Skip to main content

Remembering David Bowie's singular film career

Remembering David Bowie's singular film career

/

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

Share this story

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.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Two hours ago Midjourneys

E
External Link
Emma RothTwo hours ago
Celsius’ CEO is out.

Alex Mashinsky, the head of the bankrupt crypto lending firm Celsius, announced his resignation today, but not after patting himself on the back for working “tirelessly to help the company.”

In Mashinsky’s eyes, I guess that means designing “Unbankrupt yourself” t-shirts on Cafepress and then selling them to a user base that just had their funds vaporized.

At least customers of the embattled Voyager Digital crypto firm are in slightly better shape, as the Sam Bankman-Fried-owned FTX just bought out the company’s assets.


M
Twitter
Mary Beth GriggsTwo hours ago
NASA’s SLS rocket is secure as Hurricane Ian barrels towards Florida.

The rocket — and the Orion spacecraft on top — are now back inside the massive Vehicle Assembly Building. Facing menacing forecasts, NASA decided to roll it away from the launchpad yesterday.


A
External Link
Andrew J. Hawkins1:30 PM UTC
Harley-Davidson’s electric motorcycle brand is about to go public via SPAC

LiveWire has completed its merger with a blank-check company and will make its debut on the New York Stock Exchange today. Harley-Davison CEO Jochen Zeitz called it “a proud and exciting milestone for LiveWire towards its ambition to become the most desirable electric motorcycle brand in the world.” Hopefully it also manages to avoid the cash crunch of other EV SPACs, like Canoo, Arrival, Faraday Future, and Lordstown.


A
The Verge
Andrew Webster1:06 PM UTC
“There’s an endless array of drama going on surrounding Twitch right now.”

That’s Ryan Morrison, CEO of Evolved Talent Agency, which represents some of the biggest streamers around. And he’s right — as you can read in this investigation from my colleague Ash Parrish, who looked into just what’s going on with Amazon’s livestreaming service.


R
The Verge
Richard Lawler12:59 PM UTC
Green light.

NASA’s spacecraft crashed, and everyone is very happy about it.

Otherwise, Mitchell Clark is kicking off the day with a deeper look at Dish Network’s definitely-real 5G wireless service , and Walmart’s metaverse vision in Roblox is not looking good at all.


J
External Link
Jess Weatherbed11:49 AM UTC
Won’t anyone think of the billionaires?

Forbes reports that rising inflation and falling stock prices have collectively cost members of the Forbes 400 US rich list $500 billion in 2022 with tech tycoons suffering the biggest losses.

Jeff Bezos (worth $151 billion) lost $50 billion, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin (worth a collective $182b) lost almost $60b, Mark Zuckerberg (worth $57.7b) lost $76.8b, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey (worth $4.5b) lost $10.4b. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (worth $83b) lost $13.5b while his ex-boss Bill Gates (worth $106b) lost $28b, albeit $20b of that via charity donations.


T
Thomas Ricker6:45 AM UTC
Check out this delightful DART Easter egg.

Just Google for “NASA DART.” You’re welcome.


R
Twitter
Richard Lawler12:00 AM UTC
A direct strike at 14,000 mph.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) scored a hit on the asteroid Dimorphos, but as Mary Beth Griggs explains, the real science work is just beginning.

Now planetary scientists will wait to see how the impact changed the asteroid’s orbit, and to download pictures from DART’s LICIACube satellite which had a front-row seat to the crash.


M
The Verge
We’re about an hour away from a space crash.

At 7:14PM ET, a NASA spacecraft is going to smash into an asteroid! Coverage of the collision — called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test — is now live.


E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 26
There’s a surprise in the sky tonight.

Jupiter will be about 367 million miles away from Earth this evening. While that may seem like a long way, it’s the closest it’s been to our home planet since 1963.

During this time, Jupiter will be visible to the naked eye (but binoculars can help). You can check where and when you can get a glimpse of the gas giant from this website.