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The Essentials: The 10 Best Richard Gere Performances

The Essentials: The 10 Best Richard Gere Performances

Oren Moverman’s “Time Out Of Mind” hits theaters this week. It’s a very, very good film from the “Rampart” director, starring Richard Gere as a troubled homeless man in a performance that’s been getting awards buzz since the movie debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.

Gere, who turned 66 a few weeks ago, began his career in the theater (he starred in the original London production of “Grease”), before making his first film appearance in Terrence Malick’s “Days Of Heaven.” Though he’d become best known as a romantic lead (particularly when paired with Julia Roberts or Diane Lane), he’d occasionally embrace his darker side, all the while maintaining a reputation as a campaigner for human rights, with a particular focus on Tibet.

With “Time Out Of Mind,” one of the very best performances of his career, arriving in theaters, we thought it was time to take a look back at Gere’s best roles. Take a look at our ten essential Gere turns below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments.

“Days Of Heaven” (1978)

He’s never had much of a reputation as an actor’s director (perhaps because actors often don’t know if they’re in his movies until they see the finished thing), but that doesn’t mean that Terrence Malick isn’t able to get phenomenal performances out of his actors. To wit: Gere’s star-making turn in “Days Of Heaven,” which followed hot on the heels of the actor’s notable supporting performance in Richard Brooks’ “Looking For Mr. Goodbar,” though it was actually shot beforehand. Malick’s second feature after “Badlands” sees Gere as a Chicago steelworker in 1916 who flees to Texas with his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) after accidentally killing his boss, and ends up in a love triangle with the wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard) that they’re working for. An impossibly rich, beautiful melodrama (famously shot largely at magic hour), this film, much more than “Badlands,” cements Malick’s trademark style, with the Texan landscape looming large over and arguably overshadowing the players, but Gere, who was second-choice to John Travolta, is entirely effective in the lead role. He’s less of a blank canvas than some of Malick’s leading men, displaying a nervy energy, constantly squaring up against the world and finding it beating him down —it’s a part that you could imagine a young James Dean playing. His manipulations eventually lead to greater tragedies for all involved, and though the film belongs to his character’s sister (Linda Manz), it’s Gere’s portrait of insecure, jealous masculinity that leaves the greatest impression.

“American Gigolo” (1980)

The movie that put Gere firmly on the A-list (only after he battled off Travolta once again, and after Christopher Reeve turned it down), “American Gigolo” marks a perfect midpoint between sleazy L.A. sexploitation movie and Bressonian character drama. The third directorial effort from “Taxi Driver” writer Paul Schrader sees Gere as Julian Kaye, a gorgeous male escort  who ends up framed for the murder of a client. An early delve into the materialistic, me-first culture of the 1980s, the film’s more successful in its examination of the day-to-day existence of an escort than it is at being a noir movie (there’s little surprise in the way the crime plot plays out, though actors like Lauren Hutton as a potential alibi, Hector Elizondo as the cop tracking Gere, and Bill Duke as his pimp, add some color), with Schrader giving a cool sense of detachment to the sunny sleaze of his environment. Though imperfect, the film has the perfect lead in Gere, a cock of the walk seemingly more attracted to his own reflection than to any of his clients who becomes positively desperate as his life unravels. Gere’s always been a deceptively brave actor, and that’s shown clearly here: as he’d later tell Entertainment Weekly, he embraced the film’s gay subtext and nudity, saying “I wanted to immerse myself in all of that.”

“An Officer And A Gentleman” (1982)

A sort of proto-“Top Gun,” Taylor Hackford’s “An Officer And A Gentleman” was a big, unashamed popular hit that established Gere as the romantic lead that he’d occupy for much of the next decade, and proved to be an unlikely awards success as well (winning two Oscars and picking up a further four nominations). Written by “The Blue Lagoon”’s Douglas Day Stewart, the film sees Gere as a recent college grad (he was 33 when the film was released) who heads to the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School in order to fulfil his dream of becoming a jet pilot, clashing with tough drill sergeant Louis Gossett Jr. (who won an Oscar), and falling in love with local factory worker Debra Winger. It’s broad, populist stuff, but Hackford gives the film more grit and steel than you might remember, which only makes it work more like gangbusters when the rousing love-lifts-us-up-where-we-belong finale arrives. Both leads are terrific, but Gere deserved an Oscar nod alongside Winger, displaying a sort of working-class determination that’s closer to “Days Of Heaven” than to “American Gigolo.”

“Breathless” (1983)

It’s certainly a complement to be given a role in a remake of one of the great incarnations of cinematic cool, thanks to Jean-Paul Belmondo. But while Jim McBride’s “Breathless,” a remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s stone-cold Nouveau Vague classic “À Bout De Souffle,” can’t match up to its predecessor, it’s nevertheless an interesting picture that features some great work from Gere. A deeply ’80s movie even as it tips its head to ’50s rockabilly atmosphere and Godard’s original, it sees the star in Belmondo’s shoes as Jesse, a comic-book loving Vegas drifter who kills a cop and reunites with a French flame (Valérie Kaprisky) to go on the run. McBride’s film has a distinct look and feel, beautifully shot in neon and pastel by Richard H. Kline (“Body Heat”), but it feels rather more effortful than the lovingly tossed-off (we mean this as a complement…) vibe of Godard’s original. The same extends to Gere, who’s more restless and needy than Belmondo ever was, but it helps him stand apart from the source material a little more, creating a slightly mad version of the rebel without a cause that makes him feel less cool and more alien, closer to a David Lynch creation than something more familiar.

“The Cotton Club” (1984)

Somewhat underrated in the Francis Ford Coppola canon, “The Cotton Club” isn’t on the level of “The Godfather,” but it’s still a rich and compelling organized crime tale, with one of Gere’s best performances at its center. A jazz-age epic based on James Haskins’ novel (originally intended to be directed by “Godfather” producer Robert Evans before he got cold feet at the last minute and asked Coppola, who’d co-written the script, to step in —the film went on to go famously over budget, causing a rift between the two), it sees Gere play trumpeter Dixie Twyer, who lands a job at the mobster-owned Cotton Club (with mostly black performers and a mostly white audience), making an enemy of gangster Dutch Shultz (James Remar) when he falls for his moll Vera (Diane Lane). While the film is visually lavish, the script (which reportedly went through dozens of drafts in just a few weeks) doesn’t quite manage to capture the novel’s scope —these days, you suspect it’d turn out as a TV series, which would better capture the sprawling storylines. But Coppola keeps the film rattling along, creating a deep well of sadness amid the music, and Gere is superb, translating better to the 1920s than you’d think for such a 1980s icon, and having the generosity not to dominate, letting supporting players like Gregory Hines and Bob Hoskins share the spotlight.

“Pretty Woman” (1990)

“Pretty Woman” is without a doubt Julia Roberts’ film —it launched her career and reinvigorated the rom-com genre. Roberts may dominate herein because of her on-point comedic timing and physicality, but Gere does an awful lot to shine a light on her. What makes Gere’s performance work in this movie, despite having dubbed it ‘silly,’ is his ability in providing space for Roberts to play off him, as well as his witty improvisations that provide some of the golden moments in the film. Take the iconic scene where his Edward snaps the necklace case down on Vivian’s fingers. If Gere had not thought of executing such a simple in-the-moment action, we wouldn’t have Roberts’ genuine bellowing laughter echoing through time. The rom-com genre thrives on the chemistry of its lead actors, and it definitely takes two to tango. It’s hard to imagine what “Pretty Woman” would have been without Gere’s charisma, and his rapport with Roberts takes a premise that could easily be tawdry and makes it into a true fairy tale. 

“Primal Fear” (1996)

The 1990s and 2000s saw Gere starring in a host of mainstream thrillers, most of which were somewhat ropey —“Red Corner,” “The Jackal,” “The Mothman Prophecies,” etc. The pick of the bunch is undoubtedly “Primal Fear.” Yes, Gregory Holbit’s film (based on the novel by William Diehl and a big hit at a time when John Grisham movies were the “Fast & Furious” franchise of their day) is a courtroom thriller, but it’s made and acted with rare skill, and has a killer story. Gere stars as an unscrupulous, fame-hungry defense attorney who takes on a tough case concerning a young man (Edward Norton) accused of murdering a beloved Archbishop, which becomes much tougher when he discovers first that Norton was molested by the man he killed, and then that Norton appears to have multiple personality disorder. With a nice Lumet-ian depiction of corrupt Chicago institutions in the background and a killer twist up its sleeve, the film’s dominated by Norton (in his first role, and an Oscar-nominated one), but Gere’s quietly just as good: he’s the smoothest of smooth operators who ends up discovering he wasn’t the smartest person in the room after all.

“Chicago” (2002)

Having begun his career in a stage production of “Grease,” Gere belatedly returned to the musical genre for this Oscar-winner from director Rob Marshall. Though he wasn’t nominated as several of his co-stars were, he contributed a terrific performance that helped to revitalize his career. As conniving, money-minded attorney Billy Flynn, Gere racks up as much drama as he does dollar bills with every tap of his shoe. This role feels made for him —he manages to balance between his own signature charm and Flynn’s cartoon villainy, but at no point does he dive into caricature or attempt to upstage costars Renee Zellwegger or Catherine Zeta-Jones. While Gere’s melding of self and character may seem effortless, the musical numbers required what he stated was some of the hardest training he’s ever done for a film. One of the most enjoyable numbers is Gere’s rendition of “We Both Reached for the Gun”: It shows that despite being past his 50s, he is still nimble enough to puppeteer us with his razzle-dazzle.

“I’m Not There” (2007)

Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” is a creature all its own. It’s a biopic designed to deconstruct the very nature of the Hollywood biopic and to capture the many aspects of a shape shifting musician united under the monker Bob Dylan. Less focused on the “facts” of Dylan’s life, “I’m Not There” traces instead the themes and spiritual motifs of his work. The film employed six great performances to link the disparate threads together while making them stand firm on their own, and that’s exactly what it got. And while the best of these six might just be Cate Blanchett’s Jude Quinn (because, let’s be honest, has anyone else ever captured quintessential Dylan like her?), Gere’s soulful portrayal of Billy McCarty provides a perfect respite, lending the film a quiet thoughtfulness it might not have needed but certainly benefited from. Gere plays Billy with a reflective timidity, a post motorcycle crash Dylan looking for peace in anonymity, who, when pressed, is still quick to fight the good fight. And when that final, impossible-as-it-may-be moment comes and Billy finds Woody’s guitar, Gere makes it hard to not to feel the power of his conviction and the loom of true legacy.

Arbitrage” (2012)

Far fewer films have been made about the last decade’s financial collapse than anyone might have predicted at the scandal-dominated peak of the crisis in 2008, when CEOs and bankers were lying through their teeth in front of congress and walking away will millions. Of the films that have tried, very few have succeeded at turning the jargon-heavy talkers that the genre necessitates into something worth watching. Of those that succeeded (see J.C. Chandor’s excellent “Margin Call”), the ones that triumphed explored the ruthlessness and infinite hunger that drove the men and women at the top. All of this is to say that Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage” needed a ruthless bastard so compelling that audiences would double over with suspense at watching him throw everyone in his life under the bus to get ahead and make another buck (or cool million). It’s almost safe to say that no one except a top-of-his-form Gere could have pulled off Robert Miller, a man so corrupted by power and wealth that many other actors might have turned the role into a caricature. But with Gere’s suave sophistication, his on command charm, and that sly grin, it’s easy to see why he’s inspired so much trust in those around him and we’re left damn near rooting for him to pull it off and get away with murder (in this case, manslaughter).

Honorable Mentions: Across a forty-year career, there’s been plenty more to mention from Gere, even with respect to his occasional dry patches. Among them are his menacingly sexy turn opposite Diane Keaton in “Looking For Mr. Goodbar,” John Schlesinger’s decent “Yanks,” Sidney Lumet’s underrated “Power,” co-starring Denzel Washington, Julie Christie and Gene Hackman, his great turn as a corrupt cop in Mike Figgis’ “Internal Affairs,” Gary Sinise’s solid drama “Miles From Home” and his cameo in Akira Kurosawa’s “Rhapsody In August” (how many American stars can say that they worked with Kurosawa?)

Hitchcock homage “Final Analysis” with Kim Basinger isn’t bad, and neither is post-Civil War drama “Sommersby” with Jodie Foster. He’s good in a small role in the HBO AIDS drama “And The Band Played On,” is on charming form in “Runaway Bride” and even “Shall We Dance?” and is an effective villain opposite old co-star Diane Lane in “Unfaithful.” “The Hoax” is tepid, but Gere’s very good in it, while not enough people saw war correspondent drama “The Hunting Party,” co-starring Jesse Eisenberg and Terrence Howard. More recently, he was also good as an aging cop in Antoine Fuqua’s “Brooklyn’s Finest.”

— Oliver Lyttelton, Gary Garrison, Jillian Tan

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