Friday, April 13, 2012

Film Pairings — Murder Among the Prostitutes

In the 1970s, Americans were very much obsessed with sex — either scared out of their wits by the sudden hedonism or thrilled by the increasing disintegration of taboos essentially based on superstition. At the very end of the ‘60s, Hair (and the dawning of the age of Aquarius) revolutionized Broadway while a few blocks away the Stonewall crowd (I’m not going to take it anymore) ushered in a new era for gays and lesbians. In 1978 the Supreme Court threw out obscenity charges against poet Allen Ginsberg’s, controversial, sexually expressive Howl. The revolution was in full swing. American filmmakers were also feeling a little more adventurous about the subjects they tackled. The prudishly restrictive Hays Code that governed what could be seen, heard and suggested in Hollywood films went away in favor of the less stifling rating (or warning label) system we use today.

The 1970s, relatively free of the bluenoses, ushered in the decade of sexual freedom, maybe sexual obsession. The pornographic films Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door were blockbusters. Playboy magazine peaked in the ‘70s. Bookending that decade are two films, Klute in 1971 and American Gigolo (1980), which probably couldn’t have been made in the 1950s. John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” could easily have been the decade’s theme song.

Jane Fonda won a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in Klute. She played an unapologetic prostitute. The remarkable aspect of this story isn’t that is about prostitution, but that it is a riveting thriller as well. A young and obviously talented Donald Sutherland portrays a relatively inexperienced cop from Pennsylvania hired to find a missing corporate executive on the mean streets of New York. Things get nasty. Does Klute (Fonda) hold the key? The determined investigator thinks so. Both Fonda and Sutherland bring depth and understanding to well-developed characters giving us more than the mystery to contemplate. The subject matter is relevant today. Roy Scheider co-stars. Alan J. Pakula directed.

Though it didn’t receive the critical praise of Klute, American Gigolo was a box-office smash. It introduced the professional male escort (read “prostitute.”) as a central character. Paul Schrader directed Richard Gere, who took the role that scared others. A strikingly good-looking, fashion conscious, very successful, self-reliant professional, Gere’s character is obviously in charge of his life and his world. He needs no one and let’s everyone know it. We gradually begin to see that this makes him ripe for the takedown. That’s what happens. There is a murder. He’s implicated. Moment by moment, his world disintegrates. The beautiful Lauren Hutton co-stars. Hector Elizondo plays the Columbo-esque homicide cop. Wikipedia says that this was first American film to feature full male nudity and that the film also “put Armani’s male fashion designs on the map.” Curious juxtaposition.

While Klute’s perversions were set against a dark, shadowy, almost derelict New York, American Gigolo’s perversions were set in high style, sunny Los Angeles. Yet the parallels are definitely there. Sadomasochism plays a part in both films. Also there is the similarity of the two title characters. Loners and seemingly proud of it — Gere’s and Fonda’s benchmark performances as escorts contributed mightily to their careers. The films themselves not only reflected but may also have helped bring about the cultural shift in America’s views of sexuality — something to celebrate. For the libations, I’d go open a bottle of champagne.

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