Bowie dabbled in acting from the earliest stages of his career, appearing as a hard-to-kill wraith in the goofy 1967 short The Image, vamping with Lindsay Kemp’s mime troupe, and in 1972-73, touring the world as Ziggy Stardust, the extra-terrestrial rock idol. His travels on the mid-’70s publicity circuit were a kind of Method performance art unto themselves: increasingly unhinged, blatantly coked-up, yet somehow crisp and polite. His life turned out to be an audition tape of sorts for Bowie’s first and richest feature film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), a free adaptation of Walter Tevis’ science fiction novel about a visitor from a dying planet. Bowie’s Thomas Newton is an alluring space invader in earthling drag who secures a bevy of profitable electronic patents and swiftly achieves corporate world domination, only to be betrayed by those closest to him.
Despite Bowie’s relative lack of acting experience, his typecast presence in The Man Who Fell to Earth is a gimmick that works: His elegant awkwardness and vaguely put-on accent befit a creature who’s learned to be human by watching satellite TV. And per usual, he’s game for anything. Full-frontal nudity? Check. A sex scene employing a phallic gun and Candy Clark slathered in old-age makeup? Double Check. Drunken screaming at a grid of television sets from a gynaecological chair? While wearing a girdle and knee pads? Job done. The movie is a mind-bending, abstract strobe light barrage of surreal images and seemingly unconnected scenes that have helped make it an enduring cult classic and Bowie’s finest, freakiest cinematic moment.
Next Bowie stretched himself well beyond his previous roles to play British soldier Jack Celliers in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983). Set in 1942, the film finds Celliers trapped in a Japanese prison camp overseen by the harsh Yonio who loathes Celliers and his fellow British POWs for what he perceives as their cowardice in surrendering. But even amid the taunting, threats of execution and torture, the inscrutable Bowie breaks through his frosty British reserve to help his captors discover their hardened souls, not to mention the beauty in breaking down walls between warring cultures.
By this point, Bowie seemed on the cusp of a fully-fledged acting career. In 1983, Bowie appeared in The Hunger as the 400-year-old lover of vampire goddess Catherine Deneuve. The movie is a schlockfest of early-MTV flourishes and is most noteworthy for a demure love scene between Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. But the opening credit sequence is irresistible: While Bauhaus perform the sinuous goth standard “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” Deneuve and Bowie prowl a cavernous nightclub in search of fresh blood, smirking hotly at each other and blowing pheromones with their cigarette smoke.
The Hunger is mostly downhill from there, and for some reason, so was Bowie’s acting career. He declined the villain role in the Bond film A View to a Kill (1985) that went to Christopher Walken and The musical Absolute Beginners (1986) was largely a bust. Fortunately Bowie turned it around in Jim Henson’s fantasy-adventure Labyrinth (1986). The movie takes you to a wonderful world where nothing is what it seems. The setting is fantastic and just scary enough. Bowie as Jareth “the Goblin King” is the perfect villain, prowling around the set like a spandex clad mantis. After the mainstream success Bowie returned to his more esoteric roots. First was the mysterious FBI agent Phillip Jeffries in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) followed by the biopic Basquiat (1996). Bowie only appears in a handful of scenes but he absolutely nails the emotionally distant pop art icon Andy Warhol in every single one with his wispy white wig, fickle nature, and slippery, celebrity-worshipping persona.
In recent years, save for a priceless cameo from time to time, (Zoolander, Extras). Bowie’s memorable on-screen contributions have been either strictly musical (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Lost Highway) or strictly genetic (his son, Duncan Jones, who directed the splendid Moon, and Source Code). But a small, pivotal role from a few years back serves as a deft reminder that Bowie should drop by our movies more often. In Christopher Nolan’s duelling-illusionists drama The Prestige, where Bowie once again makes the most of his limited screen time as real-life inventor Nikola Tesla. Charged with conjuring a teleportation device, a moustachioed, hoarse-voiced Bowie informs our hero that, “nothing is impossible, what you want is simply expensive,” urging the magician to consider the human cost of his obsessive folly. It’s no wonder that Nolan said Bowie was the only actor he ever considered for the small, but very important role. Bowie was ideally cast as the great inventor Nikola Tesla, replete with spectacularly electromagnetic rock-star entrance.
It is often said that there are no small parts, only small actors. David Bowie’s skill as an actor is that he makes everything feel huge.
Oh and apparently he wrote a few decent tunes as well…