â€¢ American Gigolo
â€¢ Chapter Two
â€¢ Being There
â€¢ With the growth of explicitness in films, as one theme after another is exploited to its limits, another is dug up for presentation on the screen. It was probably inevitable that after horror had been carried to its ultimate in grisliness, sex would soon be in line for similar treatment. Two current films deal with previously "forbidden" aspects of sex life in America: AMERICAN GIGOLO, with a man who prostitutes himself to wealthy women in plush mansions of Beverly Hills; and CRUISING, with one aspect (sado-masochism) of the homosexual subculture in the seamier haunts of New York City. Both films end up being murder mysteries, and as mysteries both of them have such gaping holes or incongruities in the plot that they cannot rely on suspense alone, and thus both fall back on sexual explicitness for their effect, relying on the voyeuristic tendencies of viewers to witness visually what was previously off-limits to general audiences.
American Gigolo is set in Beverly Hills and Palm Springs and shows us a collection of hotels and mansions, parks and gardens, all exhibiting almost unbelievable affluence. The film proceeds at a leisurely pace, tracing the relations of the hero(?), Richard Gere, with a series of wealthy women. The plot begins to jell when one of them is murdered and he is framed as the culprit. Will the wealthy wife reveal that she was with him that night, thereby giving him an alibi, and losing the financial support of her politically prominent husband? Or will she keep still for her own protection? The angle is interesting, but one does not identify strongly enough with any of the characters to be vitally concerned with what happens to them. Some members of the audience may even feel (what the filmmakers certainly did not intend) that though the protagonist is innocent of murder he is justly framed anyway for other things he did that should be as strongly condemned as murder itself.
William Friedkin's (of Exorcist fame) Cruising is pitched at a much higher level of intensity, or at least movement, and has much more shock value. We are shown in considerable detail where the S&M crowds meet, and even some of the things that go on in their bedrooms. (It's rated R, but is almost an X.) One empathizes somewhat more with Al Pacino in the role of undercover police officer, because of the extremity of his predicament, and yet one wonders, How could so "straight" a person be assigned as a decoy to attract the killer when he would be unable to go through with the required acts in the bedroom? Why should anyone in his right mind take on such a job under the conditions assignedâ€"for example, no weapons? How could he be expected to defend himself against the murderer's knife when he is tied hand and foot? An interesting transformation occurs in him when he gets into the life of the characters he meets, but this development, though psychologically plausible in some instances, is not very plausibly presented to the film audience. (Friedkin, a skillful director, shouldn't have written the script.) The nudity, blood, and gore are so copiously served the audience that one cannot resist the conclusion that it was put there to titillate the audience rather than as essential ingredients in the story.
Nevertheless, the loud demonstrations against the film for being antihomosexual are without warrant. The film's wrath is reserved for a killer: that he happens to be of a minority sexual persuasion is not presented as a reason for moral indignation in the film. Anyway, someone has to be the villain. Some years ago the American showing of Oliver Twist was delayed for two years because the villain, Fagin, was a Jew. (This was Charles Dickens's idea, not director David Lean's.) But many villains in previous movies had been Irish or German or Japanese or English or even (heaven forbid!) red-blooded Americans; why can't a person of Jewish descent also be a villain once in a while? In the present film, the villain is a homosexual sadist, and there would appear to be no good reason why such a person should not also have his turn at villainy. In this one he does, with a vengeance that may excite some viewers and utterly repel others.
â€¢ Neil Simon is Neil Simon. If you liked the earlier plays/films, you'll probably like the new one. The gags are different, but the prevailing ambience is the same. So is the settingâ€"New Yorkâ€"not Plaza Suite this time but plush New York apartments. The lines are cute and crisp, a few are memorable; all are more adapted to the stage than to the cinema. There is the offhand humor, the frothy lines occasionally touching deeper chords of feeling but never allowing itself to get too deep or take itself too seriously. There is brusque wit, a bit of cynicism, a touch of pathos, a tinge of nastiness here and there. But the real subject is romanceâ€"won, lost, anticipated, remembered. All very literate, very chic. But when a writer's main character is a writer (James Caan) and the heroine a stage actress (Marsha Mason), it's sort of like movies about making moviesâ€"the thing gets a bit inbred, and perhaps the author is scrounging around the bottom of the barrel for ideas.
It isn't quite true that if you've seen one Neil Simon play you've seen them all. Still, if you've gone through Chapter One you will find it continued without much change in CHAPTER TWO.
â€¢ In a New Yorker cartoon that has been taped to my office door for several years, a father is changing a tire in a driving rain and shouting to his children who are huddled inside the car, "No, we can't change channels! This is reality! This is the way it is!"
It is fortunate that Jerzy Kozinski wrote the film script himself, so as not to violate the intent of his ingenious and imaginative novel BEING THERE. The story line hasn't been changed, and some cinematic touches have been added that would have been ineffectual or impossible in literary description. The result is a highly unusual film, totally absorbing, hilariously funny, yet with a serious underlying theme that sustains it throughout.
Certainly the central idea is farfetchedâ€"that a simple gardener who has never been outside the mansion and grounds and whose entire concept of reality is based on what he has seen on television should, through a freakish succession of chances, become acquainted with America's foremost millionaire, have his every simple word taken for cryptic wisdom, be thought to have hidden depths in everything he says whereas in fact his every utterance is literal with nothing at all behind it, and by this means be catapulted to the presidency of the United States. But it is all done with such delightful tongue-in-cheek that we are quite carried away with this far-out conceit. Peter Sellers, acting the part of an inane and empty nobody, has delivered to us his most hilarious film within memory, and Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas perform their roles with impeccable aplomb. This is one of the most original films in years, and not to be missed.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His special interest is the area of aesthetics.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".