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An Officer and a Gentleman: Special Edition

When it comes to films, there's nothing like a good sucker movie. Which is to say it's no Citizen Kane, you may not want to admit to a lot of people you enjoy it, but when such a movie turns up on late-night cable you find yourself setting down the remote and settling in to enjoy an old favorite, comforted as if it were a tattered pair of bedroom slippers. Everybody has their own guilty pleasures, and a popular one is Taylor Hackford's 1982 An Officer and a Gentleman. It was only Hackford's second film, but upon its release in 1982 the picture earned an astonishing $130 million at the U.S. box-office, a figure that would exceed $200 million by today's standards (a $50 million grosser in the early '80s was a confirmed blockbuster). An Officer and a Gentleman made its bones on some remarkable sexual frankness (barely avoiding an X-rating in the original cut) and a key line from Richard Gere — "I got nowhere else to go!" — that contained echoes of Marlon Brando within a Method-induced howl of fear and pain. It has since become one of the most famous lines in movie history. And the film made headway into the Oscar season when Louis Gossett Jr. snagged a statuette for his noteworthy performance, marking a notable win for an African-American actor, particularly considering that he was up against such legends as James Mason and Robert Preston. It earned $55 million in home-video revenue before the release of the DVD. And with two DVD releases, it likely has become one of the most profitable titles in the Paramount catalog, particularly considering that it was green-lit with a low-budget, a 10-week shoot, and with a script that nobody wanted to touch for several years.

Richard Gere stars in An Officer and a Gentleman as Zack Mayo, a hard-scrabble kid who suffered the loss of his mother at an early age and never bonded with his reckless, macho father, an enlisted Navy man (Robert Loggia). Thus, after graduating college and with no firm prospects, Zack decides to become an officer candidate at (fictional) Fort Ranier in Port Townsend, Wash., in the hopes of becoming a Navy pilot. But the odds are against him — something his sardonic father is quick to point out, offering "You're not exactly officer material" as his only words of encouragement before Zack leaves for his 13 weeks of officer-candidate training. It isn't fatherly advice, but the elder Mayo is right. Zack is a loner. He's distant, deceitful, and incapable of putting his life in other people's hands. But if such traits don't make him an ideal Navy officer, it at least ensures he won't fall prey to the "Puget debs," local girls from Port Townsend who frequent the base, hoping to catch an officer for a husband. Inevitably, Zack and roommate Sid (David Keith) hook up with two debs, Paula (Debra Winger) and Lynette (Lisa Blount), but it's hard to know what will be the greater obstacle — the ageless lures of women, or hard-assed Marine drill instructor Sgt. Foley (Gossett), whose sole mission is to expose the weaknesses of his candidates and flush them out of the program.

*          *          *

Screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart — who originally wrote An Officer and a Gentleman for John Travolta — based his script on his own experiences in the Navy, and even though he wound up working with relative newcomer Hackford, the Paramount execs (among others) overseeing the high-profile project were Barry Diller, Don Simpson, Michael Eisner, and Jeffrey Katzenberg — Hollywood heavyweights who understood how formula delivers box-office. Such formula is why Officer will never rank as an avant garde classic. The hallmarks of the '80s were producer-driven genre exercises designed to return maximum dollars, and Hackford's film was not immune to the environment that funded it. Or perhaps another way of saying it would be, simply, that the '70s were over. However, even if the '80s delivered far less masterpieces that the previous decade, An Officer and a Gentleman is one of the highlights. Hackford and Stewart may offer a few melodramatic clichés (that famous ending somehow works, even though it shouldn't), but they deliver a genuine, character-oriented piece with solid performances, while each sequence in the film is unusually memorable. Richard Gere's career has extended far beyond this early work, but his youthful intensity illustrates his skill at dramatic range, as it has in later projects with good scripts (in particular the excellent Primal Fear). David Keith, as the earnest, naïve Sid, is a perfect thematic opposite to his moody roommate, and Stewart's contrapuntal arcs and conflicts (Zack and Paula, Zack and Foley, Sid and Lynette, etc.), keep everything moving at an acceptably brisk pace. But of course, it is Lou Gossett who delivered Officer's most indelible performance with his stoic turn as the inscrutable Sgt. Foley, a role not originally intended for a black actor, but full of unspoken subtext when we consider how Zack sees Foley, by turns, as a foil, a father figure, and a man who is not about to extend sympathy to a young punk who believes that he's the victim of disadvantaged circumstances. "Deep down inside," Foley tells Mayo, "you think all these other boys and girls are better than you." The same line, delivered by a white actor, might sound patronizing, but instead it's one of the only moments when we can suspect that Foley is revealing something about his life to Zack, and to us. It may be why he never quits on Zack when any other DI would.

Paramount's second DVD release of An Officer and a Gentleman, a "Special Collector's Edition," offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a nearly flawless source-print, likely unchanged from the original disc, while the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is now supplemented with a DD 5.1 mix. Returning from the first disc is the splendid commentary by director Taylor Hackford, who observes details from scene to scene but also offers a wealth of behind-the-scenes stories on the 1981 location shoot in Washington State. It's easy to like directors who can't shut up in the commentary chair, and Hackford is one of them, even talking briefly about the reported troubles between Gere and Winger on the set and his own working relationship with Winger, whom he tactfully describes as "a very difficult human being." New to this edition are five feautrettes, all worth a spin for fans — "An Officer and a Gentleman: 25 Years Later," (28 min.) with recollections from cast and crew (Debra Winger and Lisa Blount are notable exceptions), "Return to Port Townsend" hosted by Lou Gossett (12 min.), "True Stories of Military Romance" (7 min.), "The Music of An Officer and a Gentleman" (9 min.), and "Gere and Gossett: Hand-to-Hand Combat" (3 min.). Stills gallery, keep-case.
—JJB



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