In the first scene of An Officer and a Gentleman, Richard Gere is up to all of his mannered tricks: he twitches, he mumbles, he wearily stares off into space. The signals are discouraging; it’s not going to be another one of those performances, is it? Amazingly, about the time Gere gets his hair cropped—his character has entered military school, training to be an officer and a jet pilot—he seems to relax, probably because he starts playing against some pretty interesting people (namely David Keith, Debra Winger, and Louis Gossett, Jr.).
I don’t know if director Taylor Hackford or Gere was aware of this softening and deepening of the actor’s style, but it turns out to be very appropriate to the character’s story: Gere plays a distant, private man who enlists in the officers’ training program as a way to hoist himself above an unhappy life; in the thirteen-week-long process of earning his wings, he discovers—as much to his surprise as anyone else’s—that he can allow himself to be a human being.
This sounds like pretty basic stuff, and I guess it is, but a good deal of it is very entertaining. Gere’s duels with his hardboiled drill instructor are superb; there is the sense that he is battling against the dark demons in himself that tempt him to quite the grueling training and backslide into the rootless existence that came before. Louis Gossett’s fine, cunning performance as the D.I. has a lot to do with this, even if the movie occasionally skirts sentimentalizing his character.
Off the base, Gere spends his time with a woman who has her sights set on becoming an officer’s wife. Debra Winger triumphs over the script’s condescension toward her character; she isn’t just slumming, and it rings true. This goes for David Keith, too, as Gere’s grinning Okie buddy; the tragic-best-friend bit can get pretty sticky if an actor doesn’t believe it, and Keith throws himself into it with his whole heart. We can believe that Winger and Keith are capable of thawing out the cool, isolated Gere.
An Officer and a Gentleman is the kind of movie in which the unsuccessful sequences tend to be forgotten, while a few keenly realized scenes linger fondly in the mind. There’s a nice moment after Gere has had a first dinner with Winger’s family, and the couple reels out of the parental house, staggering from the amusingly frigid and uncomfortable reception they’ve had. As they are parting, Winger brings up the previously-hinted-at subject of marriage rather bluntly. Gere stiffens, by reflex; Winger senses his iciness, and her desperation rises to the surface. There’s an exact feel for a decision and an event not quite happening here—it will have to wait for a while, until Gere finishes his training and becomes an officer. And, importantly, a gentleman.
First published in The Informer, August 1982
An early review from the Seattle Film Society’s monthly newsletter. The movie was shot in Port Townsend, Washington, where locals still recall the colorful behavior of the participants (I got to do the onstage interview with Winger when she returned to Port Townsend for a film festival appearance , but I’m not sure AOAAG was her primary interest). The movie turned into a steamroller, with the ending and the song and all, but the review was written in relative innocence of that.