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The Gigolo Grows

The Gigolo Grows


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.

Imagine a middle-aged man with this unlikely resume: In his 20s he was a taxi driver; in his 30s, a high-priced 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.

"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 may be hard to imagine, the straight man who created taxi driver Travis Bickle is an unabashed homophile, as comfortable quoting gay 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?"

In many ways, Schrader's identification with gay men should come as no surprise. The son of brutally strict Calvinists, Schrader had his own "coming-out" experience when he left Grand Rapids, Mich., for the wilds of Hollywood in 1968. "When I was growing up movies were not allowed," Schrader says. "My parents never ever spoke of what I did for a living. When I'd go home, it was a nonsubject." Family tensions increased in 1988 when Schrader's father was involved in the campaign to ban The Last Temptation of Christ -- a film for which Schrader wrote the screenplay.

"After he died I went up to his house, and he had purchased VHS copies of every film I had made, but they were all in their shrink-wrapped wrappers," Schrader chuckles. "Never opened at all. He wanted people to see, 'Yes, my son has accomplished something -- but I didn't watch them, I want you to know!' "

Life in Los Angeles was considerably wilder than anything Schrader had experienced -- "Two days after I got to L.A., I was in a living room in Topanga Canyon surrounded by people wearing tablecloths and smoking dope" -- and in some ways he feels that he never fully shook off his repressive upbringing. "I always sort of felt that it really wasn't me, that I was back in Michigan, almost watching myself do this. It was like watching it through a windshield," he explains. "And sure enough, when I needed to express that emotion in fiction, there came a windshield: the central metaphor for Taxi Driver.

"It's the same kind of feeling in The Walker, only in the case of someone like Carter Page it's not so much a windshield but a kind of Plexiglas cube that surrounds him. He seems to be part of it, but he's not quite part of it."

It's an interesting turn for the freewheeling Harrelson, from whom Schrader extracts one of his best performances. Yet it's a performance Harrelson has been shy about trumpeting. The actor declined an interview with The Advocate and did not promote the movie at its world premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. "I'll tell you what happened," says Schrader. "He was very keen to do the film, felt very good about it after we finished, was very eager to see it -- and then I made a mistake. I sent him an early cut of the film on DVD, and he didn't like it; he didn't like himself. He has not seen it since, although I just heard last week that everyone likes him so much in this that he's starting to come around."

Schrader doesn't know why Harrelson doesn't like his performance. "Actors are mysterious," he says. "While we were shooting, he wanted it to be a little fluffier than it was, a little more 'gay.' He wanted to show a little more of the pink dress." The pink dress? Schrader smiles: "I did a film with Rupert Everett [1990's The Comfort of Strangers], and Rupert would always say, 'You've got to tell me if the pink dress is showing.' " Still, despite the star's lack of cooperation, Schrader is confident that Harrelson's performance -- like the film -- will stand on its own. "ThinkFilm, which is releasing it, had the same situation last year with Ryan Gosling, who didn't like Half Nelson," he says. "It wasn't until the film started getting good reviews that he said, 'Oh, boy, I'd better rethink this.' "

As pleased as he is with the film's early notices, Schrader is even more excited by the audience's reaction to the sexuality of its main character. "I've taken the film to several film festivals around the world now, and Carter being a homosexual is about as big a nonissue as you can imagine," he says. It's a big relief considering that when he first wrote The Walker six years ago, Schrader asked his best friend, gay producer Alan Poul (Six Feet Under), to vet the script.

"By the time it got made, that whole concern was completely gone -- the sense that you would need someone known in the gay community to put their stamp on it and say, 'This is OK.' " Schrader says. "Now it's not even an issue -- that shows you how much things have changed."

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