In his new film “The Hoax,” Richard Gere does a lot of fast-talking. As Clifford Irving, one of the most notorious scam artists the last century ever produced, Gere—wearing a bit of putty on his nose—shmoozes, cajoles, insinuates and babbles. As fast as the actor’s feet moved in “Chicago,” his mouth moves in this movie. And when Gere-as-Irving isn’t talking, you can still see him thinking about what lie he’ll concoct next.
Who is this guy, and what has he done with the real Richard Gere?
Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Julie Delpy, Hope Davis
(Miramax Films; US theatrical: 6 Apr 2007 (Limited release); 2006)
Not so fast.
“It was Richard’s idea to make this guy very manic,” says director Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules,” “Chocolat”). “He has a very playful attitude toward acting, and by getting into the head of Irving and others (in the film), he fleshed out the whole movie.”
“I remember meeting with Lasse. I said, `Irving’s always in motion,’” says Gere. “He’s a shark, and I like it that we designed the film so that he’s always moving. So when he does stop, it’s dramatic.”
But of late, Gere’s done the reverse: He has in fact stopped doing quieter roles and is now playing guys who move—which has also been dramatic.
“Every character is a way of expressing yourself,” Gere says. “None of us is just one thing. And hopefully, we are able to pick and choose what we want to be—so there’s a time for mania, and there’s a time for quiet. But actors love doing showy roles. It’s what we’re built for.”
This acting mania seems to have been, as Hallstrom says, “liberating” for the 57-year-old Gere; it’s like a monk who’d taken a vow of silence is finally speaking. Since he first became a major film actor—1978’s “Days of Heaven” was his first starring role—tense and coiled and maybe even sullen have been more his calling card.
“American Gigolo” (1980), “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982), “The Cotton Club” (1984), “Pretty Woman” (1990), “Primal Fear” (1996), “Unfaithful” (2002)—in all of these films, and quite a few lesser ones, Gere’s strength was to let the energy in the room bounce off of him.
Still, the guy who played a dangerously wild club kid in his breakthrough, 1977’s “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” had to be in there somewhere. Which is why Gere’s singing, tap-dancing charm machine Billy Flynn in 2002’s Best Picture-winning “Chicago” was a revelation to many.
“Richard brought some of his persona to the role of Billy, and the smarts—but there was also this excitement from watching him do something new that he hadn’t done onscreen before,” says the writer-director Bill Condon, who penned the screenplay for “Chicago.”
“In fact, the part of the movie that was unfinished when he came aboard was the trial sequence, and both the `Razzle Dazzle’ number and the tap dance were works in progress that were helped by having Richard in the film. He brought this other dimension to it. He’s one of those actors who invites you in, so even though the audience might feel they’d been hoodwinked, they’d see the pleasure Billy got from pulling off the scam with Roxie Hart.”
Yet Gere didn’t enter “Chicago” until a half hour into the movie. He’s all over the inspired-by-real-life “Hoax” as a middling writer who, in the film, has no follow-up to a best seller about an art forger. So he spins impromptu lies to his publisher about how the hermit billionaire Howard Hughes (whose image at the time was as a kind of Donald Trump with Michael Jackson’s secrecy issues) had decided Irving was the man who should write the shaggy former aviator’s “as told to” autobiography.
But it was all a sham, one of those `70s stories, like those of D.B. Cooper and Patty Hearst, which helped spin that decade’s skewed pop-cultural compass. Irving was merely a shyster who forged notes from Hughes and kept telling more outrageous lies—and, amazingly, kept getting more outrageous amounts of money—until Hughes himself denounced it all in his first live public proclamation in 14 years (and his last ever; he died in 1976).
“Irving wasn’t malevolent—his personal demons were what was involved. He’s really not a grownup,” says Gere of the still-living author. “He’s a Peter Pan personality, which allowed him the ability to not see the impossibility of it all. Of course he couldn’t pull this off! But it just kept working, kept going on! There was a prankster thing toward authority figures that Irving was going for. I honestly don’t think this was a money gig for him. It was more about the prank.”
Hughes is a shadowy figure in the film, but his fame heats everything in it. The early career high of “Gigolo” and “Gentleman” may have had a similar effect for Gere, providing cover for missteps “King David” (1985) and “No Mercy” (1986). But it didn’t make things easier when, a decade after earning leading-man status and several years into a slump, he tried romantic comedy with “Pretty Woman.”
Gere admits he was uncomfortable with it all, but took the gamble.
“`Pretty Woman’ was a chance for me to get back in the business, but I had to be talked into it,” he says. “It was a period where I had done a lot of different things, I’d traveled ... and I suddenly realized I hadn’t taken care of my career. Actually, I think the picture that year I really had to do was `Internal Affairs’ (in which Gere played a crooked cop). That was a hard choice for me, because it could’ve been a really bad B-movie if it hadn’t been made so carefully. I went into `Pretty Woman,’ the polar opposite, right after, without even really getting what it was.”
In fact, had “Pretty Woman” been made as the drama it was written as (called “3,000,” after the amount of money the businessman pays the hooker), Gere would have seemed a more logical choice, as a sort-of revisit to his “Gigolo” character Julian Kay 10 years on. (“That would have been a movie no one would have seen,” he says.) But since that time, Gere—who fell in love with acting as a teenager in his native Philadelphia and worked onstage in New York and London, including understudying “Grease”—has altered his image to be a silver fox with a calm Buddhist demeanor. He tackled the theatrics of “Chicago,” the wronged husband in “Unfaithful” and the pushy, conniving Clifford Irving from a more centered place.
“Career is not the only thing, or certainly not the No. 1 thing, in my life,” he says. “It’s a wonderful job, but family is more important to me.”
Gere, divorced from Cindy Crawford, is now married to actress Carey Lowell, with whom he has a 7-year-old son. And his Gere Foundation, which supports several causes, including a free Tibet, “provides the real creative burst of energy for me at this point in my life.”
And each role he plays—in the outside world, in his films—isn’t a part of any plan. Which is why each movie, in his view, isn’t haunted by who he was, by the `80s hunk or the `90s romantic lead.
“I think life is self-defined. I hope it is,” Gere says, laughing. “Outside realities have a certain effect, but it’s all a grain of salt.”