Officer and a Gentleman, An (1982): Taylor Hackford’s Blue Collar Fairy Tale, Starring Richard Gere and Debra Winger

During the golden age of Hollywood, romantic melodramas such as the new film An Of Officer and a Gentleman, were a staple. The story of a flippant inwardly anguished young serviceman who tries to hustle his way through Officer’s Candidate School is completely familiar and yet enjoyable perhaps because of its familiarity. It also helps that the movie is well-acted by Richard Gere and especially Debra Winger, and well-directed by Taylor Hackford

Zack is contrasted with the outwardly gruff, inwardly sensitive sergeant Emil Foley (Louis Gossett Jr., in an Oscar-winning performance), who sees the great potential lurking beneath that obnoxious attitude, and decides to make or break the brash youth by turning on the pressure.

Our Grade: B (**1/2* out of *****)

Then an outwardly superficial, inwardly decent girl named Paula (Winger) snuggles up to the hero. At first, shes attracted to his potential statusthe promise that he’ll be somebody, but we know better, realizing she’s actually falling in love with Zack.

Theres also an outwardly easygoing, inwardly confused best friend Sid (David Keith), who helps the protagonist through his rougher moments only to discover he can’t cope with his own mounting problems.

Made in the early 1980s, during the height of Reagans popularity, retro movies about macho men of the military and women who desire marriage and family life more than a career were suddenly “in” again. Like other film formulas that seemed gone forever, this was ripe for revival in the Reagan era, if only some clever filmmakers could dress it up for modern audiences by adding more graphic sex and rougher language.

An Officer and a Gentleman was that film, at once predictable and contrived, custom-made for viewers that clearly wished to be entertained by trendily packaged yet traditional fare. The movie was released with little promotional fanfare or advance advertising, but the public found it anyway, making a hit out of the movie while setting Richard Gere and Debra Winger on their way to major stardom.

What people saw in the film was a dramatic realization of what most Americans obviously wanted to believe in once again: that the American Dream works, that men from the lower class in life can struggle within the system to better themselves and go to the top, that women stuck in third-rate factory jobs could marry the men of their dreams if they only live a life of decent values.

In the Forties, such decent values would have been presented in a more modest way and include chastity. But reflecting the mores of its times, the sexual bouts between Zack and Paula were vivid and erotic.

Winger moved on to more serious and ambitious roles, but Gere never completely moved from hunk star to serious actor, especially after his appearance in the stylish remake Breathless, the following year. Officer and Gentleman remains one of Gees most memorable hit, effortlessly addressing itself to the collective hopes of its audience by presenting old movie myths of professional success and personal romance in a pseudo-new and pseudo-realistic setting, making the fantasy appear more attainable.

Screenwriter Stewart (himself a Navy Officer’s Candidate School survivor) and director Hackford have fashioned a movie that made audiences feel good about themselves and their country–despite occasionally brutal beatings and a strangulation suicide. The movie implied that while the world may be an unpleasant place, there still exists in it the potential for personal accomplishment, the possibility of happiness and, therefore, reason for continued optimism. Most Americans wanted to believe in thatafter all they have elected Reagan as President.

An Officer and a Gentleman represents a shrewd restatement of traditional American values. If it appeared hip on the surface, willing to stretch the boundaries of language and eroticism, it was conservative underneath: pro-military, pro the American system, pro old-fashioned relationships and sexual politics.

A pastiche of conventional potboiler plots, the movie, like the 1990 Pretty Woman (also with Richard Gere) presents its blue-collar fairy tale-for-adults in vivid and enjoyable manner that viewers responded to it emotionally if not intellectually.

Geres character is truly a frog-turned-prince who showed up at just the right moment (the last possible moment) to carry Cinderella off the factory floor amid cheers.

One of the movie’s few modern touches was to have the drill sergeant played by a black actor (although race was reportedly not in the original script). Louis Gossett, Jr., took ordinary lines (“Don’t eyeball me, mister!”) and made them sound inspired, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He explodes in a movie that otherwise proceeds with quiet self-assuredness.

The movies phenomenal success, despite the familiarity of the plot and characters, proved that mainstream American audiences were still attracted to the notion of movie-going as ritualistic experience reaffirming traditional myths.


Running time: 125 min.
MPAA Rating: R.

Produced by Martin Elfand.
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Screenplay by Douglas Day Stewart
Photography: Donald Thorin
Editor: Peter Zinner.


Zack Mayo (Richard Gere)
Paula Pokrifki (Debra Winger)
Sgt. Emil Foley (Louis Gossett, Jr.)
Sid Worley (David Keith)
Lynette Pomeroy (Lisa Blount)
Byron Mayo (Robert Loggia)
Casey (Lisa Eilbacher)
Emiliano Serra (Tony Plada)
Perryman (Harold Sylvester).