Back in the late 1960s, I was a film student at Sarah Lawrence College. That was about the coolest thing you could be in those days. It was also the easiest. Classes were mostly watching movies. True, you had to take a screenwriting seminar, but our teacher was very forgiving—anything against the war in Vietnam was an automatic A. You also had to study acting, but through some quirk of fate I turned out to be very good at this. I was soon getting the lead in all the student films.
They were the hard part. You had to learn about cameras and film stock and tape recorders and such. Luckily, there were always boys in the class who thrived on this sort of stuff, leaving me and the girls to start planning our climb to Hollywood stardom. It was a very intense atmosphere. Making a movie with a bunch of people is the ultimate bonding experience. Making a movie with a bunch of college students who are just starting out, wildly ambitious but totally inexperienced—that kind of glues you together for the rest of your life, for better or worse.
The leader of our little group was a guy named Jon Avnet. He was what is known as a Jewish prince. The only son of a wealthy family from Great Neck, he was spoiled and indulged, which made him a great friend to have. He had a van, a motorcycle, and an apartment off campus. He always paid for the pizza. And somehow, no matter whose student film it was, Jon managed to take charge and make everybody do his bidding.
And then, in the middle of our senior year, he announced that he was making a movie. Not a student film, although it would certainly qualify as his senior project. It was to be a real movie, with a professional crew, full-length, in color—the whole shebang. Why go through the angst of working your way to the top when you can start off there, with $100,000 your father is giving you?
Jon had been working on a script for months, and we all would have a part. I got to play the villain, an evil hippie biker named Gingo. Since I usually played mousy, emasculated wimps, it was going to be a stretch, but it never crossed my mind I wouldn’t pull it off beautifully. There were three female leads, as the hero, based on Jon himself, was quite devastating to women. Ceil Smith, an off-off Broadway actress, was playing the love of his life, a gentle, sweet-tempered artist. Lee Worley, our acting teacher, was the predatory older woman obsessed with Jon, and Amy Robinson, another of our film student coterie, was the sexually rapacious bitch goddess who torments Jon with the pleasures of the flesh. Amy—whose real-life sexual experience at this point was making out with a boy from Princeton—had a big scene where she and the hero eat a jar of peanut butter with their fingers, all the time staring into each other’s eyes. In theory, it was immensely powerful and erotic, and Amy was practicing licking her fingers every chance she got.
The first day of shooting was looming, and we had the whole movie cast except for one part—the leading role. As the leading role was Jon’s late adolescent, highly romanticized vision of himself—part James Dean, part Jim Morrison, with a dash of Mandy Patinkin— the person that was cast had to be just right. Though nobody was terribly crazy about him, we were on the verge of hiring an actor named Jared Martin. He was in California auditioning for something and would fly back if Jon paid for the ticket.
Then, just as we’d given up and were arranging for Jared’s ticket, Amy came running into the production office.
“I found him! I found him!” she screamed.
“Who?” Jon and I said.
“The guy for the part. I was in the lobby at La MaMa and Judy Benson introduced me to him. He’s perfect!”
“Who is he?”
“Richard something.” She thought for a moment. “Richard Gere!”
Confusion’s Circle—the title refers to a film term, something about finding the focus— may well be a masterpiece of the student film genre. It had everything. Dream sequences, psychedelic drug trips, freeze frames, left-wing politics, nudity, lyricism and some really, really bad acting.
Try as I might, I can’t quite recall the plot. There was the Richard Gere/Jon Avnet character, who played the leader of a hippie commune. But he was much more than that. He was an accomplished poet and a reckless biker. He was troubled and sensitive, yet wise and brave.
He and I were locked in some sort of power struggle for control of the hippies. Most of the movie consisted of scenes at the commune where the members sat around and said terrible things about their parents and the government, all the while puffing on dope—pretend dope, I must add, for we were quite the professionals. The other scenes were mostly about Richard and his women problems. I do remember one line. One of the women greets him bitterly with, “Back to suck on Big Momma’s tit?”
The scene that remains most vivid in my mind was the big nude scene. Richard and Ceil have been making love up in the master bedroom of the commune, surrounded by hundreds of candles. It was very beautiful and sensual, or about as beautiful and sensual as it could be in a freezing loft with no heat and Amy standing by to make sure the candles stayed lit, while bursts of arctic air blew in, causing Richard and Ceil to frantically don overcoats between takes. Then I was supposed to burst in with the news that the leader of a rival hippie commune has broken in downstairs. Richard jumps out of bed and we run off to the rescue.
Since this was the 1960s, we were all determined to play it without any clothes on. After all, what self-respecting hippie would sleep in his pajamas? For some reason it was impossible to get right—the candles that Amy managed to keep lit kept setting small fires on the set, and I never could get my entrance timed right. I’d burst through the door naked and stand there trying to deliver my lines, my teeth chattering. The cold caused extreme “shrinkage” problems, and every time I burst through the door the crew would start laughing. Finally Jon said, “Bob, please. Put some clothes on.”
I had never met anybody quite like Richard. He was 21 years old, brand-new to New York, and totally focused on furthering his career. He was very aware of his effect on people. He couldn’t help but be; waitresses fussed over him and women—and some men—stopped on the street to stare at him. While the rest of us aspiring actors had trouble getting in to see an agent, Richard was always ushered right in.
At this point in his career he was thin and lanky, with long, curly brown hair. One of his front teeth overlapped the other. On most men this would have been a flaw. On Richard it only made him sexier. “See? I’m not perfect,” it said. “Sometimes I need a shoulder to cry on about my tooth.” As Aristotle said, “The emotions need something to forgive.”
Confusion’s Circle took about two months to film. During that time the cast and crew really did turn into a commune. There were flirtations and love affairs, intense discussions about art and life and Bob Dylan. We were up before dawn, racing around Manhattan in the van, shooting scenes on the street and in Washington Square. There were also forays out into the country, particularly a dream sequence in which Richard confronts the victims of the My Lai massacre, played by nine young girls Amy managed to round up from a private school in Brooklyn. He encounters them in the woods near Chappaqua, bloody and bandaged and looking very reproachful.
Richard was friendly and hard-working and easy to get along with, but he was very much his own man, with an agenda that set him a little apart from everyone else. He looked upon the world with a bemused smile—interested in what he saw but not wanting to play. That drive toward having fun 21-year-olds have—getting drunk, getting stoned, going to parties, being silly—was missing in him.
I just wished he were a better actor. We had many scenes together, and he didn’t really do anything. He stood there and said his lines without moving. Oh, he had a characteristic jerk to the side that he used quite often, as if to say, “What on earth are you talking about?” But other than that you really didn’t get much back.
Fortunately, I was up to the task. Because I knew how to act. I kept my face in constant motion, eyebrows up, eyes squinting, lip being bitten, nose being scratched. I was very good at straining my neck muscles so that the veins stuck out, and when I jutted my chin out to express defiance, well, you knew just what I meant.
It was too bad, really. He was so attractive, but the talent just wasn’t there. For me the sky was the limit. For him . . . well, he’d end up an also-ran, an asterisk to a footnote in the history of Hollywood.
Fast forward. Jon completed Confusion’s Circle, and while it never got distributed commercially, it did get him into the director’s program at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He moved out there and started producing films with another rich kid from New York named Steve Tisch. Their first big hit was called Risky Business, which introduced Tom Cruise to the world.
But of course what he really wanted to do was direct. He got his chance in 1991 with a book called Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.
I immediately thought “uh-oh” when I heard the news. It was about strong Southern women, and I couldn’t imagine worse material for Jon. It was released under the title Fried Green Tomatoes and went on to gross almost $120 million worldwide and become a feminist manifesto of sorts.
After his success with Tomatoes, he was really in the big time. He directed Up Close and Personal with Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford, and a whole bunch of other movies. He produced The Mighty Ducks franchise. Last time I saw him—at a funeral in New York for one of our classmates—he told me about how Nelson Mandela was pursuing him to make a documentary about his life—Nelson’s, not Jon’s.
“You know,” he said, as we rode in the back of his limo on the way to the service (by the way, it was his limo, not a rented one), “I never understood it.”
“Understood what?” I asked.
“Why you never became a star.”
Food for thought, particularly on your way to a funeral.
And as for Amy, she sort of did become a star. She played what is known as “the girl in Mean Streets,” Martin Scorsese’s first big movie. But it was running all those errands—finding extras, arranging locations—in Confusion’s Circle that really paid off. She became a major Hollywood producer, with films like With Honors, Running on Empty, After Hours, and, most recently, Julie & Julia to her credit. And oddly enough, we’ve remained best friends all this time.
In the year 2000 we were talking on the phone. She was telling me about the new movie she was producing. It was called Autumn in New York and was going to be directed by that new Chinese director, Joan Chen. “And guess who plays the lead?”
“Oh, my God. Amy, you’ve got to get me a part.”
I flew to New York and auditioned. Since it’s about a dying girl (Winona Ryder), I thought I could play one of the doctors, but Joan Chen decided I would fit in better as the character named “Grubby Little Man,” who is hanging out in the hospital corridor while Winona is dying in her room.
I was very excited. Back in the big time after all these years. And working with Richard again! Would he even remember me? How could he not?
We were shooting in a hospital on Governor’s Island in New York, and Amy and I rode up in the elevator to the floor where the shooting was taking place. The elevator doors opened, and there was Richard Gere.
“Richard!” I screamed.
“Gingo!” he cried, and we fell into each other’s arms.
“You two know each other?” asked the puzzled assistant director.
“We were in a movie together,” I explained.
“That wasn’t a movie,” sputtered Richard. “That was a . . . a thing.”
We started blocking our scene. Richard is pacing the hall outside Winona’s room and I walk by. He tries to bum a cigarette and I won’t give him one.
Finally we’re all set to go. Joan Chen yells action, I start
walking by and Richard comes up to me. “You got a cigarette?” he says.
Oh, my God, I thought. He still can’t act. Look at him. Nothing. No expression. Totally blank face. His girlfriend is dying and he’s completely emotionless.
Oh, well. I’m going to have to do what I did back in the Confusion’s Circle days. Do enough acting for both of us.
“You’re not a smoker,” I snarl, all but hissing at him.
“Cut!” yelled Joan Chen. “Grubby Little Man, come here a minute.”
I trotted over to her to accept her congratulations.
“Please,” she begged. “Pull it back a little.”
I tried. I really tried. Then after a couple of takes we looked at it on video. You couldn’t take your eyes off Richard. He dominated the scene so completely that even I forgot I was in it. In what I thought was an emotionless face, asking for a cigarette, you could see the whole character, the grief of losing his girlfriend, his innate goodness, and a coming of wisdom and hope for the future.
Hmmm, I thought. Maybe he can act. In fact, maybe I had it reversed. You don’t do as much as possible. You do as little as possible. Finally I had learned the secret—40 years too late.
We finished our scene and Richard and I hugged one last time. I was rather hoping we might go out for a drink, but it was very late and he was being led to his limo with several assistants in tow. I myself was getting a ride back to the city in a van with some of the crew members.
“Good-bye, Richard,” I called out one last time, but I don’t think he heard me.
Senior editor Robert Plunket, author of the novels My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie, wrote “Havana 1960” in our November issue. Read his social diary, Mr. Chatterbox, here, and his real estate blog, Real Estate Junkie, here.
The Confusion’s Circle Network (a partial filmography)
Less Than Zero
Fried Green Tomatoes
The Mighty Ducks
Up Close & Personal
George of the Jungle
Looking for Mr. Goodbar
Days of Heaven
An Officer and a Gentleman
Autumn in New York
Head Over Heels
Baby It’s You
Running On Empty
For Love of the Game
Autumn in New York
Julie & Julia
Autumn in New York