Richard Gere Was in Philly Last Night to Advocate for the Homeless

He walked the red carpet at the Ritz East with Sister Mary Scullion at a screening of his new film, Time Out of Mind.

Richard Gere at the Ritz East. Photo courtesy Allied Integrated Marketing.

Richard Gere at the Ritz East. Photo by Scott Weiner.

Last night it was a packed house at the Ritz East in Old City for a red-carpet premiere of Time Out of Mind, a new film about homelessness directed by Oscar-nominated Oren Moverman (The Messenger, Rampart) and starring Richard Gere, who produced it as a passion project.

Both director and star were at the theater and participated in a pre-screening panel, but on the red carpet — such as it was, an abbreviated strip taped to the Ritz lobby’s floor with electrical tape — all eyes were on Gere, including those of several female reporters who, I suspect, do not normally dress in such finery for junket interviews. (In the interest of full disclosure, given that Gere was my biggest teenage crush, I also considered dressing up to meet him, and then thought, What’s the point? It’s not like he’s going to leave his 32-year-old tall, blond, Spanish socialite girlfriend for a 5-foot middle-aged Jewish Philadelphian. I wore jeans.)

Like many movie stars, Gere was magnetic in person, but also incredibly warm and generous with his time. A woman from Philly’s street newspaper One Step Away, sold by homeless individuals, gave Gere a copy of the paper. She was accompanied by a man who’d been homeless himself; as soon as Gere heard that, he turned his full attention to him and asked how he was doing. He called him a hero. It could have been a cringeworthy celebrity moment, but it wasn’t. There was no condescension in Gere, only what seemed to be genuine interest and respect. Later, he emphasized the notion of treating people with high regard, even if they’re in reduced circumstances.

His first red-carpet interview was with NBC’s Jacqueline London (I can be seen in the background biting my cuticles). In the middle of the interview, he stopped and called Sister Mary Scullion over to join him on-camera, indicating that she was really the person to talk to about homelessness. London looked at her cameraman like, “Oops, this isn’t planned,” as Gere threw his arm around the Project HOME executive director as though they were close friends.

Photo | Liz Spikol

Photo | Liz Spikol

And in fact, while they might not winter together in Ibiza, Gere and Sister Mary, as everyone calls her, have been working closely on this project. Gere produced the film as a labor of love; he’s been hoping to bring it to fruition for more than a decade. He stars as George Hammond, a man we know little about who becomes homeless and has to survive on the streets and in the shelter system.

The film is extremely impressionistic, without a lot of conventional dialogue and plot. Gere (in ragged clothes, without glasses, hair shorn) wanders the streets of New York, and we hear snippets of conversation that take place around him — people negotiating with lovers on cell phones, parents talking to kids on the way to the park. They’re living their regular lives while the homeless pass by, unnoticed. The viewer often sees George at a distance, filmed behind objects or through windows, in the background.

“The movie is shot from the point of view of the city,” Moverman told the audience before the film started. Bringing the homeless into the foreground is clearly the aim of the film — and of Gere’s longtime advocacy on this subject (his social justice work earned him Philadelphia’s Marian Anderson Award a few years ago). He worked for many years as a shelter inspector in New York but he said he realizes how tough the subject is for even the most well-meaning people. “We all struggle with, should I help them? Should I make sure they don’t use the money for drugs? There’s a drama we go through after the initial understanding of another person’s suffering.”

But more important than whether to give change is to remedy our disaffection toward the homeless, who often remain unseen. This is something Gere experienced himself in the 21 days of filming in New York. Because Moverman filmed from a distance, using extreme telephoto lenses, Gere was basically alone on the streets — sleeping on benches, digging through trash cans, shaking a cup for change. There were only two times during almost a month of filming that anyone recognized him. Normally, Gere can’t walk slowly in New York without being recognized — he has to pull a hat down over his face and keep moving. But because he was dressed like a homeless person, “I was invisible. People decided within two blocks of seeing me that I was a homeless guy, and no one made eye contact with me,” Gere said. As a filmmaker, of course, he was relieved by the lack of recognition — it left plenty of room for Moverman’s long takes. But as a human being, Gere found his invisibility disturbing. “It made me realize how surface our experience of each other is. We’re living in the echo chamber of our own minds and prejudices. If Richard Gere can be treated like garbage, it’s a profound lesson for me personally and for audiences as well. It can happen to anyone.”

The filmmaking team, along with Sister Mary, screened the movie for attendees of a conference on homelessness in July. There were hundreds of NGOs that deal with the issue, and the response to the film was overwhelmingly positive. Sister Mary said that’s because it’s the most honest, realistic portrayal of homelessness she’s ever seen.

Gere is working with groups like Project HOME to promote the notion that homelessness is a problem whose solution is within reach. “We can end it if we have political will,” said Sister Mary, “and people get more personally involved, asking their elected officials.” (Sen. Bob Casey was in attendance at the screening — he and Gere shared a warm hug.) An important focus for advocates is addressing the needs of people living on the edge of homelessness. “Preventing it is the most important thing you can do,” she said. “Once you become homeless, the human disconnect is devastating.” The film devastatingly articulates that alienation.

Panel member Dennis Culhane, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Penn, spoke to the issue of public policy — and of the things that work. “We actually have an excellent example with homeless veterans,” he said. After the federal government funded about 70,000 housing vouchers for previously homeless vets, several counties were able to eradicate the homeless veteran problem entirely. “It’s always about housing and creating community. Society thinks we need more shelters, but shelters are where people feel most oppressed. It’s a place where people get robbed, experience abuse, are forced to sleep in close quarters, forced to leave in the morning. … It’s isolating, terrifying and dehumanizing.”

Gere was emphatic about this subject as well, saying putting people in shelters is just warehousing. His critique is clearly seen in the film, which creates a vivid and realistic portrayal of the shelter system for men.

The panel was introduced by David L. Cohen, who spoke of Comcast’s partnership with Project HOME and its commitment to end homelessness in Philadelphia (who knew?). Cohen noted that Gere is technically from Philadelphia (born at Presbyterian Hospital), though he spent less than a year of his life here. But Cohen pointed out, “One thing about Philadelphians — once you’re born here, you’re ours forever.” Gere laughed and said, “I accept.”

Time Out of Mind opens September 25th at the Ritz Five and is available on Xfinity OnDemand.

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