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Friday Film Review: An Officer and A Gentleman

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
An Officer and a Gentleman: Special Edition
Grade: B
Genre: Drama (U.S.)

Dear Taylor Hackford,

Although I had heard of An Officer and a Gentleman (who hasn’t?) and seen many parodies of the legendary ending, I never got around to seeing it until I watched  Searching for Debra Winger (2002) last week.

The Rosanna Arquette directed documentary consisted of a series of interviews with a number of high-profile lead actresses about working in the entertainment/film industry and the pressures they had to face. The title was inspired by a time when actress Rosanna Arquette was shocked to learn that successful and Oscar-nominated actress Debra Winger decided to retire from acting in 1995 when she was only 40 years old.

Arquette ultimately decided to explore the question why so many successful lead actresses dropped out suddenly after reaching a certain age, and why fewer "meaty" roles were offered when they grew older. But I digress. Despite the uneven quality of the documentary, I enjoyed Arquette’s interviews with Jane Fonda, Martha Plimpton and Debra Winger. It was a brief discussion about An Officer and Gentleman that got me curious enough to overcome my dislike for Richard Gere to watch the film. (I’m sorry that your name and filmography weren’t enough.)

The film opens with Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) in a Seattle apartment, remembering his childhood days. Cue the flashbacks: eleven-year-old Zack (Tommy Petersen) arrived at Manila airport where Byron Mayo, his U.S. Navy sailor father (Robert Loggia), was waiting for him. While offering the condolences to Zack about his mother, Bryon made it clear to Zack he would be at sea for three weeks every month and that he hasn’t the time for "all this Daddy stuff". A further exchange between them made it clear that Zack held Byron partly responsible for his mother’s death. Bryon rejected this accusation; implied that the mother was at fault for her own death; and that Zack should simply grow up.  

Back to the present day, Zack wakes his aged father from a drunken slumber and makes a casual announcement he’s joined the Navy with an intention of becoming a jet pilot. His father doesn’t react well as he says, "Officers aren’t like you and me. They’re a different breed."

With determination and ambition behind him, Zack Mayo ignores his father’s warnings and travels to Port Rainier where the Officer Candidate School is located, which would be his home for thirteen weeks. On the first day, he meets Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley (Louis Gossett, Jr), a tough and larger-than-life personality that has no qualms with bullying and shouting at his charges.

Quite quickly, it’s clear Zack is indifferent to Foley and Zack’s fellow classmates. He quietly earns the reputation of being a dishonest cynic-‘selling a service to fellow school candidates for money-‘while holding himself aloof from his classmates. He just wants to get through the training quickly and effectively, and alone. In spite of all this, happy-go-lucky classmate Sid Worley (David Keith) persistently makes friends with Zack.

Meanwhile local factory girls, Paula Pokrifki (Debra Winger) and her best friend Lynette Pomeroy (Lisa Blount), have big plans. They view Navy boys as their potential passports out of their drab working lives and would do what they can to snag a Navy husband. Once in a while, they dress up and visit the Officer Candidate School to meet with respectable wives of officers and attend social events.

At one such social event, Zack and Sid are introduced to Paula and Lynette. Both sets are paired up; Zack with Paula and Sid with Lynette. Zack is mildly amused to find Paula a quick-witted and headstrong woman. He chooses to play with her to pass time during the training course. Sid, however, falls for Lynette hard and fast.

Drill instructor Foley disapproves Zack’s indifference and aloofness, and his times with "local girls".   Under intense scrutiny from Foley and brutal drills, Zack is forced to face up to the truth about his reason for joining the Navy.   

Where will he go from there now? How would it affect his future, his deepening but still fragile relationship with Paula, and his friendship with Sid and others? And above of all, will he ever come to terms with his past? Will he graduate from the School with full honours?

All these years I thought An Officer and a Gentleman was a poor-boy-makes-good film with a dollop of romance, similar to Rocky and Top Gun, but I was wrong. It’s much more than that.

It’s a battle of wills, wits and beliefs. An everyday tale of an emotionally wounded young man who was convinced his driven ambitions and determination alone would get him to wherever he wanted to go. After experiencing a number of situations and confrontations, he consequently discovered no one can make it through alone. It’s a simple story, but it’s the oft-difficult progress of Zack’s emotional journey that made the film compelling to watch.

It wasn’t all about Zack. The story briefly touched the lives of people around him; the people who make Zack what he’ll become. Zack’s classmates: optimistic Sid Worley (David Keith), rigid Topper Daniels (David Caruso), preppy Emiliano Della Serra (Tony Plana), quiet giant Perryman (Harold Sylvester) and the only female classmate, Casey Seeger (Lisa Eilbacher) whose physical weaknesses constantly frustrated her. They slowly formed a sense of kinship as well as recognising their weaknesses and strengths while struggling through their thirteen-week training course.

Paula and Lynette who struggle with the knowledge that they may be like their families that spent their entire lives working in a world that Paula and Lynette hated. They were ambitious enough to do what they can to get out of it. This is where the film stumbled, I felt. At best they were portrayed as opportunists that don’t shy from using their bodies and other people to escape from a life of drudgery. It seems that the difference between Paula and Lynette lies with this question: how willing are they to stand by their men when the going gets tough? The most willing is the Good Woman and the least willing is the Bad Woman. Guess who won that Good Woman award? And what was her reward? We find out from watching the ending.

It bothered me that these women didn’t seem to think of doing it for themselves. Go to a bloody college, get a job outside the town, do whatever you can to escape without relying on men. If you want to shag a Navy boy, do it because you want to, not because it could snag you a husband. Yet the film made it perfectly normal while subtly condemning these characters, even Paula. Then again, it was pointed out to me that this was made during early 1980s. A different era, another world. Um, I’m not that convinced. Regardless, that was my only serious issue with the film.

Paula, to be fair, didn’t always take the crap from Zack when he had one of his usual arsehole moments, though. That partly redeemed her. I also liked her scenes with her concerned mother.

The relationship dynamic between Lynette and Sid was more fascinating than the one between Zack and Paula. Zack’s reaction-‘and Lynette’s-‘to Sid’s fate was gut-ripping as well. My friend actually cheered when Zack called Lynette names. But I felt sorry for Lynette because while I didn’t approve what she did, I thought I understood why she was driven to do it. In her own way, she was honest in her reaction to Sid’s decision.   My friend and I remain at odds over the demonization of Lynette  which is a mark of a good film.

I loved Louis Gossett, Jr. Loved, loved the man, so it was great to see him in this film. He unsurprisingly didn’t disappoint me with his performance, even though what came out of his mouth shocked me now and then. I’m not sure why it shocked me. I have seen films with similar characters including Full Metal Jacket. I think it was the way he said these things that made it so startling, attention-grabbing and effective.

I had no idea he won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. (I already knew about the Best Original Song award for Up Where We Belong.) David Keith’s performance surprised and delighted me. And leading man Richard Gere did well as Zack, (said I, begrudgingly). I always saw him a mediocre actor, but this role suited him very well because he seemed surprisingly naturalistic. Not so obnoxiously smug nor wooden. I wonder if it was because his character Zack can be such an arsehole that he fitted in well? Perhaps it was your direction that helped him to be a bit more likeable. I think it’s the latter.

The legendary ending was cheesy as hell, but despite my issue with its message, it worked, oddly enough. Worked well enough to make me sniffle. Just a bit.

In short, An Officer and a Gentleman is a gritty yet optimistic tale that will leave viewers with a sense of satisfaction and optimism. It gets B for that.

Be good, be bad & be safe,

Jaili
An Officer and a Gentleman trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1Ehz_cAMGc

18 Comments

  1. jmc
    May 01, 2009 @ 13:03:31

    Random question: Is Debra Winger still retired? She was in last year’s Rachel’s Wedding, I believe.

  2. Maili
    May 01, 2009 @ 13:45:58

    @jmc
    Oh, good point. After the documentary was theatrically screened, she decided to end her retirement to resume acting.

  3. Keishon
    May 01, 2009 @ 14:13:45

    Love the ending *swoon*

  4. Scarlett
    May 01, 2009 @ 14:25:47

    It bothered me that these women didn't seem to think of doing it for themselves.

    This was my big problem with this film as well. Paula and Lynette act as if they are SO desperate to get out of that town and their dead-end jobs, but the ONLY way they can think of is to seduce and trap some Navy pilot into marriage.

    Uh, women *did* go to college in the early 80s. Loans and grants did exist to help working class people go to college. Lynette was no brain-trust, sure, but Paula was supposed to be reasonably smart. She couldn’t go to community college and move to Seattle to get a good job? Why not? Who was stopping her?

    Other than that, though, it’s still a good movie. The ending is pure cheese but it gets me every time. Way to go, Paula. ::sniff::

    Poor Sid. :(

  5. MCHalliday
    May 01, 2009 @ 15:08:10

    It bothered me that these women didn't seem to think of doing it for themselves.

    Things were very different back then…women were still voicing the need for rights and equality. And we dealt with sexual harassment in the workplace without support of law. We had to overcome the preference of males in institutes of higher learning, excluding the ‘female’ accredited vocations such as nursing. Lenders would not allow loans and banks would not give credit to a single woman. I can vouch for all of this, although it may have been quite different in the USA at the time. Gloria Steinem didn’t think so.

    Lest we forget, the acceptance of women has been a journey made over the last century and only gained real momentum in the latter years. A good marriage in those days was a viable means of changing a woman’s life and providing for her children. Perhaps this film is a measure for women to recognise how far we’ve come.

  6. Catherine
    May 01, 2009 @ 15:29:04

    I guess I’ll have to disagree with your disbelief about Paula and Lynette’s attitude. When I was in the military I knew a lot of people like this. They may have been able to work hard enough to make it out on their own, but why would they? It’s much easier just to find a military member and get them to marry you. Then you have the benefits, the free housing, etc. The people that I knew like this would rather bet on a sure thing than risk trying to make it on their own.

    *I only got out a few years ago so I’m speaking from a semi-current point of view, not the 1980’s*

  7. Lisa Hendrix
    May 01, 2009 @ 15:45:05

    It bothered me that these women didn't seem to think of doing it for themselves
    ….Paula and Lynette act as if they are SO desperate to get out of that town and their dead-end jobs, but the ONLY way they can think of is to seduce and trap some Navy pilot into marriage.

    Hate to break it to you, but not all women are enlightened enough to try to do lift themselves ‘up where they belong.’ Even now, 27 years later, there are still plenty of women around bases who see military men (esp. future officers) as the way out of their dead-end lives. Just like there are buckles bunnies who think rodeo cowboys are the way out of the trailer park, or siliconed blondes who think snagging a rich husband is the best way out of wherever it is that produces Barbie wannabes (watch an episode of Millionaire Matchmaker if you don’t think so).

    That sort of female drives me nuts, too, but I can’t fault O&G for portraying them with a certain uncomfortable accuracy.

  8. SonomaLass
    May 01, 2009 @ 15:52:00

    Since I graduated from college the year before this film was released, I have to agree that what bothered me the most was how normal it seemed for the girls to expect that marrying up was the best way to improve their lives. Sure, that was still the expectation for a lot of women then, and still can be now — a lot depends on economics and upbringing and all that jazz. But I would have liked to see more direct contrast drawn between those women and Lisa Eilbacher’s character — there’s a woman who is going after her future the same way the men are, but as I recall, she has little to no interaction with the other female characters to encourage such a comparison in the minds of the audience. Of course it has been 27 years since I saw this film in its entirety — when it runs on TV occasionally, it is the Lou Gossett scenes that catch my attention and make me pause and watch for a bit. The Gossett-Gere relationship is the one that sticks out in my mind, not the romantic one.

    I also really enjoyed the documentary; it struck a lot of truthful notes about women “of a certain age” in the theatre. I was glad to see Debra Winger come out of retirement to play somebody’s mom — anyone who caught Jessica Lange or Faye Dunaway in their recent Lifetime movies also got to see fine actresses in roles not at the center of the story! /tangent

  9. Scarlett
    May 01, 2009 @ 16:23:40

    Hate to break it to you, but not all women are enlightened enough to try to do lift themselves ‘up where they belong.'

    Lisa Hendrix: I’m completely aware of this. I never said anything about not believing that there were people like Paula and Lynette in the world. I know plenty of women like that.

    But what bothered me about the movie is that I had a hard time LIKING Paula as a result. I wanted to “root” for Paula and Zack, but since I saw Paula as sort of pathetic for just waiting around for some man to marry her to save her from her crappy life, it did lessen my enjoyment of the movie. She wasn’t much better than Lynette, which Lynette even says to her at one point.

    I still like the movie, but I wanted to like Paula more than I did. I thought the movie tried to portray her as “smart” and “plucky” (at least compared to Lynette) but she didn’t come across that way to me. I can’t fault the movie for its “accuracy” either, but the audience is supposed to be cheering for Zack and Paula at the end. I thought Zack could do better.

  10. Lisa Hendrix
    May 01, 2009 @ 17:17:45

    what bothered me about the movie is that I had a hard time LIKING Paula as a result.

    Boy, am I with you on that one.

    I think I came across as snottier than I intended, Scarlett. Sorry about that. I was thinking about the girls around bases and my disgust with what I’ve seen (I used to live in apartments a couple of miles from a big sub base) came out in my language. It wasn’t directed at you/your opinion–or wasn’t intended that way, at least.

  11. Bonnie
    May 01, 2009 @ 17:54:31

    The women in this movie were idiots, but the last scene makes up for it.

    **sigh***

  12. LindaR (likari)
    May 01, 2009 @ 18:24:55

    This movie has the added treat of Grace Zabriskie, who plays Debra Winger’s character’s mother.

    If you click on the link, it goes to a post I wrote about her a while back.

    I love An Officer and a Genleman as social aritifact. Like Where The Boys Are, The Trouble With Angels, and A Summer Place, it’s shows The Way Things Were — for men as well as women.

    And I’ve always thought Richard Gere was a wonderful actor, but that’s just me. He was fantastic in Cotton Club.

  13. KristieJ
    May 01, 2009 @ 18:56:15

    Thanks for the review!! I love this movie for the same reasons you listed. And like you didn’t care for Paula and Lynette for a good deal of the movie but must confess that I didn’t mind Paula towards the end. What I did love through out the movie was the bonding that slowly went on between all the candidates – when Zach stopped to help the lone woman cadet over the hurdles, the way, after selling so many things, he gave away the buckles (or was it that he shined the shoes – it’s been a while since I’ve seen this movie) I loved seeing how he slowly allowed people into his life. This was the first Richard Gere movie I’d seen so I got a good one right off the bat.
    And yes – the ending is cheesy. But what is wrong with some great cheese at the end of a movie? I found it terribly, terribly romantic as he walked through the factory with the music swelling.
    As a lover of romance novels, this one was a great romance movie.

  14. library addict
    May 02, 2009 @ 01:38:10

    I've never been a fan of Richard Gere either. But I do think An Officer and a Gentleman is his best performance. I am old enough to remember seeing this film in the theatre when it was released.

    I don't think the film was so much about the women refusing to do things for themselves as it was that they were stuck in dead-end jobs and not encouraged by anyone to pursue their own academic dreams. For them seemingly the ONLY way out was to marry an officer. Of course that wasn’t true, but as others have said 1982 was in many ways a different world for women in regards to attitudes towards them in many professions.

    I guess I am surprised that anyone didn't know Louis Gossett, Jr. won an Oscar for his role. I remember that as being a big deal at the time. Debra Winger was also nominated. She is a wonderful actress (my favorite movie of hers is Leap of Faith, love her chemistry with Liam Neeson).

    The thing about Paula is that you knew from the beginning she was saving money to get out of town by herself. She didn't need to marry an officer candidate to do so. For me that's why the ending works. Yes, he does come and “rescue” her, but she was perfectly capable of rescuing herself.

    In the director commentary on the DVD Taylor Hackford talks about how the studio didn't feel the ending scene would work and did not want them to shoot it. Yet that scene is probably the most famous scene of the movie. Sure, it is fantasy, but it is also a romantic and satisfying fantasy.

  15. sallahdog
    May 02, 2009 @ 06:40:59

    I am very much of a product of this movies time period. While women did go to college at this time, we very often had fathers who valued our brothers going to college, but not the womenfolk.. Especially amongst the lower middle working class.

    My own father told me that college wasn’t for me, even though I was a good student, because I was just going to get married, get pregnant, and quit anyway..

    gee Dad, thanks… I married at 30… (and in the meantime went to college evenings and weekends around working 3 jobs at a time..) A lot of the attitude of this film, was from two different social classes looking at each other…

    btw, I hated this movie when it came out, because it depressed the hell out of me.. I wasn’t good looking enough to go hang out at officers bars looking for husband material… (oh, and I never liked Richard Gere as an actor either)

  16. LindaR (likari)
    May 02, 2009 @ 11:27:08

    Gah!

    Please see The Cotton Club and tell me you don’t like Richard Gere!! He and Diane Lane had fab chemistry in that.

    Anyway.

    Sorry. I lost control of myself for a minute. . .

  17. terri
    May 03, 2009 @ 23:01:11

    These are all great comments and your review was wonderful. You touched on so many of the reasons why this is a classic story. It’s also the movie that really shot Richard Gere to the top – whether he retained his honesty, as a character actor, after this movie, is open to opinion.

    Like you, I saw this movie for the first time, years after it was released. Like others who have commented, I understood the truth of what women faced in the late 70’s-early ’80’s and marvel at Paula’s independence and plan of action, at that time, as portrayed in this movie. It inspired many women to reaffirm their personal power at that time – though it’s glossed over in the movie.

    What struck me the most about this movie, when it was filmed, is it was also one of the most honest military movies at the time. This is the movie that paved the way for Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan. Until Officer and a Gentleman, military movies were mainly WWII propaganda-pro military- stunts. These went the way of the dodo bird when Vietnam news footage hit the airwaves. Until a few decades later.

    I applaud this movie for showing a truth, regarding American women – at that time – but it was really Lou Gosset Jr.’s character, and the relationship between him and Zack, that explored a different side of military life and the alpha male characterization.

    When you watch this movie again, rethink what history and truths may be waiting in the wings. Paula had her plan, goal, objective. She had her history, and exceptional mother. But it was all those thing that made her, a young woman in turbulent times, who the viewer knew, as she set the Navy cap on her head, was going to be a woman who could handle – the ultimate Alpha male, who had just been transformed…

    That’s the secret behind a good romance novel, that lands on the readers – keeper shelves.

  18. Dee Tenorio
    May 04, 2009 @ 13:04:45

    My Hubby introduced this movie to me–he was in Subic Bay when it was filmed (er, those hookers they show? They were real. As was the smiling black guy flirting with them as the camera passed. Was BIL’s teacher…his wife wasn’t pleased with his bit in it either.).

    Anyway, I think there were really three female types shown.

    Seeger: Female working hard to reach her goals herself.
    Lynette: Who has no intention of doing anything but marrying up.

    The third type, Paula, is the female character with an arc. She starts out going with the flow of the other girls her age. She wants an escape from her life and Lynette makes it sound so glamorous to marry into travel and better money and comfort. It’s a fantasy. Her reality is that her family expects her to work at the factory to help support the family, her step-father resents her and she spends every day watching her mother suffer in an unhappy marriage, largely because she was pregnant with Paula and Paula feels guilty. She falls for Zach, truly, but now is faced with using him (and she sees the effect of that through Lynnette’s example) or realizing that the only way to change her life is to do things on her own terms. If that starts with letting him go and staying in the factory until she can figure out what to do next, then that’s what she’ll do. Her life is now her own.

    Paula is likable in that she grows and realizes she had to change, just like Zach did. Two sides of the same coin.

    Sigh…I think I’ve watched this movie too much.
    Dee

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