An interview with Richard Gere about starring in Broadway's Bent, from the March 1980 issue of Playbill.
In the last three years, 31-year-old Richard Gere has been featured or has starred in five major motion pictures. He’s played characters ranging from spaced-out singles’-bar hustler in Looking For Mr. Goodbar to All-American boy soldier in Yanks to Rodeo-Drive-outfitted macho man in the just-released American Gigolo. Backed by good looks, stand-out reviews, and a powerful on-screen sexual charisma, Gere is currently being touted by the media as the new Robert DeNiro, the new Montgomery Clift, the new James Dean… even the new Brando. Gere is also being touted as a “film actor,” which overlooks the fact that his seemingly overnight soar in the movies is rooted in a solid – and impressive – theatre background. Since 1967, Gere has worked in university theatre (University of Massachusetts), stock, repertory, off-off Broadway, off-Broadway, and Broadway. Few people realize that Gere followed Barry Bostwick as Danny Zuko in the Broadway run of Grease—or that Gere went on to originate the same role in the London production.
Gere’s ten years of theatrical dues-paying never made as interesting copy as his sudden rise in films—or his notorious dislike and avoidance of publicity. The media was therefore caught by surprise last fall when it was announced that their “reclusive film star” would risk doing a Broadway play. The biggest surprise, however, was the role that Hollywood’s hottest new leading man had signed to do: he would play the homosexual lead in Bent, Martin Sherman’s nerve-shattering exploration of how Nazi Germany dealt with gay people.
According to Gere, he never thought in terms of “risks” when he agreed to do Bent. He only thought in terms of the script. “I read it on a plane flying back to New York to do some post-production work on American Gigolo,” he relates. “It was an incredible script—the best thing I had read in years. When I met with the director and author (Robert Allan Ackerman and Martin Sherman) the next day, it was funny—because we really had very little to talk about. They were so clear about what the play was and what its best intentions were: they were very clear about the fact that it was not purely a ‘gay’ play. There were other overtones. And then the next day I said that I was prepared to do it… that I wanted to do it. It was that quick.”
As part of his research for his role in Bent, Gere actually visited the infamous Nazi concentration camp Dachau in West Germany. Recalling his experience there, Gere says this: “You feel the texture of the place when you get near it. There’s misery—the texture of misery. It’s a frightening place. The camp is almost all there. The barracks have been burned down—but the foundations are there. You see the administration building, the crematorium, S.S. camp, the wire around the fence, the original signs. It’s overpowering. There are ghosts hanging about.”
Back in California Gere conferred with Christopher Isherwood, author of The Berlin Stories, the novel on which I Am a Camera and Cabaret were based. Isherwood filled Gere in on Berlin—and its gay scene—in the 1930s.
Gere has read a number of books on Nazi Germany and concentration camps—“books that would tear your heart out.” One important book that helped Gere in shaping his role was The Informed Heart by sociologist/concentration-camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim. “One of Bettelheim’s premises is that the people who survive in concentration camps are the ones that maintain their personalities,” Gere reports. “If you lose your personality, you become a ‘moslem’ (a person who doesn’t sleep, doesn’t eat, just wants to die). That’s a term in the play and it’s a real term.”
Gere calls his role in Bent “the most demanding” he’s ever played. He sees no one for 30 minutes after every performance. He describes much of what happens on stage as “one horror after another.” But emotionally as an actor, it’s an equally demanding experience for an audience. Ultimately, Gere sees theatre as an art form that is at its best when it is unsettling.
“Theatre should be dangerous,” he elaborates. “I think it should be the opposite of sitting in front of a movie screen or a television—where you know that what you’re seeing has already been filmed. In the theatre, you should feel that you are involved with the play—and that you can have an effect on what’s going to happen. You’re as much a part of the experience as the actors on stage. The extreme of this feeling is that maybe the actors are going to jump down from there and grab you by the throat. That feeling of danger should always be there—that feeling that it matters what you do when you’re sitting there. It matters what you think. It matters what you feel. When an audience is going with this play and it’s connected and we’re doing on stage what we should be doing, it gets very high. It levitates!”
Bent is not all danger and horrors, however. The core of the play is a very human story about a man—who happens to be a homosexual—who has a difficult time loving and accepting being loved. Says Gere of his character’s problem – which ironically is the same problem that Gere’s American Gigolo faces: “I think the central human dilemma is being able to say, ‘yes, this is who I am… with no bullshit attached. Accept me, please.’ And also saying, ‘yes, I will accept you love and will take responsibility.’ When we can do that, we’re happy. When we can’t, we’re living outside somehow. It isn’t just gay – it’s all of us.
“We carry around this weight—which is the metaphor of the second act,” Gere goes on, referring to the rocks that he and fellow inmate, played by David Dukes, are forced to carry from one pile to another as their concentration-camp task. “We carry around this weight without even be able to look at each other and being able to stop and say ‘I love you.’ The final line of the play is ‘I love you. What’s wrong with that?’…. What is wrong with that?”
Despite Bent’s essential humanity, its subject matter is still controversial and it has outraged some people. “The easy thing is to say that this is a play about faggots and Nazis and that nobody needs this in their lives,” Gere observes. “But I have a feeling that it’s stronger than that. I think this show touches on something that some people would rather not deal with. And it’s not the sexuality. I think it’s the love. This play makes people face the possibility that perhaps they live their lives the way Max in the play does – not being able to love and be loved. I think that’s the most horrifying thing about Bent for some people.”
The biggest surprise for Gere in doing Bent has not been the controversy—but the accolades that the show has received. “It’s been very gratifying. I get letters that are incredible. A lot of them are from gay people thanking me for doing the show. Even more gratifying are the letters from middle class people—priests, lawyers, housewives—who just never considered the gay question before. I mean they’ve just seen it as a cliché—and this play isn’t that. The play humanizes the situation and makes the central problems just as personal to straight people as to a homosexual. It really comes down to being faced with this question of ‘My God… all I want is to be loved and to love.’ That’s really what it comes down to. And people see it so clearly and so powerfully when they come out of this play. I’ve had letters from people telling me that they’ll be in their car on the way home from the show and they’ll burst into tears. Or they’ll turn their light out at night and they’ll hear their mate sobbing. And I think that’s wonderful. It makes us proud to be doing this.”