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The Magical David Bowie Performance Nobody Appreciates Nearly Enough

The Magical David Bowie Performance Nobody Appreciates Nearly Enough

READ MORE: Remembering David Bowie: 8 Films Now Streaming Online

David Bowie’s character was the only real magician in “The Prestige.” Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman’s top hatted rivals were conjurers of cheap tricks, masters of picking locks and applying spirit gum, but Bowie’s Nikola Tesla built machines that could do the impossible.

It was Bowie’s last major movie role, and while other actors could have given us Tesla, he gave us a version that offered a modern context for understanding a magic man ahead of his own time. It’s not right to say that Bowie was “perfect” for the role, but he was singular as Tesla, inescapably imbuing the role with everything we know and don’t know and can’t comprehend about Bowie himself. An enigma portraying an enigma.

The comfortably numb scientist also made a perfect bookend for Bowie’s film career, which began in the Bowiest way possible: Playing a space alien traveling through Nicolas Roeg’s nightmarish, maddening, sexualized vision of our world in “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” Unlike most musician forays into filmmaking which cast them in generic hero roles to capitalize nakedly on their fame — and even separate from the Monkees’ wild swing against their image in “Head” — Bowie’s leap into acting was a perfect blend of form, function and persona.

Ziggy Stardust was playing an extraterrestrial. Yet, fittingly, Bowie had already shape-shifted away from the Stardust persona by the time he made “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” He’d moved on to an era of singing “Golden Years” on “Soul Train,” so his turn as space oddity Thomas Jerome Newton isn’t glitter-bombed and gloriously queer; it’s as a distant, genius inventor whose abnormality is to be expected (think Elon Musk with a shock of slicked-back red hair and cocaine-withered arms). He might just as easily be an eccentric Brit as an alien visiting earth in an attempt to save his home planet — which can also be safely said of Bowie.

That first role simultaneously played to audience expectations and defied them, continuing the mutable image tradition in his music and setting the stage for him as an actor. True to inexplicable form, he followed it by playing a Prussian WWI officer who becomes a Berliner gigolo and, right when his music was at its most radio-ready mainstream, he played both an androgynous vampire for Tony Scott’s debut “The Hunger” and a WWII POW in the criminally under-seen “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”

He appeared in only a handful of movies in the course of a decade and still avoided easy labels going into the crazed wonderment of “Labyrinth” in 1986.

His turn as the cod piece-thrusting Goblin King was the introduction to Bowie for an entire generation of ’80s kids. He was a sorcerer who bedevils a young Jennifer Connelly, singing gleefully amidst tiny, grotesque Jim Henson creations, and reveling as happily in the absurdity of the fantasy as he does in the spandex. The most charismatic child kidnapper ever put to film.

It’s a children’s movie with silly songs and eye glitter, and Bowie brings a surprising sense of gravitas to a character who’s really a disco ball come to life. This happens, more or less, simply by Bowie being Bowie. It seems perfectly natural that he would lord over a dream-like ballroom and jump around with goblins in his thrown room. Just another typical Tuesday for the man who sold the world.

Only two years later, Bowie would put Jesus to death for Martin Scorsese in “The Last Temptation of Christ.” As Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, he shares a softly poetic dialogue with Willem Dafoe’s Christ before determining that the latter has to be killed for the greater good of the state. He opens the iconic scene with a central philosophical question, saying, “It’s also said that you do miracles. Is this good magic or bad magic?”

Looking miles away from the teased-out, eye-shadowed horror of “Labyrinth,” Bowie plays Pilate as a subdued diplomat trying to find logical common ground with a man who claims that earth isn’t his home. Knowing Bowie’s persona, it’s either ironic or appropriate depending on how you look. The dignified role — which might have otherwise been reserved for a Ben Kingsley or a Gary Oldman — cemented “playing against type” as Bowie’s type.

He portrayed another real-life person when he zoomed through “Basquiat” as Andy Warhol — acting mostly like Bowie in a white mop top wig and beautifully mirroring his brief, brilliant moment playing himself in “Zoolander.” By the aughts, he was an elder statesman and style icon who absorbed all of the attention on screen when he arrived to judge a runway walk-off between two idiots. It’s, again, impossibly sensical that Bowie is both the suave, ultimate judge of chic and game to cringe when Ben Stiller yanks his underwear up into his undercarriage. As brief as it is, the scene offers comedic perfection by inviting a God down to earth to witness ridiculousness and declare a winner with a straight face.

Which leads us back to “The Prestige.” Playing a magician one last time, he appears on screen as both dignified and inhuman, breathing in a rarified air that’s been splashed with electricity and living on the top of a hillside away from the townsfolk who could take up pitchforks and torches at any moment. He’s changing the world, and it’s frightening. Just when a desperate Hugh Jackman needs him most, he’s moved on — a soft-spoken guru who may not be in the mountain cave you risked your life to get to. A being who can visit and talk with us, but who can never stay too long in the realm of mortals.

There’s an obviously good reason why Bowie played inventors and creatives so often. It allowed him a large space to pull off his chameleonic act and imbued him with the fantastical powers we already assumed he had in real life. His death is like losing an entire element from the periodic table, and the movies he leaves behind echo the life of a magic madman who cannot be reduced to one word (or one million), but who always appeared to us as being beyond this world.

READ MORE: How the Film World Is Mourning David Bowie

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Comments

Matt Potter

There’s a great – through very brief – Bowie performance nobody takes about at all: that of British hitman Colin Morris in John Landis’s comedy-thriller/caper movie ‘Into The Night’. Such a weird film, with Bowie appearing alongside Pfeiffer & Goldblum (expected), Jim Henson, David Cronenberg, Landis himself, and Roger Vadim (weird or what?). Very 1980s, pretty inconsequential movie – but worth it all for Bowie’s knowing, wide-boy performance as a killer after the wrong guy.

Jennie

"It seems perfectly natural that he would lord over a dream-like ballroom and jump around with goblins in his thrown room." That’s probably throne room. Spellcheck’s no substitute for a good copyeditor at your side, kid.

Andrew Bauer

I wish I had used "Bowie" about 3 times less in my post… regardless, I’m glad there’s an article covering his enigmatic (and perfect) film roles. Also, not for nothing, he worked with some great directors.

Andrew Bauer

Totally agree about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Despite it being essentially a longish cameo for Bowie, it is a strange and incredible moment that I’ve never forgotten–it was actually one of the first things I thought of after finding out Bowie had passed. Bowie’s unexpected appearance was wonderfully Lynchian and, true to Bowie’s form, perfectly timed and delivered.

EJC

A magnetic mysterious presence to be sure. He will be forever missed. I can say for certain that I shared this earth with him…or can I?

Jeannine Hooks

@Don, 5th paragraph, you just missed it. And yes, I love the comparison of losing and element from the periodic table.

Diana

Here I thought I was done crying. I agree with what Stella said, that line about his death is "like losing an entire element from the periodic table" rings too true. Utterly heartbroken.

Dan

I’m surprised David’s role on Twin Peaks wasn’t mentioned. Albeit, was rather brief as FBI agent who just disappears before Kyle MacLachlan’s character shows up, he was in it. Maybe this article was focusing on the more prominent roles he played? He will be missed as well as his singing…take my hat off and bow one last time for the grand finale. You will be missed David.

Decimus Meridius

Don and Sheri, Read the Fine Article.

sheri

I noticed. They taught us nothing about Nikolai Tesla in school, unfortunately. I first found out about him through David Bowie’s enchanting portrayal. It piqued my interest to read up on Tesla and find what a fascinating human being he was.
I agree with Don, The Hunger was a great artistic movie that deserved mention. Rest in piece, my liege.

Don

No reference to "The Hunger"? Damn interesting movie.

Mae D.

Nice article. Thanks. However, please note that it should be "throne" room, not "thrown" room.

Kate H

Nolan’s ‘The Prestige’ is a travesty of a far better novel, but Bowie is the one thing worth watching it for.

Stella

I love that you refer to his death as "losing an entire element from the periodic table", as that is exactly what it feels like.

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