A seeker in Hollywood

Special to The Times

He is not quite as you imagined, Richard Gere, having nothing to do with his hair, which is not as dark as it once was, and his face, which, at 53, still somehow lacks any wayward angles or dangles. It's that he leans forward, listening carefully, rather unfull of himself, this baby boomer fashion-plate exemplar of male style. Maybe that's what is interesting about him on screen and what is more plain in person: that he is both very present and decorously remote.

He has been a star for a long time. His becoming a sex symbol for "American Gigolo" back in 1980 is something he admits he may never understand. But the source of that confluence of personality, talent, story, public appetite and -- maybe -- the position of the moon and stars remains at the heart of what he has found to be the ultimately unfathomable power of movies.

"Movies are a very bizarre thing," he says on the evening after the Hollywood premiere of "Chicago," his latest. "Their power is very often not at all what you put into it, but just the fact that you did it -- with those people. I don't know if my acting ability has anything to do with the power of my work. I have no idea." He has said something that even he finds amusing and notes it with the comment, "I've never said that before."

The question would be, then, what does ability have to do with? We are seated outside on a terrace at the Four Seasons Hotel, the sound of Beverly Hills' late rush-hour traffic creating a dull roar in the background. He is having a smoothie and a glass of mineral water.

"Maybe it's not something you're doing consciously. Maybe it's just something in that time and space. The story might be what comes out of someone's eyes. Bob Altman," he says of the man who directed him as a charismatic Dallas gynecologist in 2000's "Dr. T & the Women," "says that 99% of what he does is casting. And maybe it's the same for an actor. Maybe 99% of what an actor does is show up."

A role made for Gere

It took more than just showing up for him to tap-dance and sing his way convincingly through "Chicago" as the flamboyantly cynical defense attorney Billy Flynn, who defends the murderous floozy Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) in director Rob Marshall's well-received re-imagining of Bob Fosse's historic 1975 Broadway musical, which opened Dec. 27. He trained four months for the role in what he says was the hardest work he's ever done for a film.

It's a role that's winning award nominations and critical plaudits for Gere, one he seems made for: charming (almost too charming), bigger than life, a wised-up con man who knows exactly the game he's playing. Flynn's showpiece number, "Razzle Dazzle," seems a perfect expression of the celebrity culture -- whether it's Chicago in the '20s or Hollywood today.

Gere, whose first big roles were as Diane Keaton's rough-trade pickup in 1977's "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and as a migrant farm worker opposite Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams in Terrence Malick's dreamy "Days of Heaven" the following year, has long looked beyond the obvious to assess his place in the world.

Well-known are his devotion to Buddhism and his campaign on behalf of the Dalai Lama to free Tibet from decades of Chinese occupation. At the "Concert for New York City," which was held six weeks after the terrorist attacks, he bravely remarked that carpet-bombing Afghanistan might not be the answer to creating a more peaceful and stable world. For this he was booed.

Even now, while trying to explain the unity of all being and the falsity of the notion of the self, he says, "Your well-being is the same as mine. The pain of the Iraqis is the same as mine."

What some have long wondered about him, apart from adding up the columns of his good movies (few) versus bad (many), is how he, or any other well-intentioned thespian, can reconcile the ego-disappearing act of Buddhism with the ego-asserting act of a Hollywood career.

When this is put to him, a different look -- and not one of amusement -- comes over his face. "I get this constantly, and I get it from smart people," he says, with just a hint of exasperation. "It's a misunderstanding of what Hollywood is and what Buddhism is. Hollywood, to me, is, I don't know, a job. You work hard. There are a lot of accouterments around the edges, but most things have stuff around the edges. Buddhism is a science of the mind, actively working with the mind."

An hour earlier, addressing the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the organization that bestows the Golden Globe Awards, he explained that the Dalai Lama "has done a lot of work, has looked into his heart and has taken out the last specks of self-cherishing, of self-love." Whereas, as he told the group, Richard Gere, like most mortals, still has a lot more work to do in this regard.

He would subsequently be nominated for a Golden Globe for his work in "Chicago," marking the third time the foreign press group has so honored him. Although he has never won a Golden Globe, he was previously nominated for "Pretty Woman" in 1990 and "An Officer and a Gentleman" in 1982. (He has yet to be nominated for an Academy Award, although there is much speculation that the long, dry streak may end this year.)

Appearing before the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., he said, was not an act of self-promotion or career maintenance. He doesn't think in such terms. He flew in for the day from New York simply to help Miramax advertise the movie. "The only level of career you have to maintain is to have a hit movie. Nothing more, nothing less. You can still play in the game if every once in a while you have a hit movie. But it's not like you can pick them. That never works. It's all by accident. There's an alchemy there that no one can figure out."

Many are the fans and critics who would still wonder how it is that acting -- good, bad and indifferent -- does not in some way involve expressions of the self, even as refracted in such various performances as the sad male hustler in "American Gigolo" or the red-white-and-blue aspiring Navy pilot in "An Officer and a Gentleman."

"You're assuming there's a self there," he says. "I don't know. There are certainly parts of me. 'Gigolo' was very far away from me. I didn't know how to be the brooding, smoldering thing, and I don't know anything about suits and don't speak five languages. I mean, it was all a construction based on what Paul Schrader [the film's director] wanted to do with the movie, which was based on 'The Conformist' and some European films. It did become some kind of iconic thing, certainly in my life, whether I wanted it to or not. I don't know what was inherent in the movie and what wasn't.

"But acting is just an illustration. We're playing a little game here; we have a little magic show. What's a movie? What is it really? Light and shadow. And what is light and shadow? We don't really know. It's some kind of energy."

Gere -- who is married to actress Carey Lowell, with a stepdaughter, Hannah, and a son, Homer -- has given a lot of thought to such matters. In choosing movies, he says, "there has to be some quality of generosity of spirit in the motivation that makes it worth doing, that I'm going to somehow grow from. And the more I grow, the less I become this egocentric thing that is prone to anger and hatred and all this other stuff."

Probably one could comb his resume and find any number of non-classics that would strain that thesis from a distance, which is not to say that certain films didn't connect with him on some level that might be invisible to the rest of us. The 1996 thriller "Primal Fear," for example, which involved grotesque murder and sexual voyeurism, was to him about identity.

"I do a lot of films about identity, and that film clearly was one. Who are we? Do we ever know anyone? Do we know ourselves? Unlikely." As for an actor being judged by the quality of his films, he says, " 'Raging Bull' was not offered to me. I would love to have done that."

A musical background

The notion of Gere tap-dancing and crooning show tunes may seem novel, but it has come to light -- with "Chicago" playing in the nation's multiplexes -- that this is where it all began for him: on stage, in rock musicals back in the Age of Aquarius. Really.

He played Danny Zuko in "Grease" in London; he also appeared in the British rock opera "Soon." He played the late folksinger Richard Farina in an off-Broadway show, and he played guitar and piano in rock and country bands before that. In all, he figures he appeared in about 20 plays and musicals on and off-Broadway before catching on in Hollywood.

"To tell you the truth, I don't really like musicals," he says. "I'm always kind of annoyed or offended by them. They seem to be an assault of music and dancing, just throwing it at you."

He didn't much care for the current hit revival of "Chicago" on stage in New York, but he saw different emotional colors in Bill Condon's screenplay. He saw tragedy lurking behind the superficial triumph of Roxie Hart, in the high-gloss, fast-talking 1920s tale of cheap celebrity and unpunished murder. To make his point, he quotes one of her songs, "Nowadays," that seems to celebrate sexual freedom but ends with the line, "Nothing stays."

"That is the crux of it," Gere says now, full of belief. "Nothing stays. What do we do in life that stays? It ain't the money, it ain't the sex, what is it? Some real sense of vulnerability and love. That stays, and these characters are very far away from that. And that to me is very moving."

It's been a busy year for Gere, who had two other pictures released -- "The Mothman Prophecies," a tepidly received supernatural thriller in which he played a Washington Post reporter caught up in his wife's mysterious death; and "Unfaithful," the better-reviewed Adrian Lyne drama about the unforeseen consequences of infidelity in which he played a successful Manhattan businessman cuckolded by a young French Casanova. Diane Lane, who played his unfaithful wife, has been decorated with honors for her performance. "Unfaithful" was notable, aside from Lane's febrile portrait of temptation not resisted, for the casting of the former American gigolo as the middle-aged husband old enough to be the one betrayed in a sexual triangle.

"This is Adrian's adult movie," Gere says. "It's about responsibility -- that we're all responsible for our actions. The universe is cause and effect. In Buddhism, it's the only law that's kind of embraced from other world systems. I liked what Adrian was doing with the minutiae of the way people think and feel, the way, inch by inch, we dig ourselves into holes. When my character finally blows in that movie, it's not a rage about his wife, it's certainly not about the guy, it's some metaphysical realm of raging against God -- like Salieri," the character tormented by Mozart in "Amadeus."

Shortly after our talk, celebrity photographer Herb Ritts died, and the obituaries mentioned a famous black-and-white portrait he did of Gere standing outside a gas station in the desert in the 1970s, a photo that appeared in national magazines and helped make both of them famous. Ritts became a master of Hollywood iconography, glorifying people with images that could be seen as high-water marks of ego validation. Gere, I suspect, saw them differently.

"The trick is to get out of the way of the ego," he says now, "so that whatever is of value illuminating inside you or me or the waiter or anybody else that comes by can be seen. The job of the creative person is to get out of the way."

It's important to note that when he says this, he was not lecturing or pontificating. He is yet a pilgrim in Hollywood or the star who is trying to be.

"By the way," he says, "this conversation may be totally different tomorrow. This is like a real conversation we're having. I have not thought all this out. This is our conversation today. Later tonight it might be different."

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