“There will come a day and youth will pass away. What will they say about me?”
As of today, House of Gucci has been in theaters for just over a week and, with the questionable exception here and there, the consensus is that the movie was an absolute misfire. A campy mess that is somehow also a boring chore, the film opened behind Encanto and Ghostbusters: Afterlife at the box office, showing that even the most diehard Lady Gaga devotees have their threshold. It’s those folks who believe the singer/actress is the movie’s saving grace. As far as I’m concerned, she’s only as good as the substandard script lets her be. It’s a sad follow-up to her compelling and magnetic turn in 2018’s A Star is Born, which saw one of the most famous women in the world disappear into a well-worn character which she successfully made her own.
Gaga isn’t the only multifaceted performer to suffer from the dreaded sophomore slump though. Far from it, actually. Bette Midler followed up The Rose with the aptly-titled comedy Jinxed and Diana Ross went from bringing Billie Holliday to life with her own Oscar-nominated turn in Lady Sings the Blues to the staggeringly awful melodrama Mahogany.
Yet neither example comes close to the fascinating curio that David Bowie chose as a follow-up to his debut in the mind-bending instant cult classic, The Man Who Fell From Earth: the 1978 post-war drama, Just a Gigolo.
Freshly returned from the first world war, Prussian soldier Paul (Bowie) comes home to a Berlin he does not recognize where poverty and despair exist on every corner as people try to hold onto their way of life. Despite his efforts, Paul is unable to find a suitable job as no one has much use for a former soldier. Distractions show up in the form of a childhood friend named Cilly (Sydne Rome) and a manic wealthy widow named Helga (Kim Novak), both of whom harbor crushes on the young man. Eventually, Paul finds himself a job as a gigolo working in a bordello for a wealthy madam named Baroness von Semering (Marlene Dietrich).
Reading the plot synopsis of Just a Gigolo, the last thing anyone would expect to find in a film like this would be comedy. While there indeed isn’t very much funny about the tale of a lost, wandering Prussian soldier trying to avoid both the communists and the Nazis, the movie sure does make an effort to insert what it believes to be laughs. There’s the recurring gag of two well-to-do ladies walking about the neighborhood streets gossiping in a Greek chorus sort of way as the city crumbles around them. An uncomfortable bathtub moment with a middle-aged Prince (Curd Jurgens), a rumble in the hay with Helga while her elderly husband watches, and the continuous sight of Paul’s father (Rudolph Shundler) who sits frozen as a result of his own time in combat are all comic devices that don’t even sound funny on paper, let alone in a wannabe prestige film starring David Bowie. Still, none of them come close to the stunningly unfunny funeral sequence in which Helga’s husband is being buried. What starts out as a simple funeral procession quickly erupts into a shooting match between two groups of Nazis and communists as everyone tries to uphold the dignity of the event before abandoning formalities altogether and running for their lives as vaudeville-like music plays.
Since this column is called “Make it a Double,” there is an automatic suggestion that I’m recommending whatever movie I’m writing about. Although that isn’t necessarily the case with Just a Gigolo, I can’t help but applaud what it actually manages to accomplish. In spite of all the nonsensical comedy that torpedoes the film, Just a Gigolo is actually a very telling portrait of a Germany caught between two wars where the tension was felt and the need to protect daily life was fierce. You can sense the steep division in the country and how it permeated within every person who called Berlin home. A Christmas dinner scene in particular turns highly charged with talk of politics as it becomes abundantly clear the kind of the place that landscape was in. The film is also a comment on those lost soldiers who remained lost even after they came home to a world so changed and where they were almost seen as intruders. Even the end of Paul’s story seems indicative of the fate that was to befall the country, and despite the countless missteps the film makes along the way, its ending remains a sobering document of a very dark time and place. So while Just a Gigolo is not a movie you can flat out recommend, it’s one that you cannot wholly dismiss.
Even for something as mishandled as this movie was, it still produces some of the most varied performances ever given by a cast of this caliber. As the star of the show, Bowie is present, but only just. It seems as if the actor realized a little too late what kind of film he was in and as a result plays every scene with a hint of embarrassment. At times it’s almost as if he’s mentally backing away off camera whenever he’s on screen. It’s unfortunate that Rome think she’s in the kind of grand epic the movie believes it is, but she still manages to maintain a watchable energy throughout it. Dietrich naturally delivers that same aura and magic that made her a star in what is her brief final role. She’s so commanding a presence, that not even Just a Gigolo could derail her. Out of everyone however, it seems Novak was the only one who actually knew what kind of film she was in and leans into the many absurd qualities she’s asked to embrace, making her’s the most indispensable performance of the cast.
When commenting on Just a Gigolo in later years, Bowie famously described the film as “my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one.” The singer would eventually rebound as an actor with 1983’s The Hunger, which earned respect for him as a screen performer. I called Just a Gigolo a curio and that’s what it remains; a misjudged project with aspirations of being a sweeping epic that’s undone by an unorthodox nature that tried to combine humorless farce with truth and tragedy. I suppose it’s easy to look at Just a Gigolo the way Berlin looks at Paul- as a handsome artifact that’s rather aimless and which the world has all but forgotten.
Just a Gigolo is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout Factory.