An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
An Officer and a Gentleman: Special Edition
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,
An Officer and a Gentleman trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1Ehz_cAMGc