Gere Shifts Away From Hollywood : He Calls Handling of 2 of His Films a ‘Failure of Courage’

Times Staff Writer

Richard Gere, those familiar brown eyes on fire, is becoming repetitive. For more than an hour he has eloquently traveled a spectrum of topics, from repression in Central America to the fragility of blood relations, without retracing a single step. But now he is talking about the big Hollywood studios, and he continues to apply the same three words: “failure of courage.”

Gere applies that label generally to established Hollywood, and specifically to its handling of two of his films, “King David” (1985), which he says was “a failure of courage by all of us,” and “The Honorary Consul” (1983), which also was released as “Beyond the Limit.” Paramount Pictures, he complains, “didn’t have a clue as to what to do” with those two films.

“The Honorary Consul’ could have been made a harder movie if Paramount hadn’t gotten in the way,” he says. “It was an attempt at a serious movie about politics in Latin America. But at the last minute the studio changed the title, put some tacky poster on it and threw it out there as a sex-in-the-sun movie.” (At Paramount, where the marketing regime has changed since that film’s release, a spokeswoman declined comment.)


Is Gere rationalizing his checkered track record since 1982, when the box-office success of Paramount’s “An Officer and a Gentleman” pushed him to the top of every studio executive’s most wanted list? Maybe. Gere certainly has had some unhappy experiences since carrying Debra Winger off into the sunset.

But the actor seems genuinely fed up with commercial Hollywood, and he’s checking out--at least for now. “I have very close friends at the studios,” he says. “But most of the parts I would want to do they wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot-pole.”

His new film, “Miles From Home,” was financed by the independent Cinecom Pictures, a New York-based company known for its classy productions. Gere took an upfront fee on the film of only $125,000.

A film debut by theater director Gary Sinise, “Miles From Home” already is being tagged by audiences as an “artistic” film--as uncommercial as the Bruce Springsteen song that inspired it, “Highway Patrolman.” Since its release three weeks ago, the low-budget film has grossed $165,000 on nine screens.

It’s the story of two brothers facing the bankruptcy of their family farm. Unwilling to hand it over to creditors, the older brother--a volatile, unpredictable Frank Roberts, played by Gere--decides to burn it down. That sets into motion their flight from the law and their transformation into folk heroes. The event also brings to the surface long-simmering conflicts between the brothers, and memories of their dead father, who had built a farm so successful that it attracted a visit from then-Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev. “The key to the film is the relationship between brothers,” says Gere. “It’s essentially about guilt.”

Don’t look for Gere in another “Officer and a Gentleman” anytime soon--even though he says the making of that romantic drama “was a great time, it was a really nice group of people . . . even Debra.”

His experience since then, though, hasn’t always been happy. Two years later came the nightmarish production of “The Cotton Club.” “It was so bizarre working on that movie,” Gere says. “There was no script . . . There were levels of madness there that will never be surpassed in movie-making.”

Gere’s most recent experience at the box office has been similarly unpleasant. His 1986 film, “Power"--like “King David” and “Honorary Consul"--flopped. And last year’s potentially commercial thriller, “No Mercy,” co-starring Kim Basinger, was a disappointment. “We were surprised it wasn’t received better,” Gere says. “I think it’s unlikely I’ll do another film like that.”

For now, Gere seems content to make artistically satisfying films that don’t promise much response from a mass audience. His upcoming projects are as uncommercial as “Miles From Home.”

One of those projects is a Cinecom production of “Bent,” the acclaimed play about a gay prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Gere played the same role in a 1979 Broadway production.

Also on Gere’s agenda is “Imagining Argentina,” a project in development at Columbia Pictures. Lawrence Thornton’s riveting book about an Argentinian theater director who has the power to imagine the individual fates of the country’s “disappeareds” won the 1987 Ernest Hemingway Foundation award. But it’s not the kind of material likely to draw lines of moviegoers at suburban shopping malls.

“All of my projects fall into two categories,” Gere says. “One is human rights, the other is flying.” Flying? Yes, as in fantasy--as in Italo Calvino’s “Baron in the Trees,” the story of an 18th-Century nobleman who rebels against his parents and the strictures of his life by climbing a tree, never to return.

Richard Gere rarely grants interviews. In the past he has complained about media treatment of him as a sex symbol. He was also shy and often inarticulate. There was the time, for example, that he couldn’t handle the pressure during the taping of an NBC interview: With the cameras rolling, he covered his face with his hands--"like a child,” “Today” show film critic Gene Shalit told Ms. magazine. (Gere completed the interview after the show’s producer invited him back for another try.)

But at age 39, his dark hair graying, Gere has developed a confident, even commanding, presence. His discussion of his political views and activities is strikingly sophisticated and hard-headed.

Gere says he learned how to deal with the media during research for the 1986 “Power,” a Sidney Lumet-directed drama about the life of a political consultant. Research on that film--and the time he spent with media consultants like Republican Roger Ailes and Democrat Pat Caddell--also clued Gere into how to use the political system “in a positive way.”

“Like any machine, you can use it for good, bad or whatever,” Gere says. “I think (the research on ‘Power’) showed me a way to get involved with things I knew about.”

For Gere, that means human rights--particularly in Central America and Tibet. A Buddhist, Gere has used his celebrity to bring attention to the plight of the Tibetans, who have been subject to the repressive rule by the Chinese government, according to human rights organizations.

Gere chairs and is a fund-raiser for the Tibet House in New York, formed to advance Tibetan art and culture, much of which was destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Gere is also one of the organizers of “The Year of Tibet” in 1990, during which an exhibit of Tibetan Buddhist art will travel to U.S. museums.

He is taking a similar strategy with his interest in Central America, which he toured two years ago alongside Charles Clements, an American physician who once treated the local population in a war-torn section of El Salvador.

“What Charlie couldn’t get into, I’d get in to see because I was an actor. I was the movie star--the officer and a gentleman. They’d hand me a machete,” Gere recalls. “We saw our generals and their generals, people on all sides (of the conflict), so that if I did feel I wanted to speak about this I would have the experience of having spoken to both sides.”

Gere, who says “the depth of the madness there surprised me,” then engineered appearances for Clements on TV talk shows. He now wants to make a movie based on Clements’ life.

All of this is part of the Gere theory on how film and political action intersect: “I’m not interested in concepts as much as emotion.” That is, an audience can be moved to action only by feeling the pain of someone else’s plight.

When he went door-to-door campaigning for New York congressional candidate Louise Slaughter in 1986, he told Rochester, N.Y., residents about his experience “sitting with a mother in El Salvador, looking through the book of disappeareds, trying to find the body parts of her son. I could bring that experience to those people in Rochester, who are so far removed from that cultural experience but can relate to a mother.”

Slaughter won that campaign, beating out Fred J. Eckert. Rosemary Pooler, another New York congressional candidate for whom Gere campaigned because of her stand on Central America, lost narrowly to George C. Worley.

Most recently, TV audiences caught a glimpse of Gere in Iowa, where he campaigned during the presidential primary with Michael Dukakis. “I first met him at a hotel here at midnight,” Gere recalls. “He was very sick, he had a cold and had been flying around all day. He sat in his room and talked very openly. I was very touched by him, in a way, frankly, that I haven’t seen since then.”

Despite Gere’s political interests, don’t expect him to march up to Capitol Hill after “Miles From Home,” pleading for federal aid to family farmers, as Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek did after their own life-on-the-farm films.

“The loss of heritage is very important for us,” Gere says. “But we’ve got to come to terms with the reality that this view of America as farmers is not really true anymore. I think we have to grow up about that and reevaluate our self-image.”