In 1997, Richard Gere made a movie that would, more than a decade later, kill his career as an above-the-line star.
The film was Red Corner, an MGM drama about an American broadcast executive trapped in China’s Kafka-esque and punishing legal system. Gere’s character becomes a one-man rebuke to China’s Communist Party rule, his case a referendum on the sense of justice and Western thought it keeps from its people.
It was a role the outspoken actor had embraced off-screen as well, a position that would blacklist Gere as China’s influence in Hollywood grew, as I learned while reporting my new book, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy.
Since the 1993 Academy Awards, when Gere interrupted his presentation of the best-art-direction award to decry the “horrendous, horrendous human-rights situation there is in China, not only towards their own people, but to Tibet as well,” the star of American Gigolo and Pretty Woman had aligned himself with one of China’s state enemies, the Dalai Lama, and spoke out against the Chinese government any chance he had.
“Red Corner is a far more important film to me than Seven Years in Tibet, because it has the catalyst to change the world,” he said in an interview, while MGM executives tried to downplay his advocacy. To the frustration of studio executives, the movie’s promotional tour coincided with a visit from Chinese president Jiang Zemin to Bill Clinton’s White House, a signal of the deepening trade and diplomatic ties forming between the two countries in the 1990s. While Clinton hosted Jiang, Gere hosted a “stateless dinner” across the street on the rooftop of the Hotel Washington, inviting fellow Buddhists Uma Thurman and Sharon Stone.
Red Corner, a $48 million project directed by Jon Avnet (a producer of Risky Business and Black Swan), didn’t reach too many minds to change—the film came and went with a gross of $22 million in a year when Men in Black and My Best Friend’s Wedding dominated the box office. Yet Gere remained Hollywood’s most glamorous critic of China and defender of Tibet, becoming known for wearing prayer beads on the red carpet and attending private prayer sessions with “His Holiness” himself.
That public stance became a professional liability in the decade after the hosting of Jiang, as the Chinese economy grew into a market force. By 2011, following the largest internal migration in the history of the world, more than 690 million Chinese citizens were living in cities and embracing consumerism as Western companies, from Nike to Apple, rushed in.
So did Hollywood, which saw financial salvation in China’s shiny new movie theaters. In the mid-90s, when American movies started to be exported to China, the market was an afterthought. By 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, it was clear that China would one day have the largest movie audience in the world—and grow in a time when American moviegoing was flatlining.
Soon every studio needed to get its movies into China—which meant getting them approved by Chinese censors, who scrutinized every frame. In 2006, Mission: Impossible III edited out scenes of dirty laundry drying in Shanghai which officials didn’t like, since it didn’t present China as the modern, developed nation they wanted it to look like. The 2012 James Bond movie, Skyfall, cut a moment in which 007 kills a Chinese security guard, since that portrayed the country’s men as weak. And 2013’s World War Z removed a reference to a zombie-inducing virus originating in China, to avoid implying the country could cause such an outbreak (a plot point that would seem prescient years later).
In this new paradigm, Gere was too radioactive to hire, a fate also met by Lady Gaga and other Dalai Lama supporters who cannot work in China. Certainly no new installment in the Marvel Studios franchise would collect its requisite $200 million in Chinese grosses if it starred a public critic of the regime such as Gere. His mere involvement would likely mean it wouldn’t be approved for release at all.
All of this explains why the last movie Richard Gere made with a major studio was the romance Nights in Rodanthe, also starring Diane Lane, in 2008. Since then, the now 72-year-old actor has appeared in independent features such as Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage and John Madden’s The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Contemporaries of Gere’s, like Michael Douglas, appear in Marvel movies pretty regularly. Even Mel Gibson is booking jobs. But Gere has remained untouchable. (The actor declined multiple requests for comment.)
China has put Richard Gere on a new, distinctly 21st-century blacklist. An executive I spoke to at Warner Bros. characterized it this way: “If you could have somebody else, then get somebody else.”
In June 2020, Gere testified before Congress in favor of a bill to give the U.S. better access to cashmere made in Mongolia, one of several efforts underway to bolster the economies of nations near China in order to make such countries less dependent on the handouts that quickly translate into Chinese political influence.
In that testimony, Gere kept the focus on the Mongolians but did allow that he’d paid a personal price for speaking out against China, mentioning the movie that had started it all, Red Corner.
“Imagine Martin Scorsese’s Kundun or my own film, Red Corner, being made today,” he said. “It simply would not happen.”
Erich Schwartzel’s Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy is out now from Penguin Press