She got me at “liberated woman’s himbo.”
The himbo in question is Richard Gere circa the ’80s. Karina Longworth says it almost as a throwaway, but damn, it’s so good. The line comes late in the third episode of You Must Remember This’s latest season, which — in a nice overlap with our own Erotic Thriller Week — intends to go deep into the rise, decline, and lingering afterlife of sex and eroticism in Hollywood movies. And Gere is as good a hook as any to the start off the conversation about Hollywood and the ’80s.
Gere exploded into stardom in the wake of 1980’s American Gigolo, in which he plays Julian Kay, the titular male escort who gets caught in a web of sex, intrigue, and murder (natch). The Paul Schrader film was foundational to the development of the erotic thriller genre as a phenomenon, and in her study of the movie, Longworth pinpoints the specific way in which American Gigolo, its central character, and the erotic thriller more broadly spoke to the shifting cultural moment as the ’70s were phasing out. Julian was someone whose every detail, quirk, and inflected sophistication was designed to embody the American consumerist ideology that would go on to dominate the yuppie ’80s. Combined with the fact that, you know, he’s hot as shit, here you have someone who cleanly serves as a prime object for the straight female gaze, thus allowing for some impression of revolution in the reorganizing sexual politics of the era. Liberated woman’s himbo, indeed.
The unspooling of genre, the consideration of the actor, the dense historical analysis — this is all classic You Must Remember This. Before getting to American Gigolo, Longworth spends the first two episodes in the ’70s, focusing the attention on the key factors that pumped sex into the movie theater: how the transition from the Production Code to the ratings system in the late ’60s gave rise to efforts at depicting sex on film and the X-rated movie, how massive hits such as 1972’s Deep Throat and 1973’s Last Tango in Paris bolstered greater Hollywood interest in projects that laced together sex and violence, how those ’70s-era X-rated flicks have been reconsidered as artifacts of violence against women because of the ways the actresses were harmed during production, and how the smashing together of the politics around sexuality, feminism, and pornography would set the stage for genres including the erotic thriller, teen-sex comedies, and neo-noir to emerge as a kind of rationalizing outcome from those conflicts.
But it’s in the third episode on American Gigolo, when Longworth lays out her framework on the erotic-thriller genre, that the season really feels as if it’s taking off into the stratosphere. “The movie does feel like the embodiment of what some would call a ‘vibe shift,’” she observes. “It’s a fascinating prism through which we can talk about consumerism as sexuality and vice versa, the influence of gay culture on hedonistic straight night life and the anxiety straight men felt about that influence, and Richard Gere’s embrace by the media as the ideal hunky cover boy through which to sell the idea that women could ‘have sex like men’ — and thereby deemphasize, and maybe even prevent, actual male-female equality where it mattered.”
The season debuted this week, and it will be split into two parts. The first, dubbed “Erotic 80s,” covers the question of sex in the movies through the end of the decade. This opening half will cover some far-flung ground, capping off with a deep dive into Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 debut, Sex Lies and Videotape. The second half, scheduled to come out later in the fall, will take listeners through the sex on film in the ’90s.
We are, of course, no strangers to Longworth’s work here at Vulture, and personally speaking, I’ve been following You Must Remember This almost since its debut in 2014. And I have to say: I don’t think I’ve heard Longworth have this much fun with her narration before. Her script this season feels chattier and more elaborate, her delivery more energetic and wry. Once again, of American Gigolo: “The movie, the character, the wardrobe are all selling sex. And a very specific type of sex: charged by the buzz of consumerism, the buzz of a fast car, the buzz of cocaine. It’s all exhilaration. Warmly lit but icy to the touch.” Of the movie’s relation to fellow erotic thrillers Dressed to Kill and Cruising and how they grapple with the era’s apparent anxieties over the state of straight masculinity: “I think American Gigolo, which deals with this panic in the most diffuse manner, is the most successful and least offensive. But I would think that as a middle-aged straight woman because it’s the only one of the three that considered the middle-aged straight female gaze.”
This season has been incredibly interesting so far. If you’re looking to continue the conversation about the good ol’ days when movies were sexy (even if problematic), you should really turn to the new season of You Must Remember This. This is how you bring people back to the movies: with sweat and himbos.