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The 8 Essential Movie Performances Of David Bowie

The 8 Essential Movie Performances Of David Bowie

So the world just got a bit smaller and less wonderful, and the stars look very different today. David Bowies passing is an incalculable loss to the world of music, but it is also a heavy blow to the movie world. His legacy as an actor may be dwarfed by that of his era-defining, decades-spanning music career, but that says less about the former than simply proving the near-planetary size and scale of the latter. Because as an actor too, Bowie had a unique screen presence, and he chose his roles so selectively and with such idiosyncratic, yet strangely consistent taste, that almost incidentally to the main narrative of his extraordinary life, he amassed an enviable onscreen filmography. Even in films that were not wholly worthy of his contributions, his contributions were invariably worthy of attention. And many of even those roles that were critically derided at the time, now feel like they come into focus as glints off a life of artistry as complex and multifaceted as a precision-cut diamond.

His film career was as individual and eclectic as you could hope, but running through almost every role and every performance, certainly the strongest ones, like a steady chord of impossibly long sustain, was a common note of the purest, cleanest intelligence. Oftentimes, it was an intelligence so piercing and singular as to feel almost alien: there is an otherworldly quality to the best of his roles that may not always be writ as large as it was with, say, his Ziggy Stardust persona, but it’s there. But thinking about Bowie, which is really all any of us have been able to do since we heard the crushing news today, something comes home to us in full force: his unmistakable intelligence, fine-boned and razor-sharp as it was, was always cut with such warmth and such compassion, with such a desire to comfort and communicate through art. And as much as it felt like he hovered somewhere three feet above the sidewalks that most of us trudge around on, it was a peculiar kind of loving understanding that seemed to inform that lofty perspective. In fact, maybe Bowie was not an alien at all, it’s just that we don’t know what else to call it when we encounter someone so profoundly, deeply, extraordinarily human. 

Here are eight films of his you might want to seek out again as you mourn the passing of one of the most towering and deeply beloved figures of modern culture. Rest in peace, you who meant so very much, to so very many of us. 

“Absolute Beginners’ (1986) 
“Now, my kids will watch anything, but they couldn’t watch this. Nor could their friends. I don’t think I’ve ever seen worse acting in a major British film… That song, in my opinion, was the only good feature of the whole film.” So wrote Jake Eberts, whose company Goldcrest Films financed, and was sunk by, Julien Temple’s 1950s-set musical “Absolute Beginners.” And by ‘that song,’ he means Bowie’s theme of the same name, obviously. Eberts isn’t entirely wrong — the film is a gigantic folly, one that didn’t just destroy Goldcrest, but came close to crippling the British film industry as a whole. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fascinating, and Bowie’s performance as well as his song, are one of the movie’s major redeeming features. Temple takes Colin MacInnes’ memoir of the birth of the teen in London’s Soho in the 1950s and gives it an expressionistic, none-more-80s music video veneer, a cross between Alan Parker, Busby Berkeley and amateur dramatics. It’s a hot mess, dramatically and aesthetically, but it’s entirely fascinating for it, and Bowie has enormous fun as the near-satanic ad executive who takes lead Colin under his wing. Not enough of the star’s film appearances let him flex his musical muscles, but both the title track and his lizardly seductive “That’s Motivation,” atop a giant typewriter, are heads and shoulders above the rest of the movie. 

“The Hunger” (1983)
Tony Scott‘s feature debut is characteristic of the late director’s eye for a lavish visual (especially if it involved billowing curtains), but not of his soon-to-be-trademark kinetic pacing. Actually, the rhythm of his vampire love triangle is languorous to the point of labored, but the cast, including Catherine Deneuve, Bowie and Susan Sarandon, and the off-the-charts coolness factor, just about keep you there. Plus, while such a thing could conceivably feel old-hat in these vamp-saturated times, it’s key to remember that that was one of the first contemporary takes on the genre and Bowie’s inherent modernity (his 200 year-old vampire is even introduced during a performance of gothic art-rock outfit Bauhaus) certainly contributes to that. As does his essential agelessness, if that doesn’t feel like too cruel a thing to bring up right now; his vampire John suffers the horrific fate of remaining untouched by time for a couple of centuries, before suddenly and rapidly aging, without being able to die. It is certainly one of the most tragic of parts that Bowie would ever play and he seems so ideally suited to the part of the beautiful, amoral immortal, that it’s a bit of a shame he is sidelined as it progresses. Though that does allow the film’s most memorable scene — the lesbian sex scene between Sarandon and Deneuve — to take place, and it does keep Bowie more or less blameless in the confusing compromise that is the messy, reworked ending.

Labyrinth” (1986)
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, securing Bowie’s involvement as the Goblin King Jareth was such a major feat in the development of Jim Henson‘s fairy tale fable “Labyrinth,” that the orbit of the film shifted slightly to accommodate him. The film’s writer, Terry Jones of ‘Monty Python‘ fame, rewrote the script (under protest) to allow more screen time for the character and for his songs, and when Bowie reportedly felt the script lacked humor thereafter, it was again rewritten to keep him onside. Also featuring a polish from Elaine May, the family film is the story of a young girl (Jennifer Connelly) who has to face all sorts of otherworldly dangers and adventures when her little brother is taken, on her urging, by Goblins, whose king falls in love with her. It was a flop on release, which allegedly depressed Henson so much he never directed again, and critically the reception was mixed at best. But the film developed a life on VHS thereafter and for a whole generation of sleepover-aged kids, Bowie’s Jareth, with his 80s fright wig and “you remind me of the babe” nonsense dialogue, is one of his most indelible creations. While the Maurice Sendak-indebted film is not an out-and-out success, the casting of Bowie is kind of genius, as he brings his trademark ambiguity to making the villain both attractive and repulsive, lending the film, which is all puppets and riddles elsewhere, a slightly more grown-up slant as a result. 

READ MORE: Watch: Celebrate David Bowie On Film With 4-Miinute Supercut

The Prestige” (2006)
It’s hard to believe there ever was or ever will be Bowie’s like again. And yet, a few times in his movie career he played real-life historical figures, and each time it made a certain kind of sense. And so somehow the news that he was to play Serbian physicist/inventor/engineer/genius Nikola Tesla (who famously worked for and then fell out with Thomas Edison over alternating vs direct current) in Christopher Nolan‘s underrated adaptation of Christopher Priest‘s brilliant novel, came as the kind of surprise that immediately felt unsurprising, to the point of obvious. Indeed, Nolan himself stated he couldn’t think of anyone else for the small but pivotal role, and went so far as to fly out to meet Bowie to convince him, after he’d initially turned the part down. As with all the real-life characters he played, it’s hard to tell if Bowie feels right here because he brings Tesla to life, or because he makes us think that maybe Tesla was a bit like Bowie — mercurial and magnetic and a little above the petty affairs of men. But whether Bowie was an actor of great versatility and range seems somewhat beside the point when he brought something that simply no one else could have. And in this deliciously twisty, ultimately nihilistic story of Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman‘s rival magicians, his character lends a welcome, scientific/supernatural tinge to proceedings — because he’s Tesla? Because he’s Bowie? Does it matter?

Basquiat” (1998) 
One of the most iconic artists that ever lived, Andy Warhol’s been played by some fine actors, often memorably — Crispin Glover in “The Doors,” Jared Harris in “I Shot Andy Warhol,Guy Pearce in “Factory Girl,” Bill Hader in “Men In Black 3.” But it’s fitting — because they knew each other, because the musician named a track on “Hunky Dory” after him, because they were two of the most singular creative forces of the second half of the 20th century — that maybe the best Warhol performance came from Bowie, in Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat,” his biopic of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The film is occasionally self-serving (Gary Oldman plays a surrogate for the filmmaker), but well worth a watch, thanks mostly to a titanic performance from Jeffrey Wright as the title character. And Bowie is perfect as Warhol — wryly funny, pouring his own innate weirdness into a Warhol-shape, but never quite becoming a caricature, with his mentorship of Basquiat becoming oddly touching. It felt, from a distance, like stunt casting, but Bowie never lets it become so.

READ MORE: Jim Jarmusch Explains Why He Refuses To Watch Julian Schnabel’s ‘Basquiat’

“Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” (1983)
One of Bowie’s greatest performances despite, or probably because of being one of the most atypical, in Nagisa Oshima‘s (“In The Realm Of The Senses“) moving POW film, he brings all his innate charisma to bear on the character of Celliers, a New Zealand Major imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II. And that charisma is needed to sell the knottiest, and most delicate aspect of the story: the unspoken, unsanctioned attraction that Celliers’ opposite number (played by Ryuchi Sakamoto, who also composed the film’s remarkable score) feels for Celliers, that so clashes with his bushido code of honor. With that semi-sadistic relationship echoed in less homoerotic terms by the less subtle but no less unexpected kinship that springs up between Takeshi Kitano‘s boorish sergeant and Tom Conti‘s decent, humane Lieutenant Colonel, the film is a remarkably clever and rather underappreciated examination of the human cost of war in one of the most inhuman places on earth. But it also demonstrates how a life honestly lived, even for a few months or a few moments, is worth more than decades of self-deceit — an authenticity that seems so very much a part of the real Bowie’s real-world legacy.  

The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988)
Bowie didn’t work with American directors all that often, but if you’re going to choose one U.S. auteur to grace with your presence, might as well be Martin Scorsese. Somewhat bizarrely cast as Pontius Pilate in Scorsese’s deeply personal, highly controversial retelling of Christ’s final days, in the context of this highly singular, visionary film from Scorsese, his casting seems like a particular masterstroke. Imbuing Pilate with a soft-spoken, almost rueful politician’s pragmatism, he has one scene with Willem Dafoe‘s Jesus which is as subtle and silky and clever as anything Bowie ever did onscreen. And in it, he kills God. Patiently, regretfully explaining to Christ the political exigencies that make his execution necessary, Bowie’s Pilate is portrayed not as the craven, villainous character of popular lore, but as something much more implacable and immovable: a bureaucrat with no ideology save the maintenance of the status quo. There are a lot of ways in which Scorsese’s envisioning of the Christ story is bravely experimental and contemporary-feeling — and not all of them are wholly successful (Harvey Keitel’s accent is still a sticking point). But Bowie’s counterintuitive casting (if anyone’s an “alien” here, surely it’s Jesus?), albeit in a relatively small role, is inspired and gives unexpected texture and substance to the clash of ideologies and political philosophies between the two men.

The Man Who Fell To Earth” (1976)
For something so influential, David Bowie’s pansexual alien persona of Ziggy Stardust was relatively short-lived, and had come and gone before he was cast as an alien in his first starring role. In fact his characterisation of Thomas Jerome Newton in this indulgent but sporadically fascinating Nicholas Roeg oddity was based more on Bowie’s next incarnation as the Thin White Duke. And with Bowie himself admitting this period saw his drug habit at its worst and that the emotionless, hollow, Ubermensch Duke became “an ogre” to him, you have some idea of the attraction and the repulsion that the character, and Roeg’s capitalism-critiquing film, represent. A fragmentary, often incoherent meditation on the alienation of modern life and the methods by which we numb ourselves to real connection, the film is sometimes dazzling and sometimes an utter bore, but Bowie is never less than mesmerizing as the alien descending into all-too-human depravity and vice. A cult classic almost the second it opened, it feels like now that Bowie’s song has been sung through to its end, this is definitely one of the films that future generations will look to to explain his legacy — and with as little luck as any of us have had. “The Man Who Fell To Earth” will continue to defy straightforward comprehension, partly because of Roeg, but partly because however many times you may revisit it, at its core there is maybe the quintessential Bowie performance, and it is a perfect enigma.

READ MORE: Watch: 12-Minute Video Essay Explores The Soundtrack Of ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’

One aspect of Bowie’s persona that doesn’t perhaps come out enough in the above selection is his playfulness, his sense of humor. But of course, this is the guy who showed up for a minute cameo, as himself, in Ben Stiller‘s “Zoolander,” hosting the “walk-off,” to say nothing of his “Chubby Little Loser” episode of Ricky Gervais‘ “Extras,” his mind-fuckery role as Phillip Jeffries, one of Cole’s Blue Rose agents in “Twin Peaks: Fire, Walk With Me,” his voice work in an episode of “Spongebob Squarepants,” in amongst a clutch of other film and TV roles, big and small that devotees will want to search out. 

And lastly, though we kind of don’t want to hit publish on this because that will make it all real, there are so many beautiful, meaningful Bowie-inflected clips we could leave you with, because obviously his filmic legacy extends far, far beyond just the films he appeared in. And even all the documentaries, interviews, chat show appearances and music videos he appeared in pale beside his 452 listed IMDB soundtrack credits, from the songs he wrote for the 1969 experimental short “Love You Till Tuesday” in which he also appeared, to the (rather on-the-nose) use of “Starman” in this year’s Best Picture contender “The Martian.” 

But, to play us out, here are the two clips that occurred to us immediately — maybe the two greatest movie uses of “Modern Love,” from Leos Carax‘s “Mauvais Sang” and from Noah Baumbach‘s “Frances Ha.” The first is complicated and a little disquieting, the second simply joyful and celebratory, and somehow it’s the perfect song for both.

And if, after all that, you’re still feeling utterly bereft, we’ve found that this tweet, which was originally posted the day before Bowie’s death, actually does help a bit. 

–with Oli Lyttelton

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