In many of Richard Gere’s most popular roles, he plays a hero who earns our sympathies by revealing a deep vulnerability beneath his handsome, romantic, out-of-everyone’s-league exterior. As Navy pilot hopeful Zack Mayo in An Officer and a Gentleman (82), Gere’s cockiness is upended twice; at a military hazing where Zack is forced to admit he can’t quit because he has nowhere else to go, and again when his best friend hangs himself and Zack realizes what he has been fighting for: love. The way Gere navigated both moments were pivotal for the film’s success, with Zack’s coy rebellious posturing gave way to hysterical rage, seething anger and brooding introspection. And redemption: the humble, frightening acknowledgement that he possessed sensitivity. Love lifted him up where he belonged—and Gere’s star power has remained stratospheric ever since.
Born in 1949 and raised in New England, Gere showed an early aptitude for gymnastics and an interest in philosophy; the former laid the foundation for the graceful physicality of his acting, the latter drove him toward storytelling, Buddhism and the activism to which he has dedicated himself since his earliest successes. After making it to the London stage and Broadway, Gere gained traction in Hollywood while pursuing bold material and maverick collaborators. He worked opposite Diane Keaton in Oscar winner Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar (77); with the visionary Terrence Malick on Days of Heaven (78); and with Paul Schrader on the very edgy American Gigolo (80), in which Gere risked his likeability at the exact moment he was establishing himself as a leading man. His fearlessness made waves. An Officer and a Gentleman, and celebrity, followed.
Watching Gere’s characters reluctantly open up is one of the chief joys of charting a career that continues to gain in strength as he enters his fifth decade in the movie business. In Pretty Woman (90), his corporate creep Edward Lewis learns that it’s possible to be honest in his dealings, thanks to a blossoming romance with a lady-of-the-evening. As defense attorney Martin Vail in Primal Fear (96), his skilled manipulation of the law collides with his conscience. And even when his other lawyer, Billy Flynn in Chicago (02), stood on the other side of the moral spectrum, Gere’s delighted self-acceptance was one of the main reasons the film won the Best Picture Academy Award.
And yet, beginning in his 60s, a new force has crept into Gere’s screen roles, something deeper, more personal, more profound. No longer does Gere just show us his humanity—he shows us his fragility, as well. It was felt with full force in Arbitrage (12), where he played corrupt financier Robert Miller, who leverages lies to build his storied Wall Street castle until he boxes himself in. Critic David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, said, “Gere can draw on his past of playing winners, but when things don’t work out Gere looks drawn and desperate…it’s a shock. His impatience and his anger are much closer to the surface; at times, he achieves the self-justifying rage that comes so easily to Al Pacino.”
Gere’s compassion and activism have started to dovetail with his film projects. In 2014, he produced and starred in the homelessness drama Time Out of Mind, which he convinced Owen Moverman to write and direct. The breathtaking film was influenced heavily by European techniques from the 1970s, and Gere’s methodical approach to crafting of George Hammond, a once successful businessman who lost everything, was so deeply committed that he literally disappeared in the role: a scene of Gere begging on the street was filmed with a hidden camera, and not one New Yorker recognized the famous actor as he panhandled.
And now comes Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (16), which will open this year’s Miami Film Festival and marks the third major role in Gere’s new artistic trajectory. Norman, a cognate for “normal”, could be Gere’s most Willy Lomanesque part. Norman brings together people in the realms of business, politics or religion. He’s a broker—that’s all he does. Norman’s talent, and the source of his profit, is pure schmooze. As the noose of narrowing options tightens, Norman must resort to increasingly shadier tactics just to stay afloat… until he’s lucky enough to make a favorable impression on the man who will go on to become the prime minister of Israel. Norman is a story of how people of power and influence will treat each other in a pinch, and Gere, with his newfound mastery of identification, somehow makes us feel that he knows exactly the trail of tiny compromises that every working adult accrues to make it through life. At 67, the force of wisdom Gere has accumulated through 40-plus years in the movie business has fully merged with his stunning body of work. His intelligence, heart and rigor are a beacon for us all.
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