You don’t get to work with Martin Scorsese, Nicolas Roeg, Christopher Nolan, Tony Scott, John Landis, David Lynch and Jim Henson just because you’re a rock star. David Bowie’s film work may seem at first glance to be an afterthought in comparison to his career as…well, is the term “rock god” too much or an understatement? Actually, Bowie’s extraordinary, evolving work as a musician and performer created a direct pathway from concert halls to the silver screen.
Bowie’s conceptual albums, performance art as Ziggy Stardust and “role” (or is it reputation) as a rock star from Mars laid the foundation for his abilities as an embodiment of our fantasies. His dreamy pop music was delivered in a hip, ahead-of-its-time manner that suggests Bowie was orchestrating the expansion of music art, but also self aware of how performance and fictional pop personas could be synergistic. Call it rock kabuki or thespian pop but whatever it was, Bowie’s Stardust made him both a groundbreaking icon and something of a mystery. If Bowie wasn’t really a rock star from Mars, then who the heck was he?
Cinema provided Bowie with many masks, all of them different and equally tantalizing. Among the many faces he would adapt as his own was of Thomas Jerome Newton, the title character of Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Newton’s suave and strange demeanor, attired in Bowie’s ahead-of-his-time blend of androgyny and unceasing cool, made Roeg’s extraterrestrial a fascinating figure. The film, both overwrought and utterly fascinating, marked Bowie’s film debut. He also played the title role of his subsequent film, “Just a Gigolo,” which co-starred with no less than Kim Novak and (in her final performance) Marlene Dietrich (the film itself remains impossible to come by).
The year 1983 marked two essential works in his filmography: “The Hunger,” Tony Scott’s ultra-slick, trendsetting vampire thriller and Nagisa Oshima’s unforgettable “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” In the former, Bowie’s outward stylishness is matched by a tragic character whose penultimate scene is a tour de force blend of performance and make-up effects. In the latter, Bowie portrays a British soldier in a Japanese POW camp and, as in “The Hunger,” gives a moving performance and makes a stunning exit.
In his delightful “Into the Night,” director John Landis cast Bowie as a Peter Lorre-like villain, complete with memorable lip smacking and hissing. Julian Temple’s “Absolute Beginners” is best remembered for its astonishing opening tracking shot but Bowie’s appearance and title song are the real highlights.
Aside from Bowie’s acclaimed and surprising 1980-81 detour to Broadway, where he portrayed John Merrick in “The Elephant Man,” his most surprising work as an actor came between 1986-1996. The teaming of Bowie with Jim Henson and George Lucas for the puppet musical/fantasy “Labyrinth,” in which Bowie’s Goblin King terrorized and tantalized a teenage Jennifer Connelly, engraved the cult of Bowie even deeper. As the fantasyland equivalent of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s Jareth is alluring and eerie, which is just right, as Connelly seems both frightened and aroused by him. Its arguably Bowie’s most well known film role and he’s wonderful in it; he’s a dark presence among a menagerie of creatures and somehow the odd pairing with the cuddly Henson and mythmaker Lucas makes sense.
Most don’t recall that Bowie is in Martin Scorsese’s massively controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ” and that he plays, of all people, Pontius Pilate. What should come across like stunt casting instead reveals Bowie to be a sharp character actor; his one scene with Willem Dafoe’s Jesus is understated and fascinating.
It seemed only a matter of time before Bowie teamed up with artist-turned-filmmaker David Lynch, as both were button pushers both challenged and expanded surrealism in pop culture. Bowie’s brief, not entirely coherent appearance in Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” is deeply unsettling and seems to pay homage to Bowie’s music origins as a “space man.”
Bowie’s finest performance is in artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiet,” in which Bowie portrayed Andy Warhol. Wearing Warhol’s actual glasses, gently conveying his speaking voice and summoning his inscrutable allure and superstar glamour, Bowie taps into his own mysterious, seductive nature and gives us a portrait of an artist that feels intimate.
Many subsequent film roles had Bowie playing a (just barely) exaggerated, uber-cool version of “himself,” in everything from “Zoolander” to “Bandslam” and (hilariously) the TV series “Extras.” His last great film performance, as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige.” Once again, Bowie was perfectly fused (pun intended) with a real man. Bowie’s performance suggests a complex figure, buried in his own mythmaking. Bowie’s literally electric introduction is as perfect an entrance as he’s ever given, whether on the big screen or on stage.
Rock stars don’t typically make great actors, because they’re too self aware, too precious, too protective of their stage personas to truly become someone else. Bowie found screen roles that pushed his Ziggy Strdust concept further, then delved into characters both painfully vulnerable and disturbingly untouchable. Transformation was a constant quality of Bowie’s art and his film work is a testament to an actor who took fine chances to make great art. There will never be another David Bowie.
–originally published in Hollywood in Toto