When cast well, Richard Gere has the unique ability to come off as the most vulnerable, yet dapper, privileged man alive. Like no other, Gere has the capacity to make us commoners sympathize with the needs and struggles of those cradled in the lap of luxury. When cast poorly, Gere shows up in scenes with a pained grin, like a cardboard cutout, confused why he’s even there. What the actor possesses as a master of seduction descends into the realm of parody per force. For the majority of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club, Gere can’t help but play the latter. Fit with lavish costumes and detailed production design, only the decor of this period piece can keep it from being a complete mess.
Richard Gere portrays Dixie Dwyer, a handsome and talented cornet player who gets mixed up with the mob at Chicago’s famed Cotton Club. After saving the life of a gruesome criminal named Dutch Shultz, Dwyer gets taken into Shultz’s dangerous circle. His first job is to take care of Shultz’s wife, Vera, (a la Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace) as a way to become a closer part of the “family.” Dwyer reluctantly starts to fall for the beautiful woman – played with an adolescent sexuality by the cherub-faced Diane Lane. Stuck without his freedom, and increasingly frustrated by his lack of a musical career, Dwyer connects with another mafioso – the Cotton Club owner Owney Madden – and winds up going out to Hollywood to be a star. Breaking free from the psychotic gangster, Dwyer plays mobsters in the movies. Successfully becoming an individual, Dwyer eventually gets to play the Cotton Club and Shultz gets his comeuppance at the hands of Madden’s gang.
Coppola, post The Godfather Part II made films that looked like giant grandiose set pieces. The films were less about how his lens captured a moment in an honest manner and more about setting up something lavish within the frame. As a result, many scenes in The Cotton Club unfold like they might be existing on a stage. The camera, often fixed in the position of the fourth wall, has two favored frames: the straight-on wide shot and the tight close-up. One to see the grand sets and choreography. The other to observe slicked hair, researched costumes, and bone structures of the attractive actors. The director wants us to feel the decorum, something he certainly succeeds at.
There’s a magnetizing bit of nostalgia to The Cotton Club, especially when the characters aren’t speaking to each other. Transition shots, like the one where Vera waits in the cold, draped by a fur coat, for Dwyer her to pick her up, have the dreamy intoxication of yesteryear. It’s like an impressionist painting of fantasized Americana. A scene like the tap dance practice between all the Cotton Club performers has the look of bristling Robert Frank photography, along with the gritty playfulness of performance seen between the lines of the big show. We feel we are seeing what churns on behind the curtain of a historic place. Nonetheless, the film’s style can’t overcome an uneven script.
The Cotton Club might be about Dwyer, but he seems to appear in scenes for little apparent reason throughout the first half. Besides his being the most handsome man in the room, we are given little information as to who he is or what he wants. Richard Gere looks embarrassed to be there, or at least confused that he doesn’t know why he’s there. Gere’s smooth charisma continuously get diffused by flat line readings of weak dialogue. His character goes between strangely violent and nervously vulnerable with little connectivity. The Cotton Club might expect its viewers to root for its leading man, but without any honest base for his actions, he comes off as cold and aloof. To make matters worse, the antagonists are cartoonish renditions if mob thugs who never scare nor incite. You may find it easier to laugh at Dutch Schultz’s psychotic actions than to be frightened by them. It’s as though this Chicago was run by the fearsome duo of Wile E. Coyote and Bowser.
If stark, pure authenticity isn’t the goal (and sometimes even when it is), period pieces have a way of taking on a campy, pastiche quality. The effect doesn’t always spell disaster, except when it goes entirely out of control. The Cotton Club spends so much time trying to walk and talk like a specific “kind” of time period that it never actually grows organically through it. As stunning as the visuals are, they never connect with the stiff acting or many plot threads at work. There’s an interesting interplay of race relations in the background of the picture. Like many American institutions in the past century, white men run the jazz club and white people pay to come inside, but all the performers are African American. At one point Owney Madden tells Dixie, “If you were colored we could book you here.” Dixie quips, “The great tragedy of my life.” Upon its initial release, the film drew criticism for it’s matter of fact handling of African American subordination. To my eye, its a compelling look at continued social inequality. Unfortunately, this theme of racial ownership remains in the background, jammed squarely between the ham-fisted plot progression and cardboard romance.
Coming at the height of both Coppola and Gere’s career, The Cotton Club unravels as an ungainly misfire that would spell a sign of things to come from both men. Still glossed in the residue of 1970s technique, occasionally gritty, wild, risk-taking, and alternatively seductive, the film has some flares of intrigue. But the writing could never decide what it wanted to be and Coppola’s efforts to get every ounce of his production design seen inside the mise en scène plays more as lazy filmmaking than epic vision. Another entry into the bizarre 1980s Hollywood mystique, The Cotton Club should be seen if only because you need a dose of Richard Gere in his most plastic form. [C]
Gere Dance is an ongoing retrospective on the films of Richard Gere, one of America’s greatest, if also underrated, leading men.