screwed up lady. After realizing what Julian does when she first meets him at a hotel bar, she asks how much he would have charged to “fuck” her, which is the type of thing that would immediately make me blackball someone. Or, if they were as hot as Lauren Hutton, immediately fuck them for free. Still, how rude. Julian extricates himself from the situation only to have Michelle track him down and show up at his apartment when she delivers the following terrifying emotional purge
I thought it would be easier. To be with you, to procure you. [...] I came here. I found out who you were, where you lived. I came there in the middle of the night. I wanted to know what it would be like to fuck you. I brought money. What more can I do?
If a guy client were doing this to a female escort and she didn’t run screaming, she’d have a death wish. But because it’s a hot woman doing the stalking, it’s supposed to be touching. We know, though, that Michelle is basically the female equivalent of the Jason Alexander character in Pretty Woman: disrespectful, entitled, with a criminal lack of boundaries. She’s on the verge of tears during her speech and Julian responds by tenderly stroking her face with his finger. (He loves this move. He thinks chicks dig it.) Then they have unpaid sex. Later she’ll tell him, in what is the best line of the movie, “When you make love, you go to work.”
Julian eventually realizes that he’s been framed by gay pimp Leon, the movie’s only black character and, according to the film, a manipulative, slimy man motived only by his love of money and depraved (i.e. gay) sex. Leon’s (white) nameless boyfriend accidentally killed the woman while he was fulfilling the husband’s demands, and Leon realized Julian would be an easy fall guy because “no one cares” about him. It was just an added bonus for Leon that, after the framing destroys his existing client list, a once-snooty Julian becomes desperate enough to offer himself up for the types of jobs he’d never take in the past. (“I’ll do fag tricks, I’ll do kink.”) Julian, in a completely implausible accident, kills Leon by knocking him over a high rise balcony, and the audience understands that, while putting Julian in a bad position with the police, this is karmically appropriate. Bad guy vanquished. Thank god the viewers won’t have to deal with any more people of color or gay guys again!
I like seeing what movie critics make of sex worker movies because their reactions are usually so different than my own. Rogert Ebert loved the movie, and wrote that Julian is “so sympathetic that we forgive him his profession.” But prostituting isn’t something a person needs to be “forgiven” for and in spite of the movie’s many other failings, it’s strong on this point: Julian isn’t hurting anyone. In a scene with Michelle, he explains his pride in giving a woman her first orgasm in ten years. There is some misogyny in his description, which has him claiming that no one else would “take the time” (“three hours”) to “get it right”—because older women are sexually repulsive, presumably, or no one else is as hot in bed as he is. But at no point do we see his clients suffering as a result of having hired him. They’re assholes, but they’re also prisoners of their unfulfilling marriages and rigid social codes.
American Gigolo gets a fail from me, but I’m not a fan of movies that depict all prostitution as part of a larger network of drug running and gang or mob violence. (I also hated 1986’s Mona Lisa.) So that alone would have put me off, but add in the homophobia and racism and the whole package is pretty hard to take. I find Pretty Woman slightly more redeeming and much more fun…and tomorrow, I’ll tell you all the reasons why.