by Jon Lewis
Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 13-14
AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN deals with the process of male bonding — machismo as self-abuse and tenacity. As the hero graduates from officers' training, he seemingly can corrupt society "on the outside" as the result. This film is not just another "armed services" picture. It is a timely social discourse, which not only celebrates an/the elite male group but clearly identifies the working-class woman as the enemy.(1)
It all starts off with a dead mother (suicide we find out — and not even the decency to provide a note for her son) and a reluctant "adoption" of the son by the estranged, seafaring husand/father (Robert Loggia). This aging sailor "keeps" young Filipino women to clean, cook, screw, and parade around the apartment half naked. The son, maybe twelve or so, is initiated into this sailor's world and his own “flight from feeling,” a mythos identified by Christopher Lasch in the culture of narcissism which is patently antifeminist. The son, Mayo, will be the film's hero, and the audience remembers these scenes throughout the film, especially as the scenes relate to the film's presence/ interference/ treatment of women. Mayo's "flight from feeling” is purged only at film's end. There it happens through another, more significant male bonding ritual — graduation from pimp's son to future leader.
But beginning at the beginning — in the Philippines (done in yellow filter), Mayo, as a young teen, refuses to go to a "shitty" boarding school in the United States. He irrationally decides to "stick it out" with his fat, abusive, alcoholic father in “P.I.” (the Philippine Islands — in the film we hear much of armed forces argot, language revealing the services' reductive bent).
In P.I., we have the first street-fight scene, with Mayo still a young teen (and not yet played by Richard Gere), duped and beaten by martial arts expert Filipino youth gangs. Not only do they thrash him and bloody his nose (which becomes a significant male-bonding experience, on either side of the blow), they seem to impart some of their mystical (judo) knowledge. In the film judo will become a major male-bonding element in the officers' training school. And we wait almost all film for the duel between Mayo and his antagonistic superior, Foley. Such fighting "knowledge"/ability separates "the men from the boys," as in Mayo's street fight in which he bloodies a young tough's nose and in Foley's humiliating the company patsy on the judo mat during training. It is, then, seen as positive not only that Mayo endured P.I. as a boy but also that he got himself thrashed and bloodied — and even better that he had that "knowledge" imparted to him so early on in life. His arrival at officers' training predicates this clear-cut knowledge of a mystical male rite (judo) and Mayo's presence of mind to carry it with him as if it were hair on his gonads or on his upper lip. In Mayo's moment of greatest despair, he and Foley (finally) fight it out, both exhibiting judo expertise. It is Mayo's ability to externalize (through the mythos of judo/combat)(2) this social hurt that enables him to find the "strength" to hang in there, despite yet another (figurative and literal) kick in the balls.
The film depicts endurance and tenacity as male-positive traits in a cold world which seems to demand these qualities of its men (though few can answer this calling). Following this, the film emphasizes physical fitness as yet another positive male character trait. Such fitness seems an integral part of Richard Gere's (Mayo's) star image. As evidenced in his hanging upside down from the parallel bar in AMERICAN GIGOLO, Gere's fitness becomes part of his signification as a male sex symbol. In this film, that Mayo's tenacity carries over into such a material concern (for body, muscles, physique, etc.) suggests as well that the male audience member is invited to embark on the same relentless, physical-tangible, male-bonding quest via identification — to be like Mayo/ to be like Gere.
Physical perfection follows upon the camaraderie of the gym and the athletic field. The material step of bodybuilding signifies adopting the ideal of "team." As he proceeds through officers' training, Mayo employs his physical prowess as part of a kind of star presence in terms of the unit and his mystical adversary relationship with Foley, who, for all his superficial animosity, respects Mayo for the very tools both men identify as prized possessions. (Mayo had hustled his classmates with various scams to make money.) That Mayo's corruption(3) (as a capitalist, which, I suppose, is anti-macho) so irks Foley seems to relate to the two antagonists' equality on another level. That is, Foley would want to go into battle (which he predicts, offhandedly, could happen in the next few years) with a physical specimen like Mayo. This is precisely why Mayo's lack of moral integrity and honor irritates him so.
Foley's abuse of Mayo leads to a second rite of passage. Again we see Mayo's will to endure punishment as an integral part of how he identifies himself, once and for all, as a man and as a member of an elite male group. After Mayo is caught breaking the honor code, Foley tries to get Mayo to D.O.R. (quit) but "no dice." So Foley forces Mayo to endure physical abuse but to no avail. Finally Foley decides to reject Mayo anyway, but the male bond is reactivated when Mayo cries. What he shouts through these tears simply identifies his need for the group — that Mayo has nowhere else to go, that this is his only chance to be better than his father.
Each of the many Foley-Mayo collisions, in relation to the ethic proposed in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, reflects how the group gets formed, how the individual male achieves positive self-image only in terms of this "team." AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN is like the generic "army picture" (that it's the navy is not the point here). In it we have the wop, the chicano, the black (broke and married), the woman candidate (wanting to be a man and eventually respected as one), the losers, the Okie, and the badass drill sergeant (certainly army pictures do little to veil the social significance of this genre convention). And from this diverse group, discipline and male-bonding rituals (fights, uniforms, drinking, etc.) lead to a working "fighting machine," a fraternity of sorts. Also the discipline shapes rather well-defined "individuals" who are not only tenacious (in their ability to survive and succeed) but also quite willing to accept (paradoxically) that incredible sublimation of selfhood for the good of the male group. In AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, the genre's theme "common good" seems paradoxically to coincide perfectly with the phenomenon of male stardom.
But this "positive male" social agenda contains much pent-up aggression. That aggression is externalized in abusing booze (a fluctuating signifier of machismo) and women. As in so many "army" films, women here remain at the periphery of concerns and action. (I was reminded often in this movie of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, which depicted the same, I think unwitting, alliance between machismo and self-destruction). For Mayo, booze is secondary, as if its abuse/use were without real importance. But since his father had whored around all his life (which mysteriously "appears" on navy records Foley has read) and his mother killed herself (for which Mayo clearly blames himself), women become the real object(s) of his scorn and blame and externalized rage.
The film sets up this system of externalized rage, etc.. The audience is clearly set up to at least understand and most likely to sympathize/ identify with Mayo's formation before the entrance of the two primary female characters — Paula and Lynette — at the "camp social." Also the audience had earlier heard Foley's apocryphal warning regarding entrapment through pregnancy — a possibility/theme that is presented to the spectator as a ruthless and economically motivated female weapon. These women are further denigrated because they work in a factory. When they change outfits in the car so that they can garner invitations to the social, the film suggests that a certain degree of subterfuge is already going on. (In retrospect, there seems little reason why this should be the case.) Still, the women "enter" this male-bonding narrative only after such elements introduce them. In a way, their presence in the film seems important only in terms of the men they screw and how this "act" affects the stability of the male group.
Their very existence threatens the male group. That, more than entrapment, must have been what Foley feared — he himself seems to have no "sexual identity" (like all good D.I.'s he has identified himself only in terms of the male group). But the rest of the unit has no such limitation, and Foley's tacit permission for them to learn the hard way leads to a series of real challenges to the future officers' bonds.
Paula and Lynette are formally introduced to Mayo and the Okie, Sid. This scene provides the groundwork for the way in which the spectator is instructed to treat the women for the rest of the film. Lynette (the one "with the incredible set of ta-tas") is the first choice, and she goes with Sid, who isn't the viewer's number one choice; clearly Sid isn't as leery of women as Mayo (and we) are. Paula, who simply has smaller ta-tas, sort of goes with Mayo, after she retreats behind her flashier blonde friend; her identification with Mayo elevates her in the film's overall character hierarchy.
Subsequently, their (Mayo's and Paula's) clever banter separates Paula and Lynette even further — Lynette, from the start, consists of a character of little more than body. But at the same time, Paula's association with Mayo also subordinates her — she's secondary to the male star and probably too sincere to dupe him (after all he's seen/been through so far). Such is not the case with Lynette. This character shows a real narrative impatience and an inclination toward centrality in the social discourse at hand. From the very start she surfaces as the "townie working-class girl" capable of being what Foley warned against. Mayo himself was such an Armed Forces love-child (another reason why he should know better). A further, serious bond becomes established between him and Paula when she reveals herself to be one as well. But this male-female bond threatens "the company" and Mayo's new identity in terms of this group. The real tenderness established with a woman serves as Mayo's excuse to drop Paula coldly without so much as a note or a phone call.
Again, as part of this macho ethos, Foley's cold exterior serves to identify him as one with "insight." Thus his prophecy regarding the local girls comes to pass, with Sid as the "victim." But the film does not let this challenge the male group. Sid (identified as Mayo's best friend — in that he knows that the star "is good," mystically, early on) rejects parental/ societal pressure to be an officer and quits the elite male company. But how can he deny the tenacity and strength of the male bond (and decide to be a J.C. Penney floor manager rather than a jet pilot). To go to Lynette is not the romantic move it at first seems to be, but rather an identifier of Sid's faulty reasoning. He had a romantic illusion of marrying Lynette and returning to Oklahoma (which turns him into the Ralph Bellamy of this movie — no one would want to marry him and move to Oklahoma). She quells that offer by conveniently having her period and rather coldly refusing Sid's ring. He is left with an alternative, prefigured by the categorical ethics of the film: suicide. Sid's death is played out over a long duration, clearly a ritual of sorts, and is left on Lynette's hands. In fact, she is blamed for it even before Mayo and Paula discover Mayo's buddy hanging there in the shower. This rather jarring scene is capped by Mayo's embrace of and soliloquy over his dead friend and former member of the fraternity. It represents yet another cross Mayo must bear. As the audience is manipulated to sympathize with Mayo here, it leads to his second denial of Paula. He rejects her not only because she is a townie factory worker "like Lynette" but also because she is a woman and thus the enemy to the group and to the stasis of a world in which he has been "OK."
On this level, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN hates women. The male bonding is shown as "good" not only as part of the American way but also as self-protection. The bonds of matrimony, which threaten "the company," become another test to deny tenaciously — yet, in the end, Mayo does go to the factory and sweep Paula off her feet (literally). This ending isolates the couple (from all the other loveless couples). Mayo tenaciously overcame the effects of his mother, his father, and his best friend and could grow to see Paula in a different light from women in general, especially women as represented by Lynette.
But how we read Paula's "being saved" is highly problematic. She still stands to gain a great deal economically/socially, and in a way social ascendance is Mayo's gift to her. He gets it as part of the superior position in the decision-making apparatus which the navy grants him as he graduates from the ordeals of officers' training. Paula's role is to complete Mayo's rite of passage. These rites let him have the right to acquire the most "attractive" female character. That woman then serves to verify the very social position the male group has provided him (and through association, her) with.
Finally, we should place this film in two other eighties' genres. First, it's one of those ratings-system hybrids: the "R" film which had to be cut and recut to avoid an "X" rating. Along with the remake of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, for example, viewers are pulled in by trying to figure out what was cut and trying to figure out how the film would look had these scenes been left in. Of course, POSTMAN prints complete with the excised footage are said to be shown in private screening rooms all over Hollywood. I suppose the same will/can be said regarding AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. But neither film is particularly risqué, and the "relentless passion" promised in the advertising hardly appears in either film. Misleading as it is, the advertising signifies the studio's inability to identify these films' "genre." By mythologizing lost footage, the film gains the allure not only of a "dirty R" film but also as part of a new genre of Hollywood sexual vanguard films which defy "the code" to such an extent that a third party "had to" step in before the film's release to the general public.
Also important here, and I've mentioned this before, this film updates the "army" picture genre. I've seen the film on several occasions in economically depressed upstate New York. There the myths of male bonding and armed service life appear viable and timely; they exalt an alternative, positive, and attractive course of action for the viewer. But in this very "act" the film positions (again and again) male versus female. Women structurally obstruct and threaten the male group, its solidarity, and its ways of transcending everyday mining town/mill town existence. This film serves a dangerous social agenda. It depicts problems in our culture while seeming to depict an alternative.
1. Grafted somewhat artificially here from Peter Wollen's assessment of Howard Hawk’s oeuvre in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), p. 82.
2. Note that this externalization (mythologizing) is primarily or uniquely male. See Jerome S. Bruner, "Myth and Identity," in Myth and Myth Making, edited by Henry A. Murray (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 276-87; and Phyllis Chesler, "Patient and Patriarch: Women in the Psychotherapeutic Relationship," in Women in Sexist Society, edited by Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1971), pp. 362-9
3. At first I found Mayo's "honors violation" rather insignificant and silly. After checking into this with officer trainees, I've been led to understand that this type of behavior and attitude is altogether serious (given the rules at officers' training "school"). Officer trainee Richard Hegmann told me stories about D.O.R's precipitated by "smiling" when leading a platoon and lying about the number of pull-ups a candidate performed.