David Bowie’s Unfulfilled Silver-screen Career

The late musician's unusual and uniquely androgynous appearance seemingly limited his possibilities as an actor.

David Bowie in 'Labyrinth.'
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Did cinema squander David Bowie’s potential? The face of the British artist who passed away yesterday, his unusual and uniquely androgynous appearance, seemingly limited his possibilities as an actor. He had a powerful presence – how could one not want to gaze at his beautiful and eternally mysterious face? – but despite the numerous striking guises he assumed as a musician, and the generally extravagant characters he played in his movie roles, there was something withdrawn, almost self-effacing about his cinematic performances. Only a few directors with whom he worked were able to overcome this and use him effectively. There was something passive about his cinematic persona, and this passivity sometimes tended toward masochism.

Only once in his cinematic career did Bowie significantly deviate from this pattern, and that was in his best film, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” made in 1983 by the great Japanese director Nagisa Oshima. In that film he played a strict British officer from an upper-class background who falls prisoner to the Japanese and clashes with the camp commander. But although the character he played in this film was more standard than was the case with his other roles, it was still a guilt-ridden character, and the film’s setting in a Japanese POW camp also added a dimension of existential suffering – a familiar motif in Bowie’s cinematic world.

Perhaps the movie that most exemplified his potential as an actor was British director Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (1976), in which he played an alien who comes to earth to get water to bring back to his planet where the inhabitants are dying of thirst, and gets caught up in the capitalist system that controls our planet. In the film, Roeg makes skilled use of Bowie’s expressive face, of his expressively scrawny frame, and of his mesmerizing presence that exudes an angelic innocence and a darkness all at once. Roeg’s film had its flaws, but along with Oshima’s film, it marks one of the high points of Bowie’s film cinematic career.

Tony Scott’s 1983 film “The Hunger,” in which Bowie played a doomed vampire, is also of some interest, though the somewhat silly movie relied too heavily on showy visual effects, and Bowie was also overshadowed by its two female stars, Catherine De Neuve and Susan Sarandon.

Bowie also played a lead role in the 1978 film “Just a Gigolo,” directed by British actor David Hemmings. Here he is a Prussian officer who returns to Berlin after World War I, and unable to find employment, goes to work as a gigolo in a brothel run by an elderly baroness.

In the 1986 film “Labyrinth,” directed by Jim Henson, Bowie played an evil king who kidnaps the heroine’s baby brother. The film did not do well, and another movie Bowie appeared in that same year, Julian Temple’s “Absolute Beginners,” set in the 1950s London music scene (it was Bowie’s only musical movie role) also flopped. One of Bowie’s most amusing and memorable film roles was his turn as Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film “Basquiat.”