May 18, 2023
Film star Helmut Berger, 78, died Thursday in Austria. He had been famous for his work in the '60s and '70s, when he was a leading European sex symbol.
Berger, who was bisexual, was a nearly singular screen presence, a rare sexually ambiguous figure at a time when few actors toyed with gender or sex roles for fear such tinkering would tank them at the box office.
For Berger, his mercurial aura only fueled fantasies about him.
Born May 29, 1944, in Salzburg, Austria, he was set to work in hospitality, a family profession, but instead took acting classes after moving to London. He later moved to Rome where, at 20, he met acclaimed Italian director Luchino Visconti (1906-1976), nearly 40 years his senior, and began a long, passionate affair and creative coupling.
He made his debut in Visconti's sequence in Le streghe (The Witches) in 1967, and achieved overnight prominence with his starring role in The Damned (1969), which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. In the film, he famously apes Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) in full The Blue Angel (1930) drag.
Among his other most famous films were Dorian Gray (1970), The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970), Ludwig (1972), Conversation Piece (1974), Ash Wednesday (1973), The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), Salon Kitty (1976), Code Name: Emerald (1985) and The Godfather Part III (1990).
On TV, he filmed episodes of Dynasty (1983-1984) for some cash and also appeared in the miniseries The Betrothed (1989).
But Berger was more than just his acting roles, having famously covered Vogue (1970) with Marisa Berenson (b. 1947), who he dated while seeing Visconti, and posed for the likes of Helmut Newton (1920-2004) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987). (He did not, however, pose in Madonna's 1992 Sex book, as is often incorrectly noted.)
Among his later successes was appearing in Saint Laurent (2014), and an out-of-nowhere stage debut in Liberté in 2018.
Along with Visconti and Berenson, he was involved with model Francesca Guidato, whom he wed in 1994. Though they lived apart after 2010, it is unclear whether they were divorced.
The affairs he claimed in his 1998 autobiography are staggering, and include Tab Hunter (1931-2018), Linda Blair (b. 1959), Jerry Hall (b. 1956), Mick (b. 1943) and Bianca Jagger (b. 1945), Ursula Andress (b. 1936) and Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993).