Personalities | David Bowie | Screen Performances

It’s easy to mock rock stars who pursue parallel careers as thespians. Firstly, because said parallel career has usually only been opened to them by their ‘proper’ job and, secondly, because the presumption of thinking they can excel at something for which others often study for years is mildly contemptible.

Perhaps it’s something to do with his early dramatic arts training under the tutelage of Lindsay Kemp but Bowie’s acting career has bucked the trend of indulged rocker’s self-delusion.

Loving The Alien

His entrée into the field was sort of obvious. Looking around for someone to play a stranded alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), director Nicolas Roeg plumped for someone who had, in a sense, already played an extra-terrestrial. Bowie proved all the doubters wrong, hiding his estuary accent and convincing audiences that he was a being not quite in synch with earthly ways. He was also comfortable in Just A Gigolo (1978) and Christiane F (1981).

In 1980, he took on the title role in a Broadway production of The Elephant Man. Impressively, he was convincing as the horribly deformed John Merrick without the benefit of prosthetics. It was a pointer to how this sex symbol’s acting career would in no way be one that concentrated on roles in which he could purvey glamour.

An Opportune Brace

Part of the reason for the explosion in Bowie’s fame in 1983 was the timing of the release of his album Let’s Dance to coincide with two movies in which he made creditable performances. One was the claustrophobic prisoner of war movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, while the other was a complete contrast. The Hunger was described by one noted film critic as ‘kinky trash masquerading as a horror film’, which might well be true but this tale of a man whose ageing is massively accelerated was also extremely watchable.

Bowie was only as good as the film itself in Absolute Beginners (1986), which is to say not very. It also began a tendency for him to contribute to the project’s soundtrack – surely counter-productive to the idea of establishing his worth as an actor in his own right. He was a goblin king in Jim Henson’s wonderful Labyrinth (also 1986) and if he was acted off the screen by Rob Mills, well, who could match the screen charisma of a seven-foot lovably lugubrious hairy monster? Having said that, the blush-making bulge in Bowie’s tights had a good go.

Even his cameos were intriguing, for instance Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988) and an FBI agent in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992).

Bowie’s role as mad scientist Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006) was also betwixt and between cameo and lead but again he put in a performance that, if not show-stealing, was highly impressive.

Greatest Performance

Possibly Bowie’s most impressive film role of all was in Basquiat (1996). This biopic was of an artist of...

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