His Other Brilliant Career: Remembering David Bowie’s Acting

January 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell To Earth"

David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell To Earth”

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence"

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”

"The Hunger" (with Catherine Deneuve)

“The Hunger” (with Catherine Deneuve)

"Basquiat" (with Dennis Hopper)

“Basquiat” (with Dennis Hopper)

Like countless others, I was stunned and deeply saddened by David Bowie’s death; nearly two weeks later, I’m still processing the fact that he’s gone. Although I only saw Bowie in concert once, his music permeated my life, providing an indelible soundtrack that began in my childhood and ended with the newly released “Blackstar,” a stunning coda to his 50-year career as a musician, singer and songwriter. (Since this is a film blog, I won’t write a dissertation on his music, but a brief reminiscence of mine appears here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/arts/music/thank-you-mr-bowie-you-changed-our-lives.html?&moduleDetail=section-news4&action=click&contentCollection=Music&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&version=WhatsNext&contentID=WhatsNext&pgtype=article&_r=0

During the 1970s, as he released a torrent of albums and shape-shifted from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke, David Bowie began to appear in leading roles in notable films. Although I had assumed Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (1976) was his screen debut, it wasn’t: he had appeared in a handful of English films and TV shows before it, beginning in 1967. Nevertheless, “The Man Who Fell To Earth” established David Bowie as a serious actor, rather than a rock star dabbling in movies. In it, Bowie is the quintessential alien, but his performance is nuanced and at times quite funny–my strongest memory of the film is of him singing off-key in church, not an easy thing for a singer with excellent pitch.

Over the next 30 years, Bowie went on to appear many more features–23 in all–along with numerous shorts, TV shows, documentaries and music videos. He made his Broadway debut in “The Elephant Man,” (1980), the first rock star to appear on Broadway in a drama. (His performance was pronounced “splendid” by the New York Times.) He was a pioneer of music videos, putting out filmed performances of his songs before MTV existed, as well as two of the most famous videos ever broadcast (“Let’s Dance” and “Ashes to Ashes.”)

Though not all of Bowie’s movies are good, a number of them– including “Just a Gigolo,” “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “The Hunger,” “Labyrinth” and “Absolute Beginners”–are, and showcase his skill and range as an actor. One of my favorites is Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” (1996), in which he plays Andy Warhol. Although Bowie doesn’t nail Warhol’s accent–his English r’s creep in–he captures the artist’s odd way of mumbling out of one side of his mouth, as well as the diffidence that was his most striking characteristic. It’s an amazing performance, and the fact that Bowie’s fame as a musician already matched Warhol’s as a visual artist makes it mind-bending.

In 2006, Bowie’s played Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige.” In his remembrance the director Christopher Nolan wrote, “[David Bowie] seemed to be the only actor capable of playing the part. He had that requisite iconic status, and he was a figure as mysterious as Tesla needed to be.” After 30-year feature film career in which he famously played an alien, a soldier, a goblin king and a vampire, David Bowie’s last movie character, fittingly, was closest to himself: a genius of invention whose work is eternal.

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