The tragic passing of British rock legend, trendsetting male fashionista and film star David Bowie, in January of 2016 from cancer, marked the end of one of the greatest chapters in both music and cinema. Bowie was a force to be reckoned with, whether onscreen playing roles ranging from the charming and villainous Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) to pioneering magician Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006), or producing and releasing blockbuster albums under aliases as stellar as “Ziggy Stardust.” For this reason, I took it upon myself to pay tribute to the icon by reflecting back on my introduction to his work with his performance as the alien Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), an adaptation of the novel by Walter S. Tevis (The Hustler), now celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
I was only 14 years old and still living in South Carolina when I saw Bowie’s film debut in Roeg’s masterpiece, luckily in the original director’s cut and in widescreen on VHS, in January of 2000 – prior to that point, shockingly I had not been aware of his songs or even a single video performance, not even a video interview or archived recap on VH1 or MTV. Yet, being the young science-fiction movie fan that I was (and still am), I was motivated to read the book and see the film after having read all about them in author Peter Guttmacher’s book Legendary Sci-Fi Movies published in 1997, which was my guide to some of the best films of the genre made up to that point; it is a volume I still have in my collection and which provided an interesting back story to the film’s production. After reading the novel, a modernist take on the fall from grace clearly modeled after the Greek myth of Icarus, I was even more compelled to see the movie. And while I can’t deny that there were some deviations between the film and its literary origins, I was completely blown away and moved, not only by the artistry of the film but also the timeless, fragile and iconic presence and acting of Bowie, smoothly bridging the gap from rock idol to screen god.
Later, in 2011, living in Asheville at the age of 25 going on 26, about half a year away from getting my Master’s Degree at UNC-Asheville – and already then having been more properly acquainted with Bowie’s work in music and film – I attended a big-screen presentation of the film in its director’s cut, re-released by Rialto Pictures in that year and in a gorgeously restored 35mm negative to commemorate its 35th Anniversary. Part of a series of classic film screenings by the relatively new Asheville Film Society hosted by local Mountain Xpress critic Ken Hanke (who also passed away this year, after Bowie, in 2016), The Man Who Fell To Earth still held the same wonder for me on the big screen as it did 15 years in the past when I saw it on the small screen. The applause at the end, followed by the discussion of the audience members over its merits and meaning – and there has been much of the same following the film’s initial release during America’s bi-centennial, beginning with mixed reviews and a polarizing effect on contemporary audiences – is only a small tribute to the legacy of the film, its filmmaker and of course, its star.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, oddly enough, was a movie that didn’t get made at first. Although Tevis was already enjoying the fame derived from Robert Rossen’s 1961 film rendition of The Hustler starring Paul Newman, the 1963 sci-fi novel, which followed in The Hustler’s wake, failed to get the green light during the 1960’s as either a feature film, a television movie of the week or even a mini-series (despite the fact that several people in Hollywood had already optioned it). The only praise showered on it, it seems, was an ill-fated cameo as one of the books torched in French New Wave director Francois Truffaut’s English-film debut, Fahrenheit 451 (1966). But fortune favored the victim, as the cinematographer shooting the incinerated novel was Nicolas Roeg, who had previously done second-unit photography work on masterpieces such as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), and who graduated to director of photography with later films such as Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).
During production on Fahrenheit 451, Roeg managed to obtain a copy of the novel and was automatically seduced by its poetic punch – and who wouldn’t be? Best to deliver the synopsis at this point (spoilers included for the uninitiated). A humanoid from a drought-afflicted planet arrives on Earth with the intent of creating an empire of his own that will allow financial construction of ships that will deliver our planet’s water to his and re-unite him with his family. Under the alias Thomas Jerome Newton, he makes his way, rather plausibly, by first selling uniquely inscribed rings, and with the accumulated profits manages to secure a deal with terrestrial tech firm lawyer Oliver Farnsworth, providing several patents for new inventions (including film that develops in the roll). Newton’s World Enterprises is underway, and eventually a science professor, Nathan Pryce, is compelled to aid the alien in his ventures, but during the construction of the first ship, Newton, now a reclusive tycoon with very few connections – save for his new mistress Mary-Lou – begins to lose his way, becoming gradually corrupted by our planet’s lifestyles, and by the time the novel has ended, both his mission and purpose on Earth have deteriorated into a mundane (albeit somewhat flamboyant) mix of sex, drugs, booze and other short-term pleasures.
Strangely, a large factor of the novel’s appeal to Roeg came from comparisons to a story of a different sort, involving a friend of a different alien background. The alien in that story was a former officer in the Egyptian army, who deserted Egypt (and rather reluctantly, his own family) shortly after King Farouk was overthrown. Living in New York in a state of poverty until landing a job as an accountant, the ex-officer sought to raise enough to bring his family to the States, but it took seven years, and eventually he started an affair with a new woman. Eventually his wife tracked him down and begged him to bring his family over, but before they finally arrived, he left his new love behind – and, according to Roeg, “the pain he went through was incredible.”
Years later, following his first three features as director – the rocker lifestyle drama Performance (1970) with the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, the Australian Outback coming-of-age adventure Walkabout (1971), and the Daphne De Maurier-based family-loss-and-clairvoyance mystery Don’t Look now (1973), the last of which many claim to be his greatest film – Roeg finally filmed Tevis’s novel, but not without some difficulties. For starters, for the role of Newton, Peter O’ Toole was originally considered (and there’s no doubt his portrait of the extraterrestrial would have matched the majesty of his T.E. Lawrence or the frustrations of his Henry II from Becket and The Lion in Winter). But after watching Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust video, Roeg was convinced that the music icon’s portrayal of the alien would be more fitting. Upon arriving at Bowie’s house, with the rock star’s first wife Angela to greet him (boy, was Bowie years away from his marriage to Iman!), he had to wait two hours before Dave finally returned.
Upon explaining the plot of the novel – as then adapted by him and co-screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, and already being financed by British Lion Pax Films, who also financed the sci-fi disaster classic The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) – to Bowie, Roeg was countered with the argument that it sounded too close to the plot of Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. According to Bowie, shortly after remarking, verbatim, “It’s a bit corny, isn’t it?” the following happened: “His face just fucking fell off. Then he started talking. Two or three hours later I was convinced he was a genius.”
Then there were the problems involving production and distribution. Many rewrites were needed for the screenplay, trying to stay true to the literary touches of Tevis’ novel while keeping a cinematic legitimacy intact, not unlike what Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke went through in the four years to make 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Most of the filming took place in New Mexico, where cast and crew had to adapt to working in desert conditions that would drive many to Newton’s own level of madness and isolation. And to top it all off, Roeg deliberately wanted to “play with the only thing in life to which we’re absolute slaves… and that’s time.”
Speaking of time, international distribution pressures meant that the film’s preferred final cut by Roeg couldn’t make it to audiences in the United States as it did in Europe during the initial release. The preview audience, according to Roeg, were “puzzled whether twenty-five minutes or twenty-five years have passed in the film.” Twenty-two minutes had to be cut from the film by the American distributor – after consultation from a screenwriter, an editor, several students at Dartmouth, and even a psychiatrist – for audiences in the U.S. who were more accustomed to films with a fast pace and less profundity, as the box-office failure of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) had proven a year earlier. Many scenes, including the more graphic love-making scenes – another trademark of Roeg – were either shortened or cut out completely. It wouldn’t be until 1997 that the director’s cut finally arrived in the US via videocassette and laserdisc – followed years later by its induction as Spine #314 into The Criterion Collection, accompanied by a paperback reissue of the novel – and American audiences old and new would finally see Roeg’s total vision and understand its approach. As I remember critic Hanke saying prior to the 2011 screening, they tried to make it shorter for American audiences “and ended up making it seem longer.” I was fortunate to have missed the U.S. cut.
That being said, it’s not difficult for me to understand how many who first saw The Man Who Fell to Earth in either version probably would have felt the same as Bowie did when Roeg pitched the plot to him, being largely confused by the results as realized by Roeg until enough time passed for them to actually “get it.” Utilizing the same abstract methods featured in Walkabout and Don’t Look Now – namely his trademark fast-and-loose montage editing between two opposing scenes, which seem to contradict each other until you realize they carry a certain coherence in terms of theme and feeling – Roeg crafted a film that is not only faithful to its source (despite the many changes that emerged from the aforementioned countless rewrites) but also stands on its own as a cinematic poem that seems to both repel and attract the viewer upon the first watching. What we have here is a close encounter of the Mobius Strip kind, a confrontation with the surreal and the mundane, a marriage of fantasy and reality that so few filmmakers – including possibly David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Christopher Nolan – are likely to attempt and have attempted in their previous and current works.
In casual cinematic terms, the film is filled with triumphs of every kind, Bowie to one side. Tony Raymond’s cinematography, filled with lush colors and careful compositions (including, at one point, a point-of-view shot), and under Roeg’s perfectionist supervision and past experience, turns even familiar settings such as hotel rooms and run-down trailer parks into shock and spectacle. The music by John Phillips ranges from avant-garde in an art-house sense, to otherworldly in the flashback scenes depicting Newton’s family on the desert planet, with Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War” being incorporated to ingenious effect in a fantastic dissolve at one point, aided by appropriately jarring electronic sound effects by Desmond Briscoe and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Roeg’s unorthodox, yet strangely classical, editing techniques, particularly during the love-making scenes (one jumping between Pryce and one of his college student-coeds in animalistic foreplay while using Newton’s new film; another scene featuring Newton watching a kabuki dance; another involving Newton and his mistress Mary Lou going from decorating Newton’s mansion to full-frontal fornication) reflects the fragile, sensitive nature of the characters and the twisting, philosophically-ethereal path of the film’s narrative. Even the standard single-scene editing is deliberately atmospheric, and the use of montages in several scenes (namely one in an intense strobe-lit love scene with a blank-firing pistol) is inspired.
Then there’s the supporting cast, small but superb in every way imaginable. Buck Henry, still basking in the success of his screenplay for Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) excels as Oliver Farnsworth, effortlessly displaying both professional detachment and personal emotional involvement in Newton’s operations, at one point showing sympathy for the alien tycoon’s obsession with his mission (and eventual downfall) because “the man can’t help himself.” Rip Torn, as the disillusioned science professor and student-womanizing Nathan Pryce, is just as uncanny, portraying someone who decides to join Newton’s operation because of the notion that World Enterprises is “dumping computers and installing human beings… to bring back human errors because that’s the way you get to new ideas.” (He also happens to be self-deprecatory, taking a riffing stab at his profile as a stereotype when measuring his status against Newton, in the scene where he and Newton examine the interior of an Earth-constructed space vessel, which Newton hopes will be the prototype for many to follow.) The standout among the thespian support is Candy Clark of American Graffiti (1973) fame as Mary-Lou, the mistress torn between her love of Newton and her inability to accept his style of living or his real purpose for being on Earth. “What do you want to go back to a desert for?” she jokingly comments over a game of ping-pong in the third act, aware, more or less, that at this point that Newton’s life has become a desert itself.
But of course, this is really David Bowie’s film in the end, as he commands the screen with the kind of savvy, sensual and sensitive (and overwhelmingly tear-inducing) presence that Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet only wish they possessed. Critics and audience members alike are largely unanimous that his performance as extraterrestrial-turned-terrestrial Newton is by far the greatest example of a music star making the smooth transition to film superstar, and who are we – indeed, who am I? – to dare challenge that argument? Bowie truly is alien in many ways. Even with the distinctive British accent, rose-red hair and indelible – should I even say immortal? – status he had already achieved as a music icon, he is so utterly believable in playing a stranger in a strange land that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part. Even if the role had been played by an unknown, in order to accentuate the authentic portrayal of struggle, isolation and disintegration, chances are that the unknown wouldn’t have grasped the character’s depth as profoundly as Bowie did, and even an established star capable of otherworldly grace – including original choice Peter O’Toole, who I confess remains my top favorite actor, living or dead – would have found it difficult to nail this role with ease. This was made more evident in a made-for-television remake/proposed pilot in 1987, loosely adapted from the novel and with Lewis Smith in the eponymous leading role.
Bowie as Newton is all that Tevis’s creation was in the novel and should be in the film: sociable, reclusive, torn, driven, intimidated, sophisticated, child-like, confident, fragile, aware yet lost, compassionate yet apathetic, and finally, crushed. From his first appearance as a wanderer making his descent down a rugged slope, to his descent into alcoholism, it becomes evident to the audience that his dreams and ideals – as most people’s dreams and ideals eventually do in time – will collapse and give way to mundane obligations and short-term pleasures. He demonstrates how he is capable of creation, progress and success, but is prone to wallowing in waste. And on top of everything else, whatever he uses his money for when he’s not planning to return to his planet tends to take its toll on him as an addiction – a burden that he could and should control and even repel, but just simply and plainly… can’t.
Take, for example, the scene where he watches 25 television screens all at once. He chooses to indulge in the full ecstasy of the media that he has earned with his wealth, and could turn off all the screens, but again, he just… can’t. As the images and sounds begin to converge while remaining separate (a la Roeg’s trademark editing style), he pushes himself back into his chair like an astronaut resisting G-forces in a centrifuge during pre-flight training, climatically screaming “Get out of my mind!” And as for the terrestrials involved in his crusade, most especially Mary-Lou, this becomes an issue of great concern, as it would be for a family with one particular member suffering from drug addiction. Having left his family back on his dying world, Newton tries to make another on Earth, but only succeeds in leaving them as well, eventually sinking into the abyss that is total isolation, just as airborne Icarus in his quest for freedom and childish pride sank into the abyss of the Aegean.
It should be noted that during production, both crew and supporting cast were both fascinated and concerned by Bowie’s own acting method. Months of preparation went into the role, with Bowie working on numerology and applying pounds of ice cream to his figure. He also ended up nearly perishing from a case of milk poisoning, which set back shooting for nearly a week, and was at the time abusing cocaine. Bowie, with all the obsession and serious commitment of a mad scientist, continually ran his lines, was an active listener, agreed not to provide background music and maintained flawless continuity, even for scenes and takes where he did something simple as fumbling with a drink. How many actors, let alone those who are movie stars, do we have nowadays that show that kind of meticulous attention to detail?!
For that matter, there is one thing that the film seems to address that not many people acknowledge with the first viewing: while the fall from grace is undeniably its main theme, it’s not only about the fall, but something that precedes and follows the fall. Really, it’s about continuing to search for – and re-obtain – that grace we all fall from, and this is something that doesn’t just apply to those who become celebrities from fame earned or unearned alike, but the countless flawed, anonymous individuals in this world (and one assumes, all other inhabited worlds in the surrounding, expanding universe) who each struggle, fall and attempt to seek that peak in their lives that are based on either nobler aspects of the human condition, or selfish desires, sometimes even both at once.
Even after his defeat, brought on by both his own weakness to combat the seductions of Earth’s corrupting elements – be them products of media or capitalism – and by Earth’s people, most especially those in the scientific and economic communities, who seek to uncover his true background and exploit him, starting with the dissolving of his enterprise. Bowie’s Newton still struggles to find his place back home, and heartbreakingly, at a time when such happens to be impossible. For all his pains, he is imprisoned within his own penthouse and scrutinized like a lab specimen. And all while he is aware that such cruel and callous treatment is not confined to Earth, but would also happen to anyone from here or any other planet who visited any alien world. As he remarks in a drunken stupor to Pryce, “We would have done the same if you came to my place.” And from this recognition of the sad facts of life comes the pure understanding that categorizes the role – and the actor – as that of an outsider who, no matter how far he falls, manages somehow to transcend our Earthly limits.
Although he’s better known and praised as a music composer, producer and performer, David Bowie would go on to give memorable acting turns and guest appearances in film and television over the years, quite a number of which would feature his own music to complement his onscreen presence. But there’s no doubt that even when he was playing roles ranging from ailing vampire John Blalock in Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1980), to gay British POW officer Jack Selliers in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), the Goblin King of Labyrinth (1986), Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), or Tesla in The Prestige, these are unmistakably appetizers when weighed against the main course that was his Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth, the peak of both his cinematic career and that of his director Nicolas Roeg, whose artistic peak would be achieved with this film, and sadly, also would decline, with lesser features and more work in television, including for The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
Now that the Starman has officially, tragically left our world, all we can do – aside from cherishing, playing and preserving his artistic and philosophic legacy, something that many love-struck, diehard fans will undeniably do in the years to follow – is take the lesson that we have learned from him and Newton in that beautiful tapestry of a science-fiction masterpiece. In the end, each and every one of us – and most particularly those who stand out from the rest and leave behind a cherished legacy – is a fallen, lonely alien seeking that lost grace. Really, that’s what David Bowie and The Man Who Fell to Earth both are… poetic metaphors of arrival, struggle, progress, success, loss, and that rare spark of transcendence emerging from said loss.