If you rewatch the original American Gigolo, from 1980, you might be startled by how unsexy it is. For a movie famous for Richard Gere appearing in the full flesh, it’s strangely smooth and quiet, a synthesizer-forward, noirish fable about a materialistic, narcissistic man. Julian Kay (Gere) is a gigolo just for the lifestyle. The film begins with Julian in a Mercedes SL, driving down a highway by the sea, and runs through shots of him in a boutique, getting fitted for a suit (the film gave Giorgio Armani wings), and kissing a beautiful woman. Gere’s Julian is very handsome, but callow and unlikable. He doles out his attention to his female clients in precise amounts, doing only what’s necessary to get the goods. His life is business—not sex, and certainly not love.
The new American Gigolo—a Showtime series, developed by David Hollander (Ray Donovan) —isn’t hot, either. That’s because, even more startlingly, 75 percent of it is a clumsy ripped-from-the-fake-headlines story about teenage sex trafficking and its aftermath. This is a weird choice for a piece of entertainment to make right now, when the idea that people are snatching little kids from Wal-Mart parking lots and milking them for adrenochrome has ruined so many minds. Even before Q published his first drop in 2017, the idea of child sex trafficking—as opposed to its reality—attracted a whole lot of derangement and grandiosity. You can see that American Gigolo has tried, a little, to be real—the teens in its story do have some of the risk factors of actual trafficked kids, for example—but this is a tale of a shadowy ring of high-class procurers that services an elite clientele, including many older women who are eager to have sex with teenage boys. We are in dreamland, and it’s not great.
People who watch this show to see Jon Bernthal in nice suits will likely stay thirsty. American Gigolo retains the vibes of the Paul Schrader movie only in the credits, which feature a montage of Bernthal doing fancy things—driving a convertible, meeting a beautiful woman at a bar, squiring another gorgeous woman into the driveway of a huge house—set over Blondie’s “Call Me,” the song Debbie Harry wrote with Giorgio Moroder for the original soundtrack. But these luxurious moments, we quickly find out, are but memories of Julian’s life in the 1990s, before he went to prison for a murder he didn’t commit. And they belie an incredibly grim backstory.
I really can’t overstate how bizarre this version is. Here, Julian Kay is a much different man: He was born John Anderson, and he was trafficked into sex work as a teenager. (There are a lot of flashbacks in the first few episodes, as the show establishes three timelines: adolescent Johnny, gigolo Julian, post-prison John. The crosscut, and Bernthal’s “I’m remembering” face, get a real workout.) Johnny grows up in a trailer park in the desert, where an older, female neighbor starts sexually abusing him when he’s a preteen. At 15, he is trafficked by his own mother, who accepts an envelope of money from a tall, gorgeous woman named Olga (Sandrine Holt) and screams at him to “get the fuck out.” After checking his teeth like a dealer in horses, Olga drives Johnny away in a fancy car.
“Better than sucking dick on Santa Monica Boulevard,” says another teenage sex worker, Lorenzo (Wayne Brady), lightly, when Olga, who’s called the Queen, first introduces him to a confused Johnny at her lavish beach house. (Lots of naturalistic dialogue here, see.) The full structure and function of Olga’s empire remains unclear in the first three episodes Showtime sent to critics, and this series will surely be devoted to unpacking it, but so far, we know that Johnny; Lorenzo; Olga’s niece, Isabelle (Lizzie Brocheré); and Lisa, another teenager Johnny befriends at his private school for troubled youth, are all teenage sex workers in Olga’s organization.
This show is bursting at the seams with predatory women of all kinds. I count, so far, Johnny’s neighbor; John’s mother; Olga; Isabelle; and a teacher who seduces and runs away with Julian’s ex-lover Michelle’s teenage son. Whew! In classic noir style, female sexuality is a poisonous force—even for Michelle (Gretchen Mol), who has spent the years of John’s imprisonment in a pills-and-wine haze, controlled by an abusive husband who seems to be punishing her for her one-time relationship with John. There’s one absolutely horrifying scene, when John goes to see Isabelle, who has taken over from an ailing Olga, wanting to go back to sex work after getting out of prison. Isabelle tries to force John to have sex with her as a precondition of working again, and the sight of her taunting him and grinding on his face is exceedingly grim. Even Rosie O’Donnell’s over-the-top butch Detective Sunday, who is usually the voice of reason in this story, suspects that she may have bullied John into his confession unfairly and cost him 15 years in jail.
The central oddness of the show is this female-on-male extraction dynamic, which drives John’s character. American Gigolo seems to be trying to mess around with the idea of the gigolo—to give Richard Gere’s character depth by asking why someone would choose to do this work, and how the work would affect him—but the very figure of the gigolo is shrouded in unreality. About 10 years ago, as American Gigolo turned 30, we had a little run of TV about straight male escorts with exclusively female clients: Hung, HBO’s show about a coach (Thomas Jane) who becomes a gigolo, and Showtime’s Gigolos, a “reality” series about straight male Vegas escorts. The Daily Beast’s Richard Abowitz did a bit of legwork at the time Gigolos premiered and couldn’t find much evidence that the events the reality show depicted were real, or that the market for such escorts existed. Drawing from interviews with porn stars, he described gigolos as “the Loch Ness monster of the sex trade”—much-discussed, but nonexistent. In 2012, columnist Dan Savage asked a former male escort about the gigolo question, after receiving a letter from a man who really wanted to become a “straight male escort,” and Savage’s informant blamed the American Gigolo movie and Hung for the letter-writer’s delusions. “The fact of the matter is,” the escort told Savage, “almost all clients for escorts are male.”
And neither American Gigolo—the fancy Julian of 1980; the sad Julian of 2022—has sex with men. Richard Gere’s Julian disdained what he called “fag stuff,” and Paul Schrader, interviewed by Stuart Byron in the Village Voice, admitted “There is no question but that in this movie heterosexuality”—the love of Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton) who gets Julian out of jail via a fabricated alibi, destroying her marriage in the process—“is equated with redemption.” In fact, Gere’s Julian physically throws Leon, who has often tried to get him to have sex with men in the movie, off a balcony. Bernthal’s Julian has these queerphobic edges sanded off, as you might imagine in a 2022 show. His landlord, Lizzie, who becomes a friend, asks him why he doesn’t have sex with men. “I figure you make more money with men. What you got, some sort of hang-up? Sex is sex, right?” she asks. He says “I don’t know, it’s just not my bag.” Then he says that what he is interested in is the before and after sex: helping women who are “sad, angry, frustrated, bored,” or sometimes just “busy,” to open up.
Put aside the fact that this makes little sense—might not male clients also enjoy this kind of attention?—and the choice remains confusing, based on an idea of female psychology that is very likely not real. This new show is trying to make this improbable, unusual character—a boy who is trafficked into sex work so that he can have sex with older women, and becomes a man in the career—into something gritty and real. But in doing so, it creates a misogynistic fantasy of its own, not to mention borrowing from Q’s corrosive idea that sex trafficking is an underground network servicing an elite clientele. This American Gigolo is wild where the old one was steadfastly subdued, but I’m not sure the new Julian Kay is any closer to a man who ever really lived.