David Bowie burst onto the film scene in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 curio The Man Who Fell to Earth. Rightly heralded as a sci-fi classic, it cleverly tapped into the rock star’s aloof persona. His second lead role, 1978’s Just A Gigolo, was directed by British actor David Hemmings – and wasn’t a success. At all. Unlike the Roeg masterwork, Just A Gigolo disappeared without a trace and is only now being made available in the UK for the first time on Blu-ray. Bowie himself derisively referred to the lost drama, in a 1980 interview with NME, as “my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one.”
Set in 1920s Germany, Just A Gigolo sees Bowie play Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski, a Prussian officer returning from the Western Front and finding, like others at the time, limited job opportunities and his homeland in chaos. Although apolitical, he falls in with the growing National Socialism movement and makes ends meet by working as a gigolo in a brothel owned by Baroness von Semering (Marlene Dietrich).
Despite his status as a rock god, Bowie wasn’t first choice for the part. In fact, Joshua Sinclair, the film’s screenwriter and executive producer, tells NME via phone from Austria, that a German actor was initially cast, but made way once Bowie became interested. “When we were discussing who should play Paul in Berlin, [American actress] Sydne Rome [who plays Paul’s love interest, Cilly] said she knew Bowie. David got involved because of Sydne, and she got in touch with him originally. Then Hemmings went to see him in Switzerland and discussed the script. From then on, he was in the film.”
Later Rome, who now lives in the Italian capital, embellishes the story for us. “We were friends. When I was going to Berlin to have the first [script] readings, I was told that they hadn’t found the leading man. He [Bowie] had an interest in that period of Germany, between the two world wars, so I thought maybe David would like to do this part. I called him and asked if I could send him the script. We did so and he accepted.
“He was pretty much right for the role: passive, plain-faced, allowing himself to be led around because he was playing this lost Prussian,” adds Sinclair. But as a person and work colleague, Bowie mystified him. “David was in a different universe. Who was David Bowie? I don’t know. I never understood him. I went to his house a couple of times, which was in Kreuzberg [an area famed for its creative community and where Bowie lived during his acclaimed late ’70s Berlin era], and we talked a little bit about the film, but I didn’t have much in common with him. I don’t think anybody had anything in common with David except Sydne. He could be amiable, but it’s difficult to work with people who think they’re better than you are, and anybody else there. Not that he wasn’t helpful, he tried humility a couple of times but I don’t know if it worked or not because he changed all the time. Each morning you didn’t know which David Bowie [you were going to meet]. It’s not difficult, working with confident people, but when you have people like Bowie who change their skin every day, it’s difficult to know who you’re talking to and who he really is. For me, he was an enigma.”
Rome has a different take on the man and the artist. “In that period [of his life], David was quite introspective and thinking about why he was here on Earth – what was he supposed to do? What things that he loved would allow him to be artistic and creative? He was like that. He was also very funny and introspective… I think he was in a transitional time, if you like.” Enigmatic, yes. But difficult? Rome says not. “He was available to everybody and extremely professional, funny and charming.”
After Just A Gigolo premiered in Berlin in November 1978, it received poor reviews and was pulled from cinemas. A UK recut fared badly with critics a few months later and Bowie’s dismissive comments meant it was labelled a disaster forever. “The film could have been better,” says Sinclair. “[But] it’s not about the movie, it’s about Bowie’s relationship with Hemmings. There was a falling out with the two, for whatever reason, after the film. So because of that, perhaps, he felt somehow cheated by Hemmings.”
It’s a shame, because Just A Gigolo works best as a beautiful bookend to acting legend Dietrich’s 50 year career. Bowie will be the main draw for most, but the German-born star’s role is fascinating for its connections to her humanitarian efforts during World War II – Dietrich famously housed German and French exiles in America, providing financial support for refugees throughout the conflict. She and Bowie might not share any screen time in Just A Gigolo, with scenes shot separately and edited together afterwards, but there’s a lot to admire even when Starman isn’t involved.
Sinclair thinks that marketing made too much of Bowie, when they had Dietrich to promote. “Bowie is nothing compared to Dietrich,” he says. “He’s nothing compared to what she did with her life and during the war, making a heroic stance against Hitler. That’s what I call a genius. That’s what I call an icon. Dietrich was highly intelligent, [she was] 20 times more intelligent than Bowie. Dietrich is the one you have to focus on. It’s also her last movie, the last time she sang in a movie. These are very important moments in motion picture history. This film is so important because it’s her swansong.”