Monday, July 04, 2011

Just a (Manhattan) gigolo

In June 2001, actress-turned-newscaster Andrea Thompson (Babylon 5, NYPD Blue) became an anchor for what was then called CNN Headline News — now HLN, which sounds more like a homemaking and lifestyle channel than a news channel. This caused a minor scandal because 1) Thompson was a newsreading newbie, and veteran TV newscasters like to pretend reading a teleprompter requires journalism experience, and 2) Thompson had appeared nude in some movies back in the 1980s and '90s.

Despite its reputation for being "liberal," the mainstream news media in America is actually full of insufferable prudes.

While Thompson had done full frontal as recently as 1997's A Gun, A Car, A Blonde, in which she played "The Blonde," the movie that generated most of the heat was her first, an Italian-made bit of softcore Eurotrash called Manhattan Gigolo (1986).

At the time, Manhattan Gigolo had been released only on VHS, and the tape, a relic of the mom-and-pop-video-store era, was out of print. A few years ago, this all-but-forgotten flick — which would be completely forgotten if not for Thompson's involvement — finally made it to DVD, and, thanks to Netflix, I now know what all the fuss was about.

First things first: Manhattan Gigolo is a bad movie. If not for the sex and nudity — and I'll get to that — it would be perfect material for Mystery Science Theater 3000. The bare-bones DVD from Televista doesn't help: The picture is murky and dark, the presentation is a cropped pan-and-scan, and if it looks like the movie was copied off the old VHS release, that's because it probably was.

Can you believe they charge nearly $25 for this bootleg-quality crap? They're clearly counting on lots of guys being desperate to see Andrea Thompson naked — as if the Internet doesn't make that easy enough.

Manhattan Gigolo is like a bad Italian horror movie of the same era, except it's sorely lacking in gloved killers, zombies, zombies fighting sharks, or a director capable of overachieving with sub-par material. It also lacks the flair of other Italian softcore sex films. Director Amasi Damiani is no Joe D'Amato, and this is no Black Emanuelle flick.

I guess this movie might be competently edited and shot and it's just impossible to tell from the washed-out, VHS-duped presentation. But I doubt it because it has a scene where from one camera angle it's broad daylight while from the other it's pitch black. Continuity is not a strong point here.

The plot involves two friends, Johnny (Gianni Dei, known to Eurohorror fans for occupying the title role of Patrick Still Lives, the Italian knock-off "sequel" to the classic Australian exploitation flick Patrick) and Rudy (Aris Iliopulos, known to nobody for nothing) who have come to New York from Italy to seek fame and fortune as actors. This leads them to cross paths with actress/model Leslie (Thompson), who immediately takes a liking to the two. So at about 17 minutes in, we get the steamy three-way that caused such a commotion when Thompson joined Headline News. What follows is 6 minutes of enjoyable Skinemax-level erotica. It's the highlight of the film but certainly no cause for moral indignation, no matter how flexible the young Ms. Thompson is.

Unknown to Johnny and Rudy, however, their tryst with Leslie was staged for a voyeur, with Leslie pocketing the money. (Why does the most popular model in New York need an illicit side job, anyway? Shut up, that's why!) And Leslie is all for doing it again, this time giving Johnny and Rudy a cut. Johnny has moral reservations, but not enough to bail, even as his career really starts to take off. (If you think this seems ironically like Thompson's real-life experience, stop over-analyzing now.)

Naturally, it all goes bad, with professional jealousies and obsessive voyeurs who want to do more than watch all playing out predictably. There's also a bit more skin: a staged "rape" scene for one of the voyeuristic clients, another three-way interspersed in the middle of a montage, etc. But it's all pretty tedious stuff.

Did I mention all of this is told in a flashback from the back of an ambulance where Johnny, injured and possibly dying, and Leslie reminisce about how they met and fell in love? No? Well it is.

The sex scenes are the least embarrassing thing about Manhattan Gigolo. They come off well compared to everything else. Even with all the terrible acting surrounding her, Thompson seems especially bad. She is emotionless to the point of seeming constantly dazed, and, adding insult to injury, her voice is dubbed by someone else.

But to cut her some slack, this was her first film and she was probably the only native English speaker on the set. No wonder "confused" is a charitable description of her screen presence.

Thompson was much better on Babylon 5 — and reading the news on TV, for that matter.

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