The Gigolo Grows Up: He Made De Niro a Taxi Driver, Gere an American Gigolo, and with His Latest Film, the Walker, Writer-Director Paul Schrader Refashions Woody Harrelson as a Gay D.C. Socialite

By Buchanan, Kyle | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), December 18, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Gigolo Grows Up: He Made De Niro a Taxi Driver, Gere an American Gigolo, and with His Latest Film, the Walker, Writer-Director Paul Schrader Refashions Woody Harrelson as a Gay D.C. Socialite


Buchanan, Kyle, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

IMAGINE a MIDDLE-AGED MAN with this unlikely resume: In his 20s he was a taxi driver; in his 30s, a highpriced male prostitute; and in his 40s, an insomniac drug dealer. As the man enters his 50s, where would an employment agency hope to slot him?

Paul Schrader pondered that question several years ago. As the writer of Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, and Light Sleeper, Schrader has led that man--a lonely fringe character with unusual wares to ply--through a series of films he sees as thematically linked.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"I was thinking of Julian Kaye from American Gigolo and I started wondering what would become of a person like that in midlife," Schrader explains. "He'd be funny, because his skills would be more social, and he'd probably be out of the closet. He'd be like a society walker, which struck me as an interesting occupational metaphor for these kinds of service industries--like a taxi driver, a drug dealer, or a gigolo--that look into society but aren't really quite part of it."

The result is Carter Page III, a gay Washington, D.C., gadfly portrayed by Woody Harrelson. Bristling under the weight of his family's political legacy, Carter turns into a Capote-like confidant to a gaggle of society wives (including Lily Tomlin and Lauren Bacall). When one of those wives, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, becomes embroiled in a murder plot, Carter's attempts to help her draw him deeper into the cross fire, where he discovers inner strength he didn't know he had.

"His superficiality is like his wardrobe-it's his protection," says Schrader, who drives the point home with an inverted echo of Gigolo's famous dressing sequence: an undressing sequence that ends with Carter doffing his toupee. Schrader laughs, "As I said to him when we were shooting, 'Woody, there's not much you can do to surprise an audience anymore. You can stomp on a baby or pull your pants down, and everybody's seen it. But take your hair off ... '"

Carter is Schrader's first explicitly gay protagonist, though the director stands out among contemporaries like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola for refusing to shy away from homoerotic themes in his work. He still bemoans an early fight he lost to include more gay content in his 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a biopic of 20th-century Japanese author Yukio Mishima that labored under restrictions imposed by Mishima's widow. (Schrader hopes to remedy the excisions with a Criterion DVD coming out in the spring.) And while it maybe hard to imagine, the straight man who created taxi driver Travis Bickle is an unabashed homophile, as comfortable quotinggay film critic Parker Tyler as he is discussing his years spent hanging out in the gay scene of 1970s Los Angeles.

"It was a grand time," he says. "Because of my upbringing and the fact that I had no female siblings, I always had sort of a hard time socially with women." Introduced to a group of gay friends by renowned production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti--"he knew everyone from Warhol to Mapplethorpe"--Schrader says those days taught him how to be a better straight man.

"I suddenly realized, oh, that's what women want. They want the same thing the boys want: They want some attention, they want to be touched, they want to laugh. It was a wonderful period of transition, of becoming a fuller person, to understand all that," he remembers. "And then that world collapsed, and it collapsed rather quickly. I have all those photographs that people of my generation have, where five of the six people are dead." As he flips through those pictures with me, pointing out his late friends, Schrader's jovial tone suddenly changes. "When that started happening, I left Los Angeles and went to Japan, and that was sort of the end of that chapter. It was ... " He trails off, becoming choked up. "I mean, what can you say? What can you say that hasn't been said a hundred times? …

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