I’d forgotten how much I love An Officer and A Gentleman until I accidentally happened across it on pay TV last month. While I love movies, I don’t have a big DVD collection – need those dollars for all the books, y’know – but I rushed to buy my own copy of this 1982 classic which has completely stood the test of time.
Why do I love it? Possibly because it has so much in common with my favourite romance novels. It’s like a big fat old-fashioned Desire, with one of my favourite hero types – the strong, taciturn loner wounded by his upbringing and just crying out for the love of a good woman.
The tagline: life gave him nothing, except the courage to win…and a woman to love.
Our strong, taciturn hero is unlikely Navy recruit Zack Mayo - Richard Gere is just perfect in this role. Zack wants to fly jets, but first he has to grow and change to become a team player and earn the respect of his fellow candidates. This growth also allows him to finally accept love, and that love lifts him up where he belongs (to quote the movie’s theme song.)
It’s a classic character arc, superbly played out.
The movie opens with a character-setting flashback of our hero as a 12-y-o meeting his alcoholic sailor father, Byron, who is stationed in The Philippines. Zack’s mother has just suicided.
Byron: I'm out at sea three weeks out of every month, and when I'm back at port I don't have time for this daddy stuff 'cause that's not who I am.
Young Zack: That's okay, sir.
Byron: Wait a second, kid, you don't understand. I'm too old for this. I don't care what the Navy says. This is no place to bring up a kid like I told you on the telephone. You're better off at that state school back in
Young Zack: I'm never going back there. They treat me like shit.
Byron: Maybe that's not for you to say. Goddamit, don't look at me that way. What happened to your mother had nothing to do with me.
Young Zack: It did. You said you were gonna come back. You promised.
Byron: Is that what she said? That's a female lie. That's bullshit! That's a lie!
Young Zack: I found your letters. I read them right after she did it. You said you were gonna come back for us. You said you loved her, and she believed you. You're a liar!
Flash back to the present and Zack has just graduated college. He tells his father, worse-for-wear after a big night on the tiles, that he’s joined the Navy and is about to enter Officer Candidate Training. A stunned Byron laughs and Zack asks what’s so funny.
Byron: “You, man. You’re crazy. Look at yourself. Officers don’t have tattoos. They’re not like you and me.”
How’s that for setting up Zack’s internal conflict, all before the opening credits? Especially when we see him using a sticky plaster to cover up that tat before arriving at the training base.
There we meet his fellow recruits and their domineering sergeant (Louis Gossett Jn won the best supporting actor in this role.) Foley rides Zack hard, but every insult and every put-down only makes our hero more determined to succeed…and to break the survival course record along the way. He’s an alpha in training, after all. Meantime he forms a strong friendship with Sid Worley (David Keith), the recruit from the right side of the tracks who appears to have it all.
Where’s the romance, I hear you ask? Getting to that.
Our guys are warned about the local girls who set out to catch themselves a naval aviator husband, so when we meet Lynette and Paula (Debra Winger) that is our perception. Poor factory workers, looking for some fun but also a ticket out of town. Turns out that’s exactly what Lynnette is after when she zeroes in on Sid, but our heroine Paula is different. Her backstory = more wonderfully telling stuff.
One of my favourite scenes is when she and Zack meet. There’s instant chemistry and although they’re both playing it cool the attraction sizzles through the screen.
They start an affair – steamy bedroom scene alert, hubbahubba - but Zack doesn’t want to be loved; he doesn’t know how to love or be loved; and he sure doesn’t want to talk about his inner demons or admit his vulnerabilities. When things get too serious, poor Paula doesn’t see him for dust.
Before Zack can get his happy ending, he is put through the wringer by Foley and by the tragic end to the Sid-Lynette subplot. There are several truly gut-wrenching moments when the story hits its emotional climax. (Did I mention that this is not a sweet, hearts-and-flowers romance?) But there’s a pay-off – and how! – in the movie’s famous, uplifting and one-hundred-percent romantic ending.
“Way to go, Paula. Way to go.”
Bronwyn's next book, BOUGHT AND PAID FOR WIFE, is out now in the
For more about Bronwyn's fabulous, sexy, sensuous Desire novels, check out her website.