Sept. 14 2006 10:58 AM

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Richard Gere and the Meaning of Silence

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By Hanna Rosin

       You, too, might lose your patience. I am sitting with Richard Gere in a tiny booth at Raw, a vegetarian place in Hollywood so cramped that his knees occasionally brush my own. It's been 20 minutes and still my lunch guest has no idea what he wants. The waiter waits stoically, his only sign of impatience an almost imperceptible shifting of weight. The stillness around our booth is so obvious that people start to notice, and it's not long before they notice it's him.

       Pretty soon a group of teenage-looking girls are staring, and whispering, and pushing each other so close to the edge of their booth that one of them is in danger of falling off, if not fainting. Finally, he looks up from behind his veil of steel glasses, crinkles his little eyes, and opens his mouth to speak. The teenage-looking girl is teetering. There are a host of exotic dishes on the menu--cold cucumber cream soup, curried ginger yams. Which lucky dish will get to touch his lips? Gere sticks with a Caesar salad--hold the dressing. After all that, a Caesar salad. Had he not brushed against my knees at the moment he opened his mouth I would never have forgiven him for so boring a choice.

       As I will learn over the course of three more meals, the restaurant scene is vintage Richard Gere. Without trying at all, Gere manages to create an aura around him. And it's impossible to tell if his indifference is sublime and mysterious, or if there's no there there. Was he controlling that last scene, waiting for its crescendo in the swooning of a teenage girl, or, in the banal style of mere mortals, could he just not decide what to order? He seduces with silence, and in this way he's managed to stay a star for 20 years, from Looking for Mr. Goodbar in 1977 to this year's Red Corner and The Jackal, hardly ever courting his audience.

       "I thought this film might change the universe," he says of Red Corner, a kind of personal project where Gere plays an American lawyer wrongly accused of murder. He is talking intently about his obsessions--Buddhism, Chinese government oppression. But all I can pick up are stray words, because I am not listening. The more heatedly earnest he gets, the harder it is to listen, because he is grinding harder and harder into my knees, making me think the lower Gere is sending me a message the cerebral Gere is ignoring. So all I can do is watch his fervent Asian eyes, the wrinkles move and dance on his tawny skin. And he knows I am not listening, because he stops sometimes, and throws me a wicked smirk, and anyway, my pen isn't moving.

       Gere's entire career is marked by a kind of blocked sexuality. From almost the minute he came on the scene he was almost naked. While leading men of the day, like Robert Redford, kept their pants on, Gere pranced his Atlas perfection around in Looking for Mr. Goodbar wearing only a jockstrap. Then he sealed his fame two years later in American Gigolo playing Julian Kaye, a man who does one arm pull-ups by day and gets paid to sleep with beautiful women by night. But even when he was playing a gigolo, critics found him aloof, hermetic, stiff, almost feminine. And while Kaye was supposed to be existentially inclined and brooding, they wondered if Gere's plastic manner accomplished the impossible: making a gigolo sexless.

       I remember first seeing Gere in Pretty Woman, where he played a businessman who hires Julia Roberts as his escort for a week and eventually decides to keep her around. The movie's conceit is overriding a rich man's resistance to spending his life with a hooker. But I found myself wondering why she would want to hang around and spend her life sleeping with the cinematic equivalent of Al Gore. Until, that is, the sex scene on the piano. The scene, if you don't remember, opens with a sweeping shot of Gere in the hotel restaurant, hunched over the piano, playing passionately. Julia Roberts, in a robe, comes in to look for him. He sees her, dismisses the hotel staff still lingering, and they have sex. Gere's stiffness now seems like stoic control, which he unleashes only when he's ready. And so he becomes the sexiest kind of man--a complete mystery, impervious to women, until the minute he decides not to be.
 
 Gere is pained by the rumors swirling around him. When London tabloids reported he was gay, Gere and then-wife Cindy Crawford took out a $30,000 full page in the London Times that said "We are heterosexual and monogamous and take our commitment to each other very seriously. ... Marriage is hard enough without all this negative speculation." It was a disastrous PR move, because of the desperation it betrayed. In fact, Gere should revel in the rumors, because they put him in that realm of mystery and ambiguity, a realm far above the doldrums of method acting these days, where actors play themselves over and over, in movies and then on talk shows. It allows him to seduce with silence.

       It is easy, also, to make fun of Gere's Buddhism as yet another one of Hollywood's phony sanctimonious eastern fixations. Profiles of Gere always point out that he carries Buddhist prayer beads in one hand and wears a Rolex watch on the other. And indeed, his pronouncements sometimes have the feel of bad translations of the Teachings of Mao: "Happiness releases good energy into the universe," he says during one of our lunches. "And we can never have enough of that now, can we?" But Gere's commitment goes back 20 years, and he will often disappear from a shoot for his yearly trip to India, to live in a sparse hut, with no television, movies, or air conditioning, studying the teachings of the Dalai Lama. "When you're doing internal work, you need nothing," he says. And while the entire Washington establishment, from the president to Henry Kissinger, stood and laughed with Chinese Prime Minister Jiang Zemin in his recent trip to the United States as he danced around in his 10 gallon hat, it was up to Gere to put up the only serious resistance.
 
Hanna Rosin is a senior editor at the New Republic.

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