There’s been a bit of a hulabaloo lately, in critical circles and cultural writing, over the egregious underrating of Nicole Kidman. Following her spectacular turn on Big Little Lies, we were told that she’s never been taken seriously, mostly because of sexism, but has always been great, even when no one was looking. Here’s a hot take: Nicole Kidman, a respected actress who has won one Oscar and been nominated for three more (most recently, like three months ago) is properly “rated.” All that happened this spring was she appeared on a Prestige TV show, and viewers who aren’t adventurous enough to have bothered seeing Stoker or Rabbit Hole or The Family Fang or Paddington or any of the other interesting film work she’s done recently suddenly rediscovered her. Remember, just because you haven’t paid attention to someone, it doesn’t mean they disappeared.
You know who’s underrated? Robin Wright, David Oyelowo, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Julie Delpy, Sam Rockwell, Hope Davis, Kate Beckinsale – all terrific actors who rarely get the kind of high-profile leading roles Kidman does, and none of whom have a single Academy Award nomination for acting (much less four). And then there’s Richard Gere, who’s been doing nuanced, layered film work for forty years now without racking up a single nod from The Academy. His latest film, Norman, is a reminder of his specific gifts as an actor, and how they’ve been taken for granted far too long.
He plays Norman Oppenheimer, a New York City fixer and connector (his favorite phrase is “I’d be happy to introduce you”) operating under the foggy moniker of “Oppenheimer Strategies.” He probably doesn’t have an actual office, and we never see him at home (“Everybody seems to know who you are,” he’s told, “but nobody knows anything about you”); he wanders the streets, working the phones, “bumping into” powerful people and pressing flesh. But he’s fallen out of the loop, a fate worse than death for a guy whose business is to be in it – he’s an old dog whose old tricks no longer work, and his connections can’t be bothered with him anymore. But then he takes a chance that ends up benefiting him greatly, even if it could ultimately bring him down.
Norman follows this character on a rise and fall arc, starting with him at the bottom, watching him at the top – a glorious stretch where everyone wants to know his name, shake his hand, and hand him a card – and then tracking him all the way back down again. What’s interesting about the character is how brief the respite is; even when he’s cresting, he’s still hustling (and in some way, failing), and a high crest means a longer fall. By the time he lands on his ass, in a pile of trash, getting yelled at by Steve Buscemi, we’ve entered an almost Gosling-esque realm of self-flagellation.
But this is the fascinating running theme of Gere’s middle period, which has now gone on longer than his heartthrob years. Early on, he was seen as such an astonishingly good-looking hunk that he wasn’t really taken seriously as an actor, even when he was doing complicated work in films like Days of Heaven and American Gigolo. Then he found himself stranded, with nothing leading-man turns in nowhere mid-‘80s flops like King David and The Cotton Club, and he could’ve very well gone the way of Timothy Hutton or Michael Paré. Instead, he swerved.
Gere’s second act began with a riveting bad-guy turn in Mike Figgis’s 1990 police drama Internal Affairs, which was quickly followed into theaters by his biggest hit to date, Pretty Woman. This was a new Gere, with more salt than pepper in his hair, and a discernible darkness to his persona; even in the sunny (though it wasn’t intended to be) Pretty Woman, he was playing a ruthless corporate raider whose romantic relationships were barely more personal than his business ones. In the years that followed, his most memorable performances (Sommersby, Mr. Jones, Intersection, Primal Fear, Dr. T and the Women, Unfaithful) were all as deeply flawed and often unlikable characters – yet he never went the route of physical transformation, “uglying up” or gaining weight, as other gorgeous people have when they want to win awards. (And, perhaps as a result, he continued to be written off as merely a pretty face.)
Instead, Gere’s good looks and charisma became part of those characters. He conveyed, in them, a deflated sense of cockiness and confidence. It became a rich, defining element of their backstory, which has become even clearer in the choices of his more recent filmography. These days, he tends to play guys who were once on top and are now drowning, but as Norman puts it, “I’m a good swimmer. Don’t forget that. As long as my head is above water.” His characters in Chicago, The Hoax, The Hunting Party, Brooklyn’s Finest, Arbitrage, and Norman live in the fuzzy areas between con artist and outright criminal; they seem to reside there because they can, because they presumably coasted, for so long, on their good looks and personal charm. It makes them sympathetic, even when they shouldn’t be; Norman Oppenheimer, for example, lies the way some people breathe (the only hard part for him, it seems, is keeping the lies straight), and is ultimately up to some very sketchy business with international implications. But you still feel bad for him, and are embarrassed for him, when he gets shafted or humiliated.
That kind of moral flexibility is tricky to play once, let alone to make your specialty. It probably won’t win him an Oscar, or make him more bankable. But while the supposedly greatest actors of his generation have descended into self-parody and hackwork, Gere has quietly plugged along, doing sly and affecting work in film after film. It hasn’t made him an icon. But it’s made him one hell of an actor.
“Norman” is out Friday in limited release.