Monday, June 21, 2021

Silver Screen Sex God of the '70s: David Bowie in Just a Gigolo and The Man Who Fell to Earth

(David Hemmings, West Germany, 1979, Shout! Factory, 105 mins)
(Nicolas Roeg, UK, 1976, The Criterion Collection, 139 mins) 

After playing a genital-free alien in his feature-film debut, Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie decided it was time for something sexier. He was living in Berlin at the time, working on a series of groundbreaking records with Tony Visconti and Brian Eno at Hansa Studios--Low, "Heroes," Lodger--and when he wasn't writing and recording, he and his sometime-roommate Iggy Pop were reinventing themselves by trading (or at least minimizing) their insatiable hunger for oblivion with an insatiable hunger for art and culture.

In the midst of all that activity, Bowie found time to take the lead in actor David Hemmings' directorial debut, Just a Gigolo, which takes place in Berlin in the years after World War I. In it, Bowie gradually, awkwardly segues from soldier to sex worker. The movie is many things: an almost love story, a post-war tragedy, and a satire about the rise of fascism. If it's better than its dismal reputation suggests, there's one thing it's not, and that's sexy.

To be sure, sexy is a subjective concept, but 1970s Bowie was generally considered sexy--to men, to women, and all other sentient beings--and The Man Who Fell to Earth runs on sex. It's possible Bowie was just being literal, because his flame-haired New Mexico-by-way-of-the-UK entrepreneur, Thomas Jerome Newton, may be genital-free in his alien form, but he spends the majority of the film in his non-alien form as a genitally-intact human, and we know this, because Roeg includes male full-frontal nudity (see also Donald Sutherland in 1973's Don't Look Now).

And it isn't just Bowie! In his loose adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel, Roeg introduces Dr. Bryce (Rip Torn) as a randy professor with a yen for attractive co-eds (he eventually gives it up, lest anyone worry that Roeg presents him as some kind of heroic figure). Then there's Mary-Lou (Candy Clark, Roeg's girlfriend at the time) who takes one look at Tommy and decides, "That's for me!" 

There's plenty of nudity from Torn, Clark, and a bevy of female extras, though I'm sorry to report that Buck Henry abstains, and I'm not completely joking, because his character, Oliver Farnsworth, is gay. Several scenes feature him and his partner, Trevor, but there's no indication of a sexual relationship. Though it's possible there was no need to depict one, that was also the playbook in the 1960 and '70s: few limits when it came to female nudity, straight or otherwise (especially in the unrated European features of Jess Franco and Just Jaeckin), significant limits when it came to straight male nudity, and most every limit when it came to gay male nudity. 

Granted, plenty of sexy movies don't feature any nudity at all, especially those made during the Production Code-era, but the 1970s was a different time. Hemmings' decision to play things safe wasn't necessarily a bad one. He may have wanted to avoid a rating that would limit his film's exposure, except Just a Gigolo was such a bomb that even an X wouldn't have made much difference (and the dreaded X didn't stop Midnight Cowboy from topping the box office in 1969). The film, in its original 147-minute version, crashed and burned at Cannes, and that was pretty much the end of that as it didn't receive the kind of promotion befitting a major motion picture starring Bowie, Marlene Dietrich (after a 16-year break), and Kim Novak (after a 10-year break) plus direction from the star of Antonioni's Blow-Up

The only truly sexualized characters in the film are two women with whom Bowie's Lt. Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski has relations, Cilly (future aerobics instructor Sydne Rome, the weakest cast member), a nightclub performer who becomes a Hollywood star, in a manner recalling Dietrich (who gives her final performance as Paul's boss, the Baroness), and Novak's widow, Helga, who hires Paul when she feels the need for male companionship. Sadly, Helga comes across as more desperate and silly than anything else. Even if that was Hemmings' intention, it's hard not to feel sorry for the soulful beauty of Vertigo being reduced to a quasi-punchline. Though Novak was only 40 at the time, the film suggests there's something especially tawdry about a middle-aged woman expressing a desire for sex. 

In the end, though, Just a Gigolo revolves around Bowie, and there's a certain unformed quality to Paul, since he's simply more reactive than proactive--much like Johnny Depp's in-over-his-head accountant in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man--but it helps to explain why he doesn't come across as particularly sexy. He lacks the necessary confidence, and like Newton, but for entirely different reasons, he doesn't seem especially comfortable with his body. 

Further, he seems mystified by women, a bizarre quality in a gigolo, but it fits into the idea that sex work may represent the field that suits him best, except he's no more likely to find the perfect job any more than he's likely to find his place in Weimar-era Berlin, because he's too good to join the fascists and too weak to resist them--so the two opposing forces destroy him. As different as the two films may seem, things don't work out much better for Newton in the Roeg film. He gets out of his world alive, yet ends up utterly alone.

If one picture is held in high regard, and the other isn't, Just a Gigolo deserves a second chance to find an audience. At the very least, the costume (Mago, Ingrid Zoré) and production design (Peter Rothe) is exquisite, and at the very most, it gets a few things right that could have gone very wrong. At the outset, for instance, when Paul realizes that Eva (singer and actress Erika Pluhar), his mother's most glamorous boarder, works as a prostitute, she shrinks in his estimation. The audience already knows that he'll soon be walking in her shoes, but she's also one of the least conflicted characters in the entire film. Hemmings may judge Helga, but he doesn't judge her. Nor does he suggest that there's something especially shameful about a man who turns tricks. It's just another job. If anything, it's a step up from Paul's previous gig as a human-size beer bottle.  

The Man Who Fell to Earth may come across as the sexier film, but the sexual relationship between Newton and Mary-Lou originated with Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg and not Walter Tevis, who had depicted a platonic relationship in his 1963 novella. (In the Mayersberg interview included with The Criterion Collection edition, he reveals that he prefers later Tevis works, like The Queen's Gambit, which would become a Netflix sensation in 2020.) 

That said, Clark makes it abundantly clear, in her Criterion interview, that she hated shooting the sex scenes, of which there are many. She says Bowie did, too. Whether her relationship with Roeg made things easier or harder, I couldn't say, but it's possible Bowie welcomed the opportunity to keep his clothes on in Just a Gigolo
There's one exception, though, and it's a good one. When Paul and Cilly take advantage of her wealthy patron's mansion while he's away, the Prince (Curd Jürgens, Smiley's People) surprises them with an unannounced return. When he enters the room where Bowie is taking a bath, it's hard not to fear the worst for the pale, thin fellow in the tub, except the Prince doesn't find him the least bit threatening, and they end up having a friendly chat. 

In his dishy commentary track, assistant director Rory MacLean, who describes Hemmings as "a drinker and a womanizer," notes that there were several crew members jammed in to that small room, so kudos to all concerned, especially Bowie, because you'd never know it. The entire sequence also reinforces the idea that Cilly is just as much of a prostitute as Paul, since her interest in the Prince is purely mercenary.

All told, the '70s weren't exactly the busiest time for David Bowie's acting career, though The Man Who Fell to Earth has come to define it, and who can blame him when he released 11 stunning studio recordings between 1970 and 1979. And that's on top of world tours, magazine cover stories, television appearances, and all the other minutia involved in maintaining a rock star career. Of all the film projects with which he was involved at the time, the sexiest wasn't a narrative feature at all, but D.A. Pennebaker's 1973 documentary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Ziggy may have been a character of a kind, but he was Bowie's sole creation, and the stage, in a manner of speaking, was his bedroom. 

In the ensuing decade, he would kick things up a few notches, starting the '80s off with Uli Edel's Christiane F, in which he cameos as himselfand ending with Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, in which he plays a scruffy Pontius Pilate opposite Willem Dafoe's glistening, decidedly non-virginal Jesus. Early on in that run came Bowie's most overtly sexual film, 1983's The Hunger, in which Tony Scott reinvented Jean Rollin's hazy vampire erotica for the multiplex (that's a compliment, by the way). From alien to gigolo to glorious goth fantasy, he had finally found the perfect fit for his not-quite-of-this-earth affect and Valentino-like sex appeal. In the end, though, the sexiest Bowie character was always Bowie himself.

Just a Gigolo on-set portrait by Christian Simonpietri, The Man Who Fell to Earth still from British Lion Films, and The Hunger still from Perspex

No comments:

Post a Comment