(c) British Lion Films
The late David Bowie’s acting career was as long as his musical one. According to his Wikipedia filmography, he made his first celluloid appearance in 1967. Incidentally, 1967 was also the year that he released his most famous – and most embarrassing – early single, the catchy but terrible novelty song The Laughing Gnome, the chorus of which goes, “Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, I’m a laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!”
Bowie’s first film was a cinematic short called The Image and it was written and directed by Michael Armstrong, who shortly afterwards would be responsible for the gory (by the standards of the time) horror movies The Haunted House of Horror (1969) and Mark of the Devil (1970). Armstrong had planned to use Bowie again in The Haunted House of Horror, playing a character who’s revealed near the end as being a psychotic killer – which would have given us the entertaining spectacle of Bowie stabbing Frankie Avalon, who headed the cast, to death at the movie’s climax. However, Bowie’s involvement didn’t happen and the role went instead to an actor called Julian Barnes, whom I assume isn’t the same Julian Barnes as the prestigious author of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), England, England (1998) and Arthur & George (2005).
Bowie’s acting ability was never likely to win him an Oscar and he appeared in some awful duds (like 1986’s overhyped Absolute Beginners). However, in the right sort of movie, and in the right sort of role, and with the right sort of director, he could be memorable. So here are a few of my favourite Bowie movies. By the way, I haven’t seen the 1983 World War II prisoner-of-war movie Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, in which he starred alongside Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti and the mighty Kitano Takeshi, but people whose opinions I respect tell me it’s a good ’un.
In 1976, he gave one of his best performances in the Nicholas Roeg-directed The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, a billionaire who, Richard-Branson-style, is trying to build his own spaceship. What the world doesn’t know (initially) is that Newton is an alien who’s been tasked with saving his home planet, which is threatened by a cataclysmic drought, and he plans to use the spaceship to transport water there from earth. But before he can accomplish his mission, he succumbs to several human bad habits, including alcoholism and watching way too much television. Also, the US government finds out what he really is, imprisons him and carries out tests on him as if he were a humanoid lab rat. By the movie’s end, Newton is free again, but still stuck on earth and still addicted to the bottle. Oh, and – irony alert! – he’s accidentally become a rock star.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is puzzlingly non-linear and surreal, even by Roeg’s standards, but it’s really helped by having Bowie in the main role – the aura of strange alien-ness that his appearance had in real life does him no harm here. He also gives the addiction-prone Newton an appropriate sense of vulnerability and frailty, which might have been the result of Bowie having a severe addiction himself at the time, to cocaine.
(c) MGM / UA Entertainment
Seven years later, Tony Scott – little brother of Ridley – directed him in The Hunger, a movie that seems almost like a stylistic prototype for the Goth sub-culture that sprang up soon afterwards in the 1980s (a sub-culture that, like several others, was heavily influenced by Bowie himself). It even begins with a sequence set in a night club where a pair of vampires pick up two young victims while Bauhaus perform Bela Lugosi’s Dead live on stage.
Bowie plays John, who’s the immortal companion of an immortal lady vampire called Miriam (Catherine Deneuve). What Miriam sneakily hasn’t told John is that eternal life doesn’t mean eternal youth for her vampirised companions. Rather, after living it up Dorian-Gray-style for 200 years, they’re suddenly stricken with rapid aging and become shambling, mummified living-dead people whom Miriam keeps locked away in her attic. The sequence where Bowie’s 200 years’ grace comes to an end, he starts to age and he hurries to a clinic to consult a doctor (Susan Sarandon), only to grow older even while he’s sitting in her waiting room, is both macabre and amusing. It seems particularly mordant these days, given the hoo-ha there’s been lately about patient waiting times in Britain’s National Health Service – if the right-wing newspapers are to be believed, you could die of old age whilst waiting to see an NHS doctor.
One Bowie movie that hardly ever gets mentioned is 1985’s Into the Night, directed by John Landis, which is a strange, meandering and improvised-feeling comedy-thriller about a insomniac (Jeff Goldblum) and his involvement with a sexy gemstone-smuggler (Michelle Pfeifer), various villains and a cache of priceless emeralds that once belonged to the Shah of Iran. Bowie plays an English hitman called Colin Morris and is only in the film for a couple of minutes, but the sequence in which he figures is memorably spooky. It takes place in a penthouse, still and silent except for a television set that’s showing 1948’s Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein – and the reason it’s so still and silent, Goldblum realises as he prowls around while Abbot and Costello prattle in the background, is because Bowie has just slaughtered everyone there.
(c) CIBY Pictures / New Line Cinema
Bowie was also good in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the movie spin-off from Lynch’s popular TV series Twin Peaks, although his role in it was no bigger than his role in Into the Night – clearly, a little bit of cinematic Bowie goes a long way. Bowie plays Phillip Jeffries, an FBI agent who’s been mysteriously missing for two years but who one morning suddenly steps out of an elevator at FBI headquarters. He proceeds to babble gibberish at Twin Peaks regulars Dale Cooper, Albert Rosenfield and Gordon Cole (Kyle McLachlan, Miguel Ferrer and Lynch himself): “Who do you think this is, there…? I found something. And then there they were!” Then he narrates a trippy dream montage involving dwarves, killers, masks, disembodied mouths and long-nosed phantoms. And then he vanishes into thin air. “He’s gone!” squawks McLachlan. “He was never here!” retorts Ferrer. This is a David Lynch movie, so don’t expect any explanations of what the hell just happened.
There’s been a lot of talk about a new series of Twin Peaks that Lynch will be unveiling in 2017. Alas, I guess there’s now no way that Phillip Jeffries will be reappearing in it.
Lastly, Bowie might not have been too happy about this, but I suspect that for many people – especially those who were kids during the 1980s – his most famous role was as Jareth, the baby-stealing King of the Goblins, in Jim Henson’s daft but lovable fantasy movie Labyrinth (1986). As the dandified Jareth, Bowie was game enough to don super-tight leggings, long gloves, a ruffle shirt, a Regency jacket, pointy eyebrows and a monstrous fright-wig that even Andy Warhol would have thought twice about wearing.
And there are some jolly scenes where Bowie gets to sing and dance with Henson’s muppet-esque goblins — although every time I watch Labyrinth I expect him to burst into: “Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, I’m the Goblin King and you can’t catch me!”
(c) Lucasfilm / TriStar Pictures