8 of David Bowie's Most Iconic Film Roles
In addition to his music, the glam rock icon left behind an impressive legacy of memorable film roles.
David Bowie was a musical genius.
Prior to his tragic death from liver cancer in 2016, he cemented his legacy as one of the 20th century's most iconic musical voices with classic albums like Hunky Dory, "Heroes", and Let's Dance. But his musical talent was only part of what made him a living legend. His best work was intertwined with his talent for mythmaking.
Stardust - Official Trailer (David Bowie Movie)www.youtube.com
Adopting the personas of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, Bowie performed stories of fame and madness. The rcent biopic Stardust, from director Gabriel Range, purported to tell the story of how a young, insecure Bowie developed the Ziggy persona as a means to project confidence and overcome his anxiety.
The film premiered over the winter at the San Diego International Film Festival, to a mixed response, largely because the film was produced without the approval of Bowie's family. As such, it features none of Bowie's original music, and exists more in the category of an unauthorized film tribute, like 1998's Velvet Goldmine.
It may be that David Bowie never wanted the "truth" of his life story shared with the public, preferring to operate through persona and performance. With that in mind, if fans of the late glam rock icon want to experience the official, authorized film version of David Bowie, the man himself lent his talent to the silver screen in an acting career that was almost as impressive as his contribution to music.
These eight roles represent the best of his acting work. And while they may not show us the "real" Bowie, they reveal his range as a performer, and offer insight into how he chose to present himself to the world.
"Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me" (1992) - Agent Phillip Jeffries
In the early '90s eccentric director David Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost introduced America to the fictional small town of Twin Peaks, Washington, where a cast of strange characters and cheerful Americana concealed dark mysteries.
Despite it's cult fandom, the Twin Peaks TV show was canceled after just two seasons on ABC, and Lynch and Frost resorted to making a film to (sort of) resolve the series' mysteries and loose ends. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me functioned as both a prequel and a sequel to the series, and David Bowie played the role of long-lost FBI agent Phillip Jeffries, who appears to some of his fellow agents in an erratic and cryptic vision before being transported back in time.
While Lynch was pleased with Bowie's performance, Bowie himself was seemingly unhappy with his attempt at a Louisiana accent, and insisted, before his death, that Lynch dub the scene over with a true Louisianan actor for 2017's Twin Peaks: The Return.
"The Prestige" (2006) - Nikola Tesla
Another Bowie role with an interesting accent choice, Bowie played the role of Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan's 2006 film, The Prestige. Depicted as a wise and enigmatic figure with an almost godlike mastery of science, Bowie walks through lightning, invents an electrical cloning device, and attempts to advise magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) against his dangerous obsession, all while battling Thomas Edison.
"The Hunger" (1983) - John Blaylock
The Hunger is a 1983 horror movie about youth, mortality, and love. David Bowie plays "young" vampire John Blaylock, whose ancient lover Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) turned him in the 1800s with the promise of eternal life, as long as he feeds regularly on human blood. But now he has started aging rapidly, and seeks a scientific cure for his curse.
While largely overlooked in its time, the film later gained a following for its cinematography and tense atmospheric horror, and—of course—for featuring David Bowie as the seductive vampire we always knew he was. In 1997 the film inspired an anthology horror series of the same name which aired on Showtime. The second season featured Bowie, as both self-destructive artist Julian Priest and as the show's host, delivering eerie musings on the horror of each episode.
"Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" (1983) - Major Jack Celliers
Also released in 1983, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a film by Japanese director Nagisa Ōshima, based on the writings of Laurens van der Post, based on his experience as a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II. Bowie played the lead in the film as Major Jack Celliers, a defiant POW from New Zealand who is met with hostility and violence by captors who eventually come to respect his rebellious will.
Nearly 40 years later, Bowie's portrayal of indomitable spirit under dire circumstances remains moving and inspirational to this day.
"The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) - Pontius Pilate
Martin Scorsese's 1988 depiction of Jesus of Nazareth's final days, starring Willem Dafoe, is remembered largely for controversy over the portrayal of an alternate reality in which Jesus chose a mortal life and married Mary Magdalene. But it should also be remembered for David Bowie's role as Pontius Pilate, the coldly pragmatic governor of Judea, who comes to Jesus in prison, where he is awaiting his crucifixion.
Though Bowie's role in the movie is limited, his embodiment of an anti-revolutionary bureaucrat trying to reason Jesus out of changing the world is chilling.
"Labyrinth" (1986) - Jareth the Goblin King
His role as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson's 1986 classic, Labyrinth, is no doubt Bowie's most recognizable film role. In addition to lending his music to the movie in a series of sequences that amount to high-budget music videos,
Bowie's iconic makeup, explosive hair, and flamboyant outfits—all ruffles and leather and prominent bulges—make him an alluring and disturbing villain as he attempts to seduce a teenage girl into abandoning her baby brother. Truly unforgettable.
"The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976) - The Visitor
The Man Who Fell to Earth is the film that proved David Bowie's bona fides as a movie star. Bowie plays "the visitor," also known as Thomas Jerome Newton. A possible alien driven mad by life on earth, and also a cold, wealthy aristocrat in business-like attire, Newton operated as a blend of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, allowing Bowie to tap into his the fragile power of his personas.
It's a disjointed sci-fi narrative that only works because it centers David Bowie's strange charisma.
"Basquiat" (1996) - Andy Warhol
David Bowie and Andy Warhol met only once, in 1971, when Bowie performed his song "Andy Warhol" at the pop art innovator's New York studio, known as The Factory. The meeting was apparently anti-climactic, with Bowie never being certain what the famously reticent Warhol really thought of the song.
But Bowie remained a great admirer of Warhol, whose play Pork was a major source of inspiration for much of Bowie's work as he entered his glam rock phase. And that admiration was never more evident than in 1996 when Bowie was brought in to play the artist in director Julian Schnabel's biopic of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
In the role of Basquiat's mentor, Bowie donned the artist's iconic wig, and disappeared Warhol's subdued, idiosyncratic mannerisms. As unmistakable as Bowie is, it becomes easy to forget you're not watching the real Warhol.
Nearly five years after David Bowie's death, a movie like Stardust may not be able to bring him back to life, but fans looking to resurrect the icon can find him in all his shocking variety, not just in his music, but in these memorable film roles.
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