Richard Gere has coincidently starred in two iconic movies that centered around prostitutes in LA. American Gigolo came out in 1980 followed by Pretty Woman ten years later in 1990. Until recently when I re-watched both I didn’t stop to think about the parallels between the two. Or how they both feature Hector Elizondo. Let’s compare and contrast for their anniversaries.
American Gigolo tells the story of Julian Kaye, a high-class male escort. He’s refined, elegant, classy, wears designer suits, and speaks multiple languages. His clients, wealthy older women, continually seek out his services. Things are going well for Julian until he is set up with a bad trick. That woman ends up dead not long after their encounter and her murder is pinned on him. In the midst of all this he meets Michelle (Lauren Hutton), a rich politician’s wife. They fall for each other as he attempts to clear his name.
Pretty Woman finds Gere playing Edward Lewis a powerful corporate raider that happens upon Vivian (Julia Roberts), a prostitute, one night on Hollywood Blvd. They have an instant connection and he hires her as his escort for the week. Rough around the edges Vivian is out of place in his high society world. Despite their differences, though, they grow closer and take their relationship beyond a business arrangement.
Romance takes a back seat to the mystery in Gigolo. It makes sense. This is a thriller, not a love story. But, the relationship between Julian and Michelle could have been developed more. They meet, chat for a few minutes, and instantly she’s obsessed with him. At one point she stalks him through the streets of Westwood. It’s unclear why she is so drawn to him, aside from his looks and charm. We never know her motivations because her character is so paper thin. She exists primarily to prop up Julian. After he gets framed, Michelle risks everything to help prove his innocence. She is the only one who cares about him, but the film doesn’t give us any reason to care about her. For his part, I think what makes her most desirable to Julian is her extreme devotion to him.
The relationship between Edward and Vivian is at the forefront of Woman. It’s actually a great story about two people falling in love. Over the course of the movie they share intimate details about themselves and get to know each other. Edward tells Vivian about his heartless father leaving his family and how that shaped him as a person. She responds by letting him in on her rocky upbringing. They feel comfortable being vulnerable with one another. There’s also the romantic dates and beautiful love scenes. At one point, Vivian breaks her rule about not kissing a client on the mouth because by that point Edward is no longer just another number.
Interestingly, in both movies Gere’s characters think they don’t need love or are incapable of maintaining a real relationship. Julian sees women as transactions. He’s not looking for any attachments until Michelle comes along and changes his thinking. But he pushes her away after he’s arrested for murder, telling her he’s not worth ruining her life. He doesn’t want to drag her down. She ignores him and stays by his side, proving to him that he is worthy. Similarly, because of his past family drama Edward doesn’t make room in his life for love. In the opening scene of the film his girlfriend dumps him because he won’t make her a priority in his life. He nearly ruins things with Vivian too. When she tells him that she loves him, he doesn’t share how he really feels. Instead he offers to make her a kept woman, as if money is what she wants. He finally gets a clue at the end of the movie and shows Vivian how much he loves her.
As mentioned earlier, Hector Elizondo is a prominent player in both films. In Gigolo he’s Detective Sunday, the cop overseeing the murder investigation. He doggedly pursues Julian, eager to find him guilty. Woman finds him playing Barney Thompson, the manager of the Beverly Hills hotel where Edward is staying. He takes pity on Vivian when she’s shunned by the snooty Rodeo Drive sales ladies, becoming her confidant. In both instances, Elizondo brings something interesting to what could have been two ordinary roles. A dash of humor and some flair. Also, in the case of Woman, a pretty obvious toupee.
These films have some truly horrible villains. There’s Leon (Bill Duke) the vengeful pimp. Julian left him years before the movie starts and he’s been pissed ever since. Spoiler alert…Leon is the one who is framing Julian. Woman has Stuckey, played with an incredible amount of sliminess by Jason Alexander. He’s Edward’s lawyer who can’t stand it when his client wants to focus less on making money and more on love. At one point, Stuckey tries to rape Vivian. Luckily, Edward arrives and kicks his ass. He actually ends up better off than Leon who gets pushed off a balcony. He had it coming.
Also, old Hollywood star Ralph Bellamy makes his last film appearance in Woman as the owner of a company that Edward is trying to take over. It’s a small part, but not a bad way to end your career. Plus, Bellamy was probably glad he hung around long enough so that Disorderlies wasn’t his last film.
Gigolo begins with Julian driving down the California coast in his Mercedes as Blondie’s “Call Me” blares from the radio. Of course, the title and lyrics are prefect for a movie about a call boy, but the track also captures the feel of the early 80s. A little bit of leftover disco with some rock sprinkled in. Pieces of “Call Me” show up in the movie’s score. Sometimes upbeat, sometimes eerie. It’s a versatile piece of music. Famed disco producer, Giorgio Moroder, composed the song and the rest of Gigolo’s soundtrack. The album went to #7 on the Billboard 200 and “Call Me” spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard 100. I’m also a fan of the Cheryl Barnes song “Love and Passion” that plays in a disco scene. It’s a fun track.
You can’t think of Pretty Woman without hearing Roy Orbion’s classic “Oh Pretty Woman” that inspired the film’s title. Originally released in 1964, the song was launched back into the zeitgeist when the movie came out. It pops up during one of the best shopping montages in cinematic history. Not an exaggeration, I love seeing Vivian shop. The soundtrack would go on to be certified triple platinum and produce hits like Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love”, Natalie Cole’s “Wild Women”, and Go West’s “King of Wishful Thinking”. Classic early 90s tunes.
At the time of its release Gigolo was a novel concept. You didn’t find too many narratives about male prostitutes back them. Moreover, you didn’t often see men sexualized in the way that the film does. Director Paul Schrader celebrates Gere’s beauty in almost every scene, training the camera on his amazing face and body. This was the first mainstream movie where the male lead does full frontal nudity. And it’s not just a quick flash. So much of Gigolo is about visuals really, from the fashion to the lighting to the ornate sets. I wish there was an equal amount of substance. Yes, the film is beautiful to look at, but it often feels empty. The writing is clunky at times and the mystery, in particular, is weak. Despite these faults, Gigolo is an interesting time capsule from the early 80s.
Woman’s premise doesn’t seem like something that you could make an endearing romantic comedy out of. A fairytale love story between a prostitute and her john? That goes beyond your typical hooker with a heart of gold story. But it works. The star power from the leads, their chemistry, and a winning screenplay all come together nicely. Director Gary Marshall crafted a timeless film that holds up years later. You could come across Woman on TV (probably Bravo on a Sunday afternoon) and be just as engaged as audiences were back in 1990. The sign of a true classic.