While he was teaching screenwriting at the UCLA Film School, American director and screenwriter Paul Schrader got a character idea during one of his class exercises. The idea in question was that of a man who makes a living by offering sexual services to rich older women. Schrader would eventually make this character into the protagonist of his third directorial feature, one he would name American Gigolo. By that point, the filmmaker who had substituted becoming a minister with delving into the wondrous world of cinema already had four screenplays for other directors (Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and John Flynn) under his belt, and also penned scripts for both his directorial debut (the 1978 crime film Blue Collar, co-written with his brother Leonard) and his second feature, the 1979 neo-noir drama Hardcore. With American Gigolo, Schrader made an iconic film that propelled Richard Gere into stardom, earning him the status of a sex symbol and establishing him as a leading man worthy of the world’s attention.
Interestingly enough, the future Golden Globe winner (Chicago) was not the first choice for the part of the titular character. The role of Julian Kaye was offered to Christopher Reeve who respectfully declined the offer, with John Travolta getting cast in his stead. But Travolta reportedly got cold feet so the part ultimately went to Gere, which was neither the first nor the last time the latter would replace the former in a motion picture (Travolta turned down the offer to play Bill in Days of Heaven in 1978 and would go on to pass on both An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Chicago (2002)). But because Travolta was initially set to star in American Gigolo, Giorgio Armani became involved in the project, supplying the actor with numerous clothing items. It is, therefore, generally considered that Schrader’s film is to be thanked for Armani becoming the next big thing in Hollywood. According to Schrader: “Travolta was originally going to star, and his manager suggested Armani because he knew that he was on the verge of becoming big. We all went to Milan and Giorgio was just getting ready to go into an international non-couture line, so the film synced up perfectly with what he was up to. John dropped out at the last moment and Richard came in, but we kept all the Armani clothes. It was just a matter of tailoring. I've worked with Giorgio subsequently, but the last time I tried to pull him into a film his representative told me: ‘We don't do films anymore. It's too much work. We prefer to just do the red carpet!’ That's where the money is!”
Apart from Gere attaining his leading man status and Armani making it big in the American film industry, American Gigolo also made waves for being the first film to feature a major Hollywood actor doing full-frontal nudity, albeit rather briefly. When talking about why he accepted the main role to begin with, Gere expressed his fascination with the character whose lifestyle was a far cry from his own: “This is a character I don't know very well. I don't own a suit. He speaks languages; I don't speak any languages. There's kind of a gay thing that's flirting through it and I didn't know the gay community at all. I wanted to immerse myself in all of that and I had literally two weeks. So I just dove in. If I recall, [the nudity] wasn't in the script. It was just in the natural process of making the movie. I certainly felt vulnerable, but I think it's different for men than women.” And dive in he did indeed, providing viewers with a mesmerizing performance they are highly unlikely to forget.
Gere portrays Julian “Julie” Kaye, a male escort whose well-paid job enables him to live a life of luxury and leisure. If you asked Kaye, being a gigolo is not just about making money but also about serving a purpose in the process of said money-making—the purpose in question being “giving pleasure to women”. And while he very well may spend his business hours making (older, often married) women climax and keeping them company under the guise of either a chauffeur or a tourist guide, the truth of the matter is that he is as lonely as can be, although blissfully unaware of the fact. Both his internal and external reality begin to shift when he meets Michelle (played by Lauren Hutton, after Julie Christie bowed out and Meryl Streep declined the role), a state senator’s wife who pursues him romantically and sexually. But becoming unexpectedly emotionally invested turns out to be the least of his problems. When Julian agrees to do his friend Leon a favor by substituting on a gig involving a voyeuristic rich financier who enjoys watching other men engage in S&M sex with his wife Judy, he unknowingly passes the point of no return. For Judy would later on be discovered dead, with Julian becoming the main suspect in the murder case.
Believing that he is being framed for a crime he did not commit, Julian begins to unravel, slowly realizing that the people he thought would be in his corner—are in fact not. In that respect, American Gigolo establishes itself as a well-written character study with an emphasis on loneliness. Like many of Schrader’s characters, Julian is, in fact, a lone wolf, even though the requirements of his profession would have us believe otherwise. Therefore, the whodunnit noir storyline of the movie, an intriguing narrative element in and of itself, becomes the main catalyst for Julian’s character development, kickstarting his internal journey which is primarily characterized by his newfound awareness of just how profoundly alone he actually is. While getting to the bottom of who it was that framed him and seeing the people in his life turn their backs on him the moment he ceases to be a commodity, Julian tries to navigate his blossoming relationship with the wife of a senator, still oblivious to the fact that she herself is the antidote for his psychological malady. For Michelle not only holds in her possession the metaphorical key to Julian’s freedom, both emotional and physical, but she also does not discriminate against him on the grounds of his chosen profession. And neither does Schrader, who writes his protagonist in an intimate, sympathetic way without passing any judgment.
The filmmaker himself stated that French director Robert Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket profoundly influenced American Gigolo, with elements of Gigolo’s final shot paying obvious tribute to one of Bresson’s best movies. As Schrader said: “At the end of American Gigolo, I wanted to perversely plunge my lizardy protagonist into icy Bressonian waters, so I lifted the ending of Pickpocket and gave it to Julian Kaye. A grace note as unwarranted as Christ's promise to the thief on the cross.” Gigolo also served as the inspiration for Schrader’s 2007 movie The Walker (starring Woody Harrelson), which was originally intended as a direct sequel to Gigolo, but ended up being a stand-alone film that centers around a middle-aged gay man whose job is to escort wives to social events in their husbands’ stead.
Apart from its well-written story, the all-prevailing theme of loneliness that creeps to the surface even when we are witnessing Julian leading a seemingly fulfilling, prosperous and self-indulgent life, as well as its undeniable style provided by both Armani and Italian art director Ferdinando Scarfiotti, American Gigolo also triumphs music-wise. The Golden Globe-nominated score was composed by Giorgio Moroder who wrote the movie’s theme song Call Me (which also garnered a Golden Globe nomination) along with Blondie singer Debbie Harry. The song, performed, of course, by Blondie, became an enormous global success and the best-selling single of 1980 in the US. Taking all of this into account, it is safe to say that Schrader’s Gigolo could and should be considered one of the most exciting films of the 1980s, managing to hold merit even forty years after its initial release.