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Remembering David Bowie's singular film career

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The late rock star's untouchable on-screen legacy of wizards, aliens, and vampires

In Nagisa Ôshima's 1983 British / Japanese co-production Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, there's a striking scene in which David Bowie, playing a prisoner of war in a World War II Japanese camp, saves the life of one of his fellow captives. The camp's young Japanese commander is about to execute him in front of the entire camp when Bowie breaks ranks, stalks through the crowd of prisoners, and kisses the commander delicately on both cheeks.

For the commander, it's an unbearable moment of internal conflict, bringing his admiration for (and attraction to) Bowie's character into humiliatingly public conflict with his honor. For Bowie himself, it was just another chance to cut through the crowd. The scene draws on all his cool, alien dignity, making him a still focal point amid chaos. Even in the same army fatigues as everyone around him, he doesn't seem like part of the scene until he chooses to engage with it. A moment later, the calm breaks as he's dragged to the ground and beaten. But for a moment, he seems entirely alien, like he's condescending to be in the world for a moment just to get a job done.

A chilly outsider with a warm, passionate heart

That sense of otherworldly remove was why filmmakers turned to David Bowie over and over throughout a career that was primarily focused on music, but had its share of memorable screen roles as well. Bowie, dead at 69 after an until now private fight against cancer, leaves behind a series of indelible cinematic performances that were almost always about being a chilly outsider with a warm, passionate heart. Directors drew on his legend as a gawky, glam stage performer, but they also consistently burnished it. His movie performances emphasized his outsider status, but they also made it into an invitation and a welcome: "This could never be you, but you can come bask in it."

No role typified that alienness like the one that made him an actual alien: Nicolas Roeg's surreal 1976 science fiction drama The Man Who Fell To Earth. The film stars Bowie as an extraterrestrial trying to get water back to his drought-stricken home planet, where his wife and children are dying. But the process of becoming a rich mogul capable of building a water-transporting spaceship pushes Bowie's character away from his goals. And when he's captured and held by the government, he becomes even more dissociated from his intentions, falling into a sybaritic haze of alcohol, sex, and self-absorption. In the role, Bowie embodies the idea of alienation and makes it both literal and figurative — behind the scenes, Bowie confirmed in multiple interviews that he was in a haze of cocaine abuse during the shoot, barely aware of what was happening. But perhaps by sheer force of personality, it becomes a film about self-indulgence, rock star wealth, and separation from humanity that feels strikingly like a metaphorical Bowie biography. The role couldn't exist without Bowie's status as an outsider, and the conscious combination of melancholy and defiance that fed his music.

Other Bowie characters tapped into a similar sort of otherness. His supporting roles drew on his striking, unusual looks as well as his fame: as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan's 2006 film The Prestige, he represents a world of technology so advanced, it literally appears to be magic. While the other characters compete for the greatest stage effect of all time, he already has the answers, and only seems to be gently condescending to participate in the film's passionate rivalry. As Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ, he's a savvy but quiet Roman politician in a Jewish land, removed from the political upheaval Jesus Christ is causing, but capable of surveying it with a weary eye. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, he's just part and parcel of David Lynch's endlessly dreamlike imagery: speaking in coded spy language with a no-nonsense seriousness, he's not quite aware that he's accidentally shifted dimensions, into a place where his veiled references don't make sense.

He could send up his own image and remain cool

Occasionally he got to have fun with his own image — playing himself as the ultimate arbiter of an impromptu male-model walk-off in Zoolander, or as the deliverer of beneficent blessings in Bandslam. His role as Andy Warhol in Basquiat was almost a winking self-portrait of a strange artist with a fey manner and strong visions of what art should be. On the small screen, his cameo in Ricky Gervais' Extras, where he spontaneously composes a brutal but insanely catchy ditty insulting Gervais' character for his appearance and his fears of selling out, remains one of the all-time highlights of a show that had plenty of them.

But two roles particularly stand out in Bowie's collection of cold-patrician-oddball performances. In Jim Henson's Labyrinth, he's a pansexual glam goblin, simultaneously mesmerizing and terrifying to a teenage girl who's apparently cobbled him up out of her wildest early sexual fantasies. The role underlines how rarely he got to cross-pollinate his careers: his acting roles almost never take advantage of his musical performance skills. Labyrinth lets him play menace, warmth, and arch humor, but it also lets him bring his famous theatrical musical style to a character designed to showcase his unusual looks and cruel, above-it-all image. He's an adult "love injection" (as one of the film's songs puts it) in a fantasy that's hovering precariously between childhood toys and raw teenage lust. He represents a purely internal sexual fantasy, an awakening for young girls for whom actual boys still aren't as real, or as appealing, as what goes on in their heads.

And in The Hunger, as the gradually decomposing plaything of a blood-drinking monster, he's an entirely different kind of fantasy: a 400-year-old vampire's mate who starts out representing sex and rapacious consumption of life, and winds up representing decay and death. For once, he isn't the object of helpless lust, he's the victim — but he's still the outsider, removed from humanity, and with no interest in rejoining it when he could have inhumanity instead.

Filmmakers called in David Bowie when they needed someone on a distinctly different plane, sometimes reveling in his distance, sometimes struggling to overcome it. He was a fantasy so pristine and ultimate, he could send up his own image and still remain cool. There are modern analogues — Tilda Swinton on the screen, Lady Gaga on the stage — but no one quite like Bowie for simple alien splendor. In an age where virtually all the aliens and elves are CGI, he might have seem outmoded. But there's nothing quite like the glamour he brought to the screen. He was the rarest thing in Hollywood: a unique, irreplaceable persona, with a face and a history to match.