Friday, July 10, 2015

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Director: Taylor Hackford                                Writer: Douglas Day Stewart
Film Score: Jack Nitzche                                Cinematography: Donald E. Thorin
Starring: Richard Gere, Deborah Winger, David Keith and Lou Gossett Jr.

It wasn’t until I began reviewing films that I realized how many of Taylor Hackford’s films are among my favorites. The ones I like the best are the musical biographies, Ray, the Ray Charles story, and before that The Idolmaker with the late Ray Sharkey. But An Officer and a Gentleman was also great. A huge hit in 1982, it solidified Richard Gere’s star status, as well as giving Deborah Winger a springboard for a number of good films to follow, like Terms of Endearment. Gere had just come off of a critical success in American Gigolo and after the hype surrounding this film it may have been too much too soon. He’s a great actor, but a little humility goes a long way. What’s interesting is that both of those roles had been offered to John Travolta and he turned them down, and where Gere’s career trajectory went up, Travolta’s went the other direction. The part that Deborah Winger played was originally offered to Sigourney Weaver and later to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who one could actually see doing a decent job in the part based on her performance in Miami Blues. And, of course, David Keith was in his prime, just coming off of a tremendous performance in Brubaker with Robert Redford.

The film begins with a prologue in Seattle. Richard Gere has just graduated from college and his father, Robert Loggia, a career Navy man, has given him a night with two prostitutes for a graduation present. In the morning Gere thinks back to when he first met his father, right after his mother’s suicide, on the naval base on the Philippine Islands. He was essentially abandoned, but learned early about sex and self-defense. He shocks Loggia, however, when he tells him he’s going into the Navy’s officer candidate school at Fort Worden near Port Townsend on the Washington Peninsula, and despite his protests, leaves that morning on his motorcycle with the hopes of starting a new life as a naval aviator. Louis Gossett Jr. is the drill instructor in charge of Gere’s class and he’s been instructed to get rid of as many of the weak links as possible. Gere’s roommates include David Caruso and David Keith. Keith becomes his friend, and the two of the bond with the only female officer candidate, Lisa Eilbacher. Gere and Keith meet two girls who work at a paper plant, Deborah Winger and Lisa Blount, labeled “Puget Debs” by Gossett, who warns them that the girls are only trying to trap them into marrying them so that they can escape their white-trash existence. But even though the female companionship is just what the guys need to get them through the arduous training, there are a lot more challenging obstacles. For Keith it’s his sense of obligation to everyone around him, for Gere it’s love.

For those of us living in Western Washington, the film was especially exciting to watch because it had been filmed in some very familiar locations. Though the film showed Deborah Winger and Lisa Blount taking the ferry across the sound to get to the base, almost all of the filming was done in and around Port Townsend. Director Taylor Hackford wanted to make Lou Gossett’s character more intimidating during the shoot and so he had him stay apart from the rest of the cast when they were not working. When seen today it doesn’t have near the impact it did at the time, when Gossett seemed absolutely frightening, but fittingly, Gossett was awarded the Oscar for his performance as a supporting actor, the only nomination he has received in his distinguished career. But all of the actors are tremendous in their respective roles. Gere plays the emotionally wounded loner better than anyone else in Hollywood could have at the time. And Deborah Winger’s part is subtle, but she does an exceptional job differentiating herself from the more dim-witted Lisa Blount. Winger understands Gere’s jokes and demonstrates a real insight into his psychology that a mere hick wouldn’t have, and she was given an Academy Award nomination for best actress. The other standout is actress Lisa Eilbacher, whose character struggles with the physical and emotional limitations of being a woman competing for a job that was traditionally considered suitable only for men.

The film was the third highest grossing film in 1982 and generally received positive critical reviews. While the film is certainly sentimental, it does so in an intelligent way that never dumbs down its characters. There is a humanity in nearly all of them that wants the best for others in addition to raising themselves out of their present circumstances. The key to the film’s success seems to be the emphasis not just on regular people, but downtrodden people, whether economically or emotionally, that resonates with audiences. Much of the credit for that goes to screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart, who was also nominated for an Oscar. Other nominations went to the film score by Jack Nitzche, who also won an award for his contribution to the best original song, “Up Where We Belong,” sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes at the closing of the picture. And on the subject of the ending, Gere apparently didn’t like how sappy and romantic it was, but after seeing the final cut even he had to agree with what audiences have known for years: An Officer and a Gentleman is simply a terrific film. Highly recommended.

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