Top 10 Performances
The death of David Bowie has left a Ziggy-sized, Aladdin Sane-sized, Thin White Duke-sized hole in the world. As a musician, he was obviously peerless, but as an actor? As an actor, even a cracked one, Bowie seemed to get a continually frosty reception from critics, his performances frequently subjected to the common refrain that he, indeed, could not act. Of course, there was always the exception of The Man Who Fell to Earth, because he was just playing himself there.
I’ve never understood the barb; I can see Bowie wasn’t necessarily preeminent in the field, an Oscar-worthy thespian (although, when has that stopped a statuette being given out?), but I’ve always found him highly watchable in his roles, and appreciated his deftness in a variety of genres, from drama, to fantasy, biopic and comedy. Among those not on this list are his cameo in Yellowbeard (trying not to laugh as “the Shark”) his appearance in Dream On (as Sir Roland Morecock, no less; I’m only including film appearances, but the character name alone is worth a mention) or in Absolute Beginners (as the contrastingly appallingly named Vendice Partners). Bowie wasn’t a prolific movie actor, his most prolonged burst coming during the ’80s, but of a little over twenty movies, it’s very easy to select ten memorable performances.
Zoolander (2001) – “I believe I might be of service?” The former David Jones cameoed as himself in a number of movies and TV shows, but by far the coolest appearance of “David Bowie” finds him compering a walk-off between Derek Zoolander and Hansel in Ben Stiller’s 2001 classic. Bowie had perfected a certain middle-aged cool at that time, an older (rather than elder) statesman of pop but one who still exuded “it”. From the early-90s to early-00s he discarded the meticulous personas of old but revealed an “undisguised” guise no less arresting. Bowie completely gets the joke with Zoolander, of course, revelling in an exaggerated, playful version of himself. In particular, his reaction to Stiller’s attempted underwear extraction is priceless. Bowie is only on screen for a couple of minutes, but he even out-cools Billy Zane. And Billy Zane’s a cool dude.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) – Another brief appearance from the Bowie, looking most un-FBI in a Hawaiian shirt as long-lost Agent Philip Jeffries, missing on a mission to track down the Black Lodge. Of all the deranged and distracted elements in Lynch’s elusive and intriguing prequel/sequel to the TV series, Jeffries is perhaps the most intriguing. He never fully returns to the land of the living per se. Rather, Jeffries materialises ever-so-briefly in FBI HQ Philadelphia for a marvellous spot of Lynchian spatiotemporal oddness.
Dale Cooper, guided by a dream, views the video playback of a corridor in which he was stood moments before, staring up at the camera until the (formerly) non-present Jeffries walks by his video image. Phillip attempts to deliver a message (in a less than glorious Southern accent, it has to be admitted) to Lynch’s Gordon Cole while intimating that Cooper (or rather his other side) isn’t what he seems. We also witness flashes of Jeffries’ visit to the Black Lodge meeting. Mainly, though, the antic presence of alien Bowie is a shorthand signifier and little more; who else would one expect to come across in the strangest of strange Lynch milieus? As such his performance requires him to do little other than weird us out, which of course, he does consummately.
Jareth the Goblin King
Labyrinth (1986) – One of George Lucas’ failed ’80s, post-Star Wars attempts to come up with a new thing, this Jim Henson effort is much loved by (girls of) a certain generation, a reworking of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland as teenager-on-the-cusp Jennifer Connelly enters a muppet land presided over Bowie’s Goblin King, a Goblin King who has kidnapped her baby brother. A Goblin King packing quite a pouch in his goblin tights. That, and Dame David’s fright wig, got the most attention here (he bears a resemblance to Joanna Lumley at certain angles), although he also does some clever stuff with his (crystal) balls, sings a bit and strolls casually about a topsy-turvy Escher-esque castle lair.
You can see where this went wrong with hindsight; Bowie’s posturing would have been fully at home amongst the Adam Ants and New Romantics a half decade earlier, but seems adrift amid Henson’s very family sensibility (Dreamchild, a year earlier, was much more effective). The picture is thus rather less than the sum of its parts, but Bowie is having a lot of fun, particularly singing to, and kicking, muppets, and as a whole, it’s much more agreeable than his other flirtation with (attempted) mainstream fare of the era, Absolute Beginners (even if, conversely, that yielded one of his best singles, while Labyrinth’s tunes are rather forgettable).
Major Jack “Strafer” Celliers
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) – Nagisa Oshima cast Bowie after seeing him on stage in The Elephant Man, citing his “indestructible” inner spirt. You can leap frog contemporary critics during this era if you want to find one praising Bowie’s performance and avoid the next slating it. He rises to the challenge of the role guilt-ridden Cellers, but it’s the exotic unattainability of the star that is perhaps the key ingredient, as prison camp guard Ryuichi Sakamoto finds himself powerfully attracted to the thin white duke.
Except, this is the Bowie of Let’s Dance, the perma-tanned Bowie of the health-spa ’80s, rather than the milk-and-green-pepper-ingesting coke fiend of the mid-70s. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is very much of its era (throw a stone in that decade and you’d hit a movie with Tom Conti in it, or Conti himself) and there’s a feeling that, for all the inflamed thematic explorations, this is ultimately more resonant for its aesthetics and imagery (Celliers buried up to his neck) than content. The dovetailing of Bowie’s newly inclusive pop face with the role is perhaps a little too neat, and, with its striking but intrusive Sakamoto synth soundtrack, Mr. Lawrence at times feels a little over-performed and over-telegraphed, rather than enabled to become its own fully immersive thing. Still, a more rewarding picture than the recent Unbroken, with which it shared certain characteristics.
The Hunger (1983) – Bowie is the devoted, 200-year-old vampire companion who discovers his time has come, inevitably destined to be cast aside by long-time companion Catherine Deneuve when the more delectable Susan Sarandon supplants him for attention. Duped into believing he was granted eternal youth, John Blaylock learns he is merely eternal, begins aging at an alarming rate and is left to wither and waste away in the attic, along with Deneuve’s other former lovers.
Ostensibly, this is a cautionary metaphor for addiction (somewhat addled, to Sarandon’s chagrin, by the revised ending), but one might also read into Bowie’s role a commentary on the ephemeral nature of the pop star. Albeit, he bucked that trend, retaining a permanence few were capable of. Bowie went on to resume his Hunger relationship as the host of the second series of the late-90s TV anthology of the same name, and Blaylock is one of his most affecting turns, coming on as too cool for school with Catherine Deneuve, to the strains of Bauhaus, but then rapidly devolving into a helpless state, left to rot like a Dorian Gray painting in the attic.
The early-80s, post-his success on stage in The Elephant Man, saw Bowie attempt a variety of movie roles, all them at least interesting, and as such, they presented an almost inverted relationship with his investment in his musical career. One thing they evidenced is that he was in his element with a supporting role, brought on for maximum impact because he needed to do relatively little to make his mark. Bowie had reservations regarding the picture at the time, but The Hunger’s subsequent cult reappraisal has been largely justified. As an aside, it’s a shame it wasn’t a bigger hit, since the also departed Tony Scott started out with the almost art-pop aesthetic of his brother but soon discarded it for frequently empty, shiny Hollywood baubles (which he invariably rendered with consummate skill).
Basquiat (1996) – Julian Schnabel’s biopic falls into the diligently linear trap of many a based-on-real-events movie, added to which, feeling such leeway is endorsed through depicting an artist, it indulges a less than focussed telling. What it definitely has going for it, that sees it through its rather languid course, is vibrant cast, from Jeffrey Wright’s outstanding lead turn, to the many names in minor supporting roles (many of whom presumably wanted to express their art-appreciation credentials). These include Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman (as a Schnabel stand-in), Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Courtney Love and up-and-comer Benicio Del Toro. And Michael Wincott, not playing a psycho. The most recognisable figure in this exploration of the ’80s New York art scene’s empty commercialism is its forefather Andy Warhol, as essayed by Bowie no less (wearing Warhol’s actual wigs).
It’s a very funny performance, lifting what is a fairly downbeat, listless movie. His aging, not-altogether-there Andy is particularly amusing during a dinner party exchange where he gives up insisting that Saddle Row is in New Jersey, in response to a guest claiming, in an increasingly heated manner, that it is New York. “Oh, I didn’t know that. Did you know that?” he asks Paul Bartel after a spell of back-and-forth, defusing the situation. In another scene, Basquiat walks in on Andy observing “oxidisation art” (piss-painting, sourced from a particular brand of beer). Asked why he doesn’t try it himself, Andy replies “I don’t like beer”. Then there’s Basquiat’s mirthful response to Warhol’s anecdote “When I was little my brother and I had two pet ducks. We called them the Garcia brothers”. It’s all in Bowie’s approximation of Warhol, which is gloriously elsewhere.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – This rather absurd notion that Bowie couldn’t act seemed to be the rehearsed script from most critics for a long time, right up until his death, when they were suddenly, miraculously singing a different tune. Fickleness knows no bounds. There is a certain truth, though, that he was best served by a role that made the most of his inimitable presence, the same way, say, you (hopefully) try to cast Christopher Walken in parts that don’t waste him. In many cases (much on this list), it means he stands out against the background or his screen partners, and is given an accentuated or unusual role.
Last Temptation is something of an exception, wherein Bowie underplays as Pontius Pilate, offering a weary ruler whose matter-of-fact cynicism makes him seem the most reasoned and almost sympathetic personification of the man who sent Jesus to his death. Christ offers change in the way people think and feel, and Pilate informs him simply, be it killing or loving, “We don’t want them changed”. His calm and stillness are the perfect contrast with the storm that surrounds Willem Dafoe’s Jesus and, thanks to the eclectic cast assembled by Scorsese, Bowie doesn’t seem at all out of place in this (over-stated as such) controversial telling.
Into the Night (1985) – “You’re really very good”, Bowie’s moustachioed English hit man confides in Jeff Goldbum’s strung-out insomniac, who is engaged in a peculiar nocturnal odyssey with Michelle Pfeiffer’s alluring diamond smuggler. John Landis has always had a thing for the cameo, particularly prone to dropping in directors all over the place, and Bowie here is just another ingredient in the scene-by-scene different flavours of strange Goldblum encounters. He relishes the chance to deliver a cheerful vignette of black comedy. Like all the best villains, Colin Morris embraces being a bad guy. He also treats Jeff as one of his professional equals (rather suggesting Colin might not be that good after all), before putting a gun in his mouth (“I like you, Ed. I do like you”). If Bowie appearances were rated for the impact he makes in the shortest time, this might come top, so delightfully dangerous is Colin. The last we see of Morris, he’s engaged in a particular nasty knife fight to the death with Carl Perkins.
The Prestige (2006) – “The first time I changed the world, I was hailed as a visionary. The second time, I was asked politely to retire.” Falling into the camp of “Who better to play an icon of history than an icon of the present?”, Bowie’s manifestation of Nikola Tesla is a genius piece of casting on director Christopher Nolan’s part (Bowie initially turned it down, until the director flew out to see him and persuaded him no one else could play the part). Tesla remains an enigma, his scientific art and craft shrouded in half-legends concerning the potential of his work and conspiracy theories regarding the sabotage of a bright future of free energy for all. Who better to play him than an embodiment of mystery, a star known for keeping his audience guessing about his motives and just what he will come up with next?
Tesla also gives the Bowie the actor the opportunity to proffer a mature sage, embodying the wisdom that comes from having one’s ambitions derailed (a flip side to Jerome Newton in that sense, for whom the years lead only to advanced stupor). Bowie was in hibernation musically during this period, and withdrawn from the public arena generally, making the mysterious Tesla all the more potent a presence. He comes on with a magician’s sleight of hand, in a movie (possibly Nolan’s best movie) about the craft of stage magic, produces a spell out of (numerous) top hats and then withdraws, fundamentally affecting the thrust of this tale (and for some, bizarrely, spoiling it).
Thomas Jerome Newton
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) – Bowie’s signature role, one often lumped in with the also-Nicolas Roeg-directed Mick Jagger in Performance as a rare example of a pop star acquitting themselves with aplomb at the old acting lark. Whereas Mick can boast few other examples of his skill in this arena (Freejack, anyone?), Bowie fully grasped the thespian mettle at various points. Nevertheless, it’s surely no coincidence that Thomas Jerome Newton’s resonance is down to reflecting the fragile state of its gaunt star at the time, mired in a ravaging coke addiction and, as an actor, responding in the moment, instinctively offering an alien adjusting to and being debased by the debilitating world of Earth; as he said “I actually was feeling as alienated as the character was”.
While this couldn’t be said to “be” David Bowie any more than his cameo in Zoolander, there’s a raw, transparent quality here that is only accentuated by Roeg’s fractured yet intimate construction of the film as a whole (see also Don’t Look Now for the director eliciting powerful performances from his actors). Newton obviously counted for a lot with Bowie, not just in terms of that period in his life but also the broader subject matter, a Howard Hughes-esque recluse placed under a microscope as the world passes by, the potential of his life mission come to nothing (not that Bowie isn’t the last person anyone would look at in those terms), as he revisited it in his final year for the stage musical Lazarus.
Addendum 24/08/22: There’s obviously a whole conspiracy angle to anything Bowie, ranging from his still being alive (and appearing on TV soon after his death as a slightly shonky looking alter), to his occult proclivities (most saliently during the ’70s, and then again in his Black Star video), to his being a fully-fledged Elite puppet, the next stage in the game post-Beatles and equally Tavistock orientated (gender-fluid is where it’s at). Wherever the truth lies, just the fact of his appreciation of Derek & Clive is surely some small case for the defence.