Louis Gossett Jr. in ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’: A Mythic Figure

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There had been drill sergeants in movies before Louis Gossett Jr. played one in “An Officer and a Gentleman” in 1982 (though for the life of me, I can’t remember any). There would be a lot of them afterwards. But it’s a role that Gossett made his own, and the movie role that, more than any other, came to define him. Gossett, who died on March 29 at the age of 87, was a great actor who imposed his presence; just watch the ferocious way he plays an alien soldier, under a mask of beaded make-up, in “Enemy Mine.” But in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” Gossett took the showpiece role of a tough-nut Navy drill sergeant and invested it with such flourish that he made it mythological. He took possession of the role, infusing the very idea of the drill sergeant with a richness, a soul and wit, and a touch of something that no other actor ever brought to it — a quality of mystery.

The mystery was there in the character’s unstated humanity. It didn’t matter who you were. Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley was going to break your ass, was going to slice you down, was going to figure out what made you tick and outthink you. From the moment he sets his all-knowing eyes on Zack Mayo (Richard Gere), the louche, handsome wastrel who has enlisted in the Navy, Foley doesn’t like him, and he’s got good reason not to like him. Mayo has a lot of backbone, but he’s aimless, and he can’t see past himself. That makes him absolutely wrong for the military, and Foley can just about smell the narcissism. The movie is structured as a showdown between the two of them that turns into a full-scale psychological war. The sergeant mocks Mayo, berates him, figures out that he’s hustling money on the side by doing the other recruits’ chores for them, and, in a memorable sequence, tries to torture him into quitting.

Yet the way that Gossett played him, Foley also stood for something larger, a quality both unexpressed and monumental. For the recruits under his watch, including Mayo, he wasn’t just a tormenter, a karmic military disciplinarian. He was your better self. By the end of basic training, he’d become who you wanted to be.

Gossett made him fastidious, with impeccable movements and a beady-eyed scowl that surveys all, as well as a voice of the purest contempt, except when it relaxes enough to let you know that the sergeant’s abusive moxie is its own performance. He’s a straight shooter who’s trying to ground his recruits in reality. And he’s going to do it by teaching them something that those who are not in the military understand all too rarely: that it’s not simply a dog-eat-dog world — it’s a dog-fight-dog-to-the-death world. His whole personality is based on that.

It was an instant classic performance. Yet if you say that Louis Gossett Jr. was and always will be the definitive movie drill sergeant, many would disagree with you, since he obviously has one serious competitor: R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket.” I’m not here to referee a hindsight critical faceoff between these two immortal performances. Ermey brought a quality of roughneck realism to “Full Metal Jacket,” because at the time he wasn’t an actor; he was a real Marine drill sergeant who‘d been hired as a consultant. No one will ever outdo the baroque obscenity of his language, which was spun out of the patter he actually used in boot camp. But here’s the thing: Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman dominates the 47-minute opening sequence of “Full Metal Jacket,” and he’s then shot to death in what feels like Kubrick’s knowingly warped 1960s ideological version of a warmonger comeuppance. The military sadist got what was coming to him.

Ermey’s performance, in its brutalizing way, is fantastic, but Gossett’s performance in “An Officer and a Gentleman” finds a sly connection to the audience that makes it a transcendent piece of acting. His greatest line may be two words he utters near the end of the film. Mayo, lining up to say goodbye to the sergeant after having graduated from basic training, tries to let him know what he has meant to him. “I won’t ever forget you, sergeant,” he says. We expect that Foley, in some way, will return the sentiment. Instead, he says with the quietude of the ages, “I know.” Now that is badass.

Gossett won an Academy Award for his performance, becoming the first Black actor to win the Oscar for best supporting actor. But even if he hadn’t won that award, part of his achievement in “An Officer and a Gentleman” is that his performance is a sly landmark in the racial politics of Hollywood. In the two hours and four minutes of “An Officer and a Gentleman,” the fact that Foley is Black is never once mentioned or alluded to. It’s not that the movie takes place in a post-racial society, but that it does present the U.S. military as a kind of post-racial demimonde. What matters is courage, determination, strength of character, all viewed without prejudice.

Yet there’s a racial subtext to the movie, and it’s there in the beautiful edge of Gossett’s performance. After he catches Mayo breaking the rules, and subjects him to hours of calisthenics (and a garden-hose version of waterboarding), Foley says to him, “I want your D.O.R.!” As an officer, he wants Mayo to stop soiling his beloved Navy, but part of the power of that moment is that as Gossett plays it, Foley can see through all of Mayo’s white privilege. He’s in a unique position to understand just how far Mayo has fallen from the person he should be.

That perception, however, does not define Foley as a character. It’s just there. And in 1982, the nuance of it felt revolutionary. “An Officer and a Gentleman” isn’t a liberal message movie — it’s a karmic military showdown (and, of course, a romance). Gossett plays Foley as a man who has embraced military values as a kind of salvation. What makes his performance more than basic-training razzmatazz is that it’s a vision of spiritual equality. That’s why we won’t ever forget him.

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