Critic's Notebook: Remembering David Bowie's Electric, Elusive Film Career
He was not a "movie star" per se, but in films from 'The Man Who Fell To Earth' to 'Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence' to 'The Prestige,' Bowie appeared as a beguiling emissary from a parallel, fabulous other reality.
All the world's lightning is trapped in a single space, and through this roaring inferno of electricity, pulsations bouncing from his besuited body, walks a man: David Bowie. You were expecting someone else? Striding into view as Serbian genius Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige (2006), Bowie visibly revels in what he must have intuited would be one of the most spectacularly apt entrances in cinema history.
Who cared that Bowie was a 58-year-old, five-foot-ten Brit playing a 43-year-old, six-foot-plus Serb? This was, after all, a film about suspension of disbelief, showbiz chutzpah and the "real magic" of both invention and personal reinvention: Bowie's wheelhouse. "I was looking for someone the audience would instantly believe was capable of extraordinary things," Nolan said in an interview at the time.
Charisma is crucial, and while he was not himself a "movie star" per se, few big-screen performers can compare with Bowie in terms of sheer magnetic wattage. A cross-cultural megastar who could happily trade literary quips with William Burroughs and artistic musings with Andy Warhol (whom he played in 1996's Basquiat), and incarnate The Elephant Man on Broadway, all while maintaining one of the most successful of pop careers, Bowie appeared in films as a beguiling emissary from a parallel, fabulous other reality.
The glorious jolt of Bowie arriving on screen could be played for laughs — as when he literally stops the show in Ben Stiller's Zoolander (2001). Stepping up from a fashion-crowd audience and whipping off his shades, he Cockney-deadpans "I believe ... I might be of service." As most potently evidenced by his self-parodying turn in Ricky Gervais' Extras (2006), Bowie's comic timing indeed was often superb, his other-worldliness offset by a delightfully down-to-earth sweetness.
Then there's the way David Lynch so drolly drops him into and out of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) as "long lost" FBI agent Philip Jeffries. An elevator opens, and after a teasing pause Bowie emerges, clad in a pale suit and tropical shirt, a vision of knowingly cheesy exotica who vanishes almost as quickly as he materialized.
That very elusiveness and evanescence seemed to characterize his big-screen career in general. Bowie was never short of offers after the success of his feature film debut, Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), in which he slipped into the skin of melancholic alien Thomas Jerome Newton. It's still for many his signature role, and one for which he won (appropriately enough) the Saturn Award for Best Actor. But he was then badly stung by the experience of making David Hemmings' Just A Gigolo (1978) in Berlin, which he in large part signed on for as a means of working with Marlene Dietrich. Alas, she filmed her scenes in Paris, and the pair never met.
Bowie concentrated on his "day job" until 1982, when he tackled the role of a decadent, renegade1920s poet-musician in the BBC's Bertolt Brecht adaptation Baal. Rotten of tooth and filthy of fingernail, he was utterly convincing as the banjo-strumming anti-hero — despite the fact that he couldn't play the guitar. Then he delivered a 1983 double-whammy as an achingly hip vampire opposite Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in Tony Scott's disastrously received The Hunger and as a Kiwi officer Jack Celliers in Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.
Once again, the beauty of Bowie's performances was in the bony, loping swagger. Just watch how Celliers calmly walks through a crowd of cowed POWs to deposit a delicate kiss on the cheek of the young Japanese camp commandant as the latter administers a public punishment; the look of desperate, anguished hope on Bowie's face as he stares up into the sky after this embrace arguably is his finest screen moment. The gesture's homoeroticism draws upon our knowledge of Bowie's own amorphous and unclassifiable sexuality. In the film, though, that kiss is above all an act of love and forgiveness that helps seal Celliers' fate. He's later buried up to his neck and left to perish under the blistering sun — but not before a trembling white butterfly descends on his forehead, providing the character with a moment of grace, and the actor with yet another iconic image to remember him by.
The experience of working with filmmakers like Scott and Oshima evidently rekindled Bowie's acting bug: He played a very British hitman in John Landis' celebrity-studded Into the Night (1985); warbled the theme song for Julien Temple's expensive flop Absolute Beginners (1986); and risked ridicule as Jareth, the Goblin King in Jim Henson's Labyrinth, another box-office and critical disappointment at the time — but one which now endures as a beloved cult classic, not least because of Bowie's deliciously camp villainy as the leather-clad, fright-wigged, bulging-crotched gnome monarch. Mockery abounded, but Bowie, as always, seemed to know he'd have the last laugh.