With the passing of the artistic behemoth that was David Bowie, I thought I’d take a moment to remember some of his finest work as an actor. Bowie did not perform in a huge number of films, but when he did he usually made it count. His slight frame, compelling face, effeminate nature, and tremendous talent somehow came together to suggest both a fragility and potency that shone through in each and every performance. And so, without further fanfare, here are five great David Bowie performances that resonated with yours truly.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Nicolas Roeg’s stunning science-fiction art film places David Bowie, quite appropriately, in the role of an alien being stranded on earth and forced to adapt to it’s myriad oddities, dangers and temptations. Like the real life Bowie, the alien’s unique perspective also provides him with a great deal of opportunity, and before too long this man from another world becomes both a great success and a substance abusing wreck. It’s hard to imagine that Roeg was not thinking of Bowie’s own alien rock persona, Ziggy Stardust when he was chosen for the role. It fits like a glove.
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983)
It goes without saying that there has always been an androgynous quality to Bowie that, combined with his confident self-expression, makes him fascinating to watch. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, this has never been more apparent to me than in Nagisa Oshima’s impressive account of the relationship between two POWs and two Japanese soldiers in a WWII prison camp. I suppose it’s simply a matter of how much his performance contrasts with the overt masculinity that would normally be seen in this kind of role, combined with the homoerotic undertones that Oshima imparts on the text. Either way, the film, and Bowie, are exceptional.
The Hunger (1983)
Susan Sarandon plays a young doctor who comes across a rapidly aging patient (David Bowie), only to discover that he is a member of the undead, given eternal life but not eternal youth by his vampiric lover, played by Catherine Deneuve. Each member of this trio soon finds themselves attracted to the other, and an unhealthy dose of sex and violence ensues. In many ways, this is the finest film of the late Tony Scott’s directorial career. It’s certainly the least commercial and most artistically ambitious. Beautiful cinematography, an ominous atmosphere, a disjointedly creepy screenplay, and the presence of Deneuve and Sarandon were major reasons for this. But what stands out the most, all these years later, is Bowie’s awkward, charming, cerebral and volatile presence.
For many people of my generation, their first experience of David Bowie was not through his reputation as a musical artist, but through his performance as the goblin king in Labyrinth. Scripted by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, and directed by the legendary Jim Henson, it’s surprising to note that this pop-tastic 80s take on Alice in Wonderland didn’t get a huge amount of commercial or critical love at the time of its release. But by the early 1990s kids like myself had grown to love the film’s array of fascinating puppets, beautiful set pieces, and the incredible charisma of Bowie.
Part monster and part romantic, the goblin king’s tight pants and borderline inappropriate fascination with the young Jennifer Connelly made for a compelling and disturbingly adult villain given the film’s target audience. But more than anything, it’s likely that the brilliant musical centrepiece of the film, “Dance Magic”, is what we remember so fondly.
It’s a five-minute television cameo, I know. And Bowie has certainly appeared in many other films worthy of mention. But for me, his guest appearance on Ricky Gervais’ exceptional Extras gets better every time I see it. The scene… Gervais privately confides in Bowie that he believes he’s sold himself out by producing a lowest-common-denominator sitcom. Bowie has a moment of inspiration, heads to the piano, composes, and gives a humiliatingly public performance of a ballad about Gervais’ experience. Excruciating and hilarious.
There are many other films that I could have mentioned here. The Last Temptation of Christ, The Prestige, or even Basquit. Not to mention his musical contributions to films like Paul Schrader’s Cat People. In any event, his departure is our loss.