Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, we revisit 1978’s Just A Gigolo, a drama that brought together two of the biggest queer stars of their respective generations.
As queer representation on screen has continued to grow over the years, so has the conversation revolving around the value of having queer roles being played by queer performers. This can exist more easily now, and not just because there are more queer stories being told, but also more openly gay actors to embody them.
And while this discussion is ever-evolving—and controversial—it really only began recently. It was barely a conversation at the beginning of the century, and practically nonexistent beforehand. For the first two thirds of cinema history, queer narratives and openly gay actors were so few and far between, there was no place to question or interrogate who got to tell them.
However, there were a handful of celebrities that were widely understood to be queer during that time; by the persona they build for themselves on stage or on screen, or by loud-enough rumors, anecdotes, and hearsay. Two of the bigger ones of their respective generations were David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich.
Although there were decades in between them, these two performers became known for their gender-bending, androgynous aesthetic; Bowie with his music and performance style, and Dietrich with the characters she hand-picked, costumes she wore on screen, and the way she carried herself off it. The way they chose to express their gender and sexuality became intrinsically linked with their personas, and the work they chose to do.
1978’s Just A Gigolo is a film that put these two icons of queer history together. A great idea in practice, but—surprisingly and frustratingly—it not only underuses them with a bland and derivative story, but misunderstands the star persona and charisma that made them both superstars.
Just a Gigolo follows Paul Ambrosius Von Przygodski (try saying that three times fast!), a World War I veteran soldier, played by Bowie, who returns to Berlin after being presumed dead by his family for several months. He discovers a completely changed and transforming city, where his formerly decadent family estate is now being rented as a board house, and the aristocracy is slowly losing power and influence.
Paul tries to go back to work to help his family make ends meet, but is unable to find a stable job because of his war trauma and growing prejudices. So, he becomes a gigolo that caters to wealthy women in a brothel run by the mysterious Baroness Von Semering (Dietrich). However, as Berlin slowly gives in to the rise of Nazism, it becomes harder for Paul to survive the threat that steps from out of the shadows.
A Cabaret Encore?
If the plot and setting of the movie sound a bit familiar, it’s because it is. The film is heavily inspired, both cinematically and aesthetically, by Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (which had been released just six years earlier) and thus also by Christopher Isherwood’s accounts of life in Berlin during the rise of the Weimar Republic. However, Just a Gigolo pales in comparison to the stories it takes inspiration from in every single way.
On paper, a movie set in post-World War I Berlin that stars David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich seems like a perfect match. What we know about that time period, both from historical accounts and from pop culture depictions of it, line up perfectly with the personas that these two icons built for themselves: their extravagant decadence, their artistic freedom, their sexual fluidity. Hell, Marlene Dietrich became a star in Berlin during this time period. She may be the biggest embodiment of its spirit—she lived through it!
But the movie never capitalizes, or even seems to understand, the meta textual potential of having these two performers in this particular story. Bowie’s Paul is reduced to a generic sketch of a traumatized soldier unable to find his place back home, with no real depth or enjoyment in the performance. The movie seemed to wash over him, and the character could have been played by anyone.
Marlene Dietrich’s role is nothing more than a two-scene glorified cameo. She does get an instantly iconic title card billing her as “And With Pride: Marlene Dietrich”, she gets to exercise her vocal chops during a song, and her scenes are the closest the movie gets to capturing the essence (or an essence) of the time. However, she is given very little to work with, and although she gives it her best, her best can only go so far. This was Marlene Dietrich’s final on-screen role. She was persuaded to come out of retirement for it, reportedly being paid half a million dollars for two days on set. Hey, at least she made a pretty penny.
Unsurprisingly, after a harsh critical and audience pan, David Bowie practically disavowed himself from this film completely, saying he took the role as a favor to director David Hemmings, and he called it his “32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one.”
Bowie also said he took the film for a chance to work with Dietrich. But in what is perhaps the movie’s biggest and most confounding decision, the two never actually shared the screen. They shot their segments separately and then those were stitched together in post-production.
The film’s intention was most likely to tell a straightforward historical drama, and it is unfortunately a failure at that. However, it’s hard not to see the potential that this particular combination of story, time period and star power had to become so much more than that.
Had Just a Gigolo really understood and utilized what David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich both embodied, the cultural tides that they turned, it could have become a treasured gem; a meta-textual embodiment of queer history, and the ways it informs and feeds on itself. But alas, all we have is the could-have-beens. We’ll always have Sally Bowles.
Just A Gigolo is now streaming on Crackle, Freevee, Kanopy, Peacock, Pluto TV, The Roku Channel, Shout! TV, and Tubi.