Cracked Actor: Bowie on Screen

I don’t think we’ll ever see someone like David Bowie again, who died last Sunday at the age of 69. He was a transformer, a cultural icon, and a creative artist working in a media-saturated era where such laudable qualities have gradually been devalued in favour of faux celebrity and stardom.

A startling career in music, driven by curiosity, experimentation, and the appropriation and transformation of ideas, was supplemented by his rabid interest in producing, performing, art (he was a successful painter and collected German Expressionist and British contemporary works), design, theatre and books.

As he once declared:

I think I have done just about everything that it’s possible to do—except really dangerous things, like being an explorer. But anything that Western culture has to offer—I’ve put myself through most of it.

For me, David Bowie was an explorer, and over the decades he took risks and mapped out the territories we were afraid to consider and showed us how to become who we are.

As social critic and author Camille Paglia observed:

… music was not the only, or primary mode, through which Bowie first conveyed his vision to the world; he was an iconoclast who was an image-maker.

His charisma, wit and talent shone through everything on which he worked, including his career as an actor. Running in tandem with the development of a dynamic musical canon (that itself provoked a multiplicity of readings), were his appearances on screen, particularly in dramatic roles for film and television.

These roles demonstrated how Bowie himself negotiated that tricky relationship between artist, mass communicator and ‘star’. And as Paglia noted, the moving image—be it promotional film, video, television appearance or role in a feature film—synthesised Bowie’s style, body language, performance, and choreography, with the themes in his songs that focused on identity, gender, paranoia and death.

david bowie - the man who fell to earth

After some tentative colonisation of television with “The Pistol Shot” for Theatre 625 in 1968 and a very brief, uncredited film appearance in John Dexter’s The Virgin Soldiers (1969), Bowie’s major post-Ziggy presence was beautifully captured in Nicolas Roeg’s classic film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Roeg cast Bowie in the role of alien refugee Thomas Jerome Newton on the back of the extraordinary portrait of him presented in the 1974 BBC Arena documentary “Cracked Actor”.

Roeg saw something in the star’s fractured, fragile persona that matched perfectly with the film’s interpretation of Newton as the ultimate outsider pitched into the alienating consumer culture of America. Art and life converged in Roeg’s film. Just like Newton, Bowie was also marooned in America in 1975, in danger of becoming a casualty of his excessive cocaine habit and paranoia while making his albums Young Americans and Station to Station.

Roeg’s film depicted an alien who arrives on Earth to seek help for his dying planet. He uses his advanced technology to generate enough wealth through lucrative patents to instigate his own space programme in a desperate bid to get back to his family and doomed world. Newton fails, spiralling into alcoholic dependence and paranoia, unable to prove his alien identity to his government captors.

The fallen Messiah figure of the film equated with Bowie’s then-rejection of his alien saviour musical avatar, Ziggy Stardust, and his own self-destructive journey towards a new Bowie paradigm. The film became a dazzling exploration of identity, difference and otherness that was embodied by Bowie’s beguiling performance as a male/female, alien/human charting the sexual ambiguities of the period.

Bowie’s constantly changing, fragmented musical characters—Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke et al—were a perfect match for Newton’s traversing between his alien and human selves, and Bowie’s androgynous appearance emphasised the alien nature of the character. There is an ironic touch in the film’s conclusion where Newton becomes a reclusive recording artist whose album The Visitor is stacked up at discounted prices in huge hypermarkets next to Bowie’s Young Americans album.

The film offered a commentary on how media, particularly television, saturates and intervenes in the affairs of the world, and is both welcoming and alienating in its desire to educate, entertain, and inform; its world of appearances as kaleidoscopic as Roeg’s own non-linear approach to the film. As Newton notes, “strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you everything about life on Earth but the mysteries remain.”

Human society is seen in abstract, where truth is absent and everyday life is rendered through advertising and marketing as simply the surface of things, the simulation of life. The media invades and corrupts Newton’s mind as much as alcohol and sex pollutes his body. As he progresses through the America of the 1970s (symbolising both Bowie and Roeg’s own interpretations, as Englishmen abroad, of the homogenising effects of American culture), Newton’s own identity begins to deteriorate, to disappear, and he becomes less real, less alien.

Bowie’s portrayal of Newton begat a new persona: the cold, isolated, desensitised Thin White Duke associated with his Station to Station album of 1976. The cover of the album depicted Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bowie’s music harked back to his love of Expressionism and indicated a new direction influenced by German bands such as Neu! and Kraftwerk. This would provide the bridge to Bowie’s ‘art-rock’ period and the celebrated ‘Berlin trilogy’ of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger as he fled from Los Angeles to recuperate in Europe.

His next two significant film appearances mirrored this reattachment to Europe. In 1978’s Just a Gigolo, directed by David Hemmings, he played a Prussian officer who, unemployed after returning from the First World War, takes work in a brothel. The film was a disaster and even the tantalising thought of Bowie acting alongside Marlene Dietrich, brought out of retirement for her last role, was a misnomer as he never met her on set. Dietrich was filmed in Paris, where she lived, and her scenes were cut into Bowie’s, which were shot in Berlin. It was, sadly, a film of unfulfilled promise.

1981’s grim essay on teenage heroin addiction in West Berlin of the 1970s, Christiane F, directed by Uli Edel, gained much of its cult status in Europe because of Bowie’s appearance, as himself, in the film’s concert footage. However, the concert footage was shot in New York in October 1980 because, having completed the ‘Berlin trilogy’, by then Bowie had recorded Scary Monsters and Super Creeps there and was making his celebrated Broadway theatre debut as John Merrick in Jack Hofsiss’s production of The Elephant Man. Shortly after this Bowie recorded “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, the title song for Paul Schrader’s 1982 horror film Cat People.

The Elephant Man led to his casting in Alan Clarke’s Baal, a BBC adaptation of Brecht’s play transmitted in 1982. It cemented Bowie’s association with German Expressionist agit-prop theatre writers such as Weill and Brecht. He was introduced to Brecht by his mime tutor Lindsay Kemp, was interested in the Brel, Brecht and Weill songbooks and covered Brecht’s “Alabama Song” during his 1978 tour. His recording of it had hit the giddy heights of number 23 in the singles chart in 1980.

Baal used prose and song to tell the story of a wandering poet, an outsider existing on the fringes of society and a drunkard who becomes involved in a series of sexual affairs and a murder. Bowie referred to the character as “the original Super Punk” and it was a memorable television performance and the inventive production, as described by Nancy Banks-Smith, “often looked beautiful with the old gold of something that has hung too long in a smoky room.”

The play reflected both Bowie’s own obsessions with the outsider confined by the structures of contemporary society and Clarke’s own sensibilities and innovative use of the television studio. There was some whinging from the Daily Mirror about the BBC spending the license fee on this “repulsive and rightly ignored tableau” but his performance elicited enthusiasm.

In the Radio Times, Henry Fenwick opined:

… watching Bowie from the gallery of the television studio, one finds the relish with which he attacks the perversities and cruelties of Brecht’s anti-hero remarkable. His ambivalent sexual appeal also underscores the echoes of Rimbaud that run through the play. The songs which frame and punctuate the action he performs superbly.

An EP of five songs, by Brecht and Weill, was released to coincide with Baal’s transmission and this recording, the last under his old RCA contract, heralded the end of one era, the Bowie of the ‘art-rock’ Berlin and New York milieu, and the beginning of another, his attaining of superstardom with the release of Let’s Dance in 1983.

His film career also benefited from this commercial explosion and redefined Bowie’s cultural importance. Two films released in 1983 fed into this and re-emphasised Bowie’s transgressive presence in cinema. In Tony Scott’s The Hunger he played ancient vampire John Blaylock, consort to Catherine Deneuve’s Miriam Blaylock. Both hunt and kill their victims to maintain their eternal youth but John’s time is up and he begins to age. Feeling betrayed by Miriam’s promise of immortality, he turns to gerontologist Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) to try and find a way to reverse the ageing process. Miriam has plans for Sarah and initiates her as vampire, replacing the increasingly decrepit John just as she had used him to replace all of her former lovers.

david bowie - the hunger

It was a dark, glamorous film, but visually rather pretentious and traded on many de rigueur 1980s advertising styles and MTV techniques for its effect. It was a problematic film when it came to reading it as an AIDS metaphor, considering that the disease didn’t really enter the cultural consciousness until 1984. The Hunger epitomised the exaggerated visual palette of the 1980s, where surface as depth alluded to capitalism, desire and appetite, and reworked ideas of gender and identity performance through the Bowie, Sarandon and Deneuve love triangle. The Hunger inspired a spin-off television anthology series made by Scott’s company and for the second season in 1999 Bowie replaced Terence Stamp as the host.

More effective was his role in celebrated Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s first English language film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. In a Japanese P.O.W camp, under the command of Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, former member of Japanese group Yellow Magic Orchestra), Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) is at loggerheads with Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson) who finds Lawrence’s sympathies for the Japanese intolerable. Further chaos is caused when Yonoi finds himself increasingly attracted to a new prisoner, Major Jack Celliers (Bowie).

Oshima’s film was about culture clash, sacrifice, courage and honour informed by an exploration of sexual attraction between Yonoi and Celliers. Both roles were played by pop stars well known in their respective territories and each projected onto the other a homoerotic androgyny that provided an interesting intersection between Western and Eastern experiences of watching the film.

Bowie’s blonde-haired, healthy looks were put to good use to create an image of masculinity, that although connoted as queer, was the reverse of the much weaker character of John Blaylock.

As Mehdi Derfoufi notes, Bowie was best at being Bowie and Oshima made the most of this:

He is the image we have of Bowie, as illustrated in the sequence where he mimes the act of shaving, mime being one of the trademarks of the Bowie body.

The film offered one of Bowie’s best performances since The Man Who Fell to Earth.

The most striking scene is, of course, when Celliers intercedes in the execution of Hicksley and kisses Yonoi on each cheek. Yonoi, utterly shocked, is knocked off his feet. The film’s theme of breaking down rigid attitudes during conflict is then epitomised when Yonoi, relieved of command, visits Celliers, now buried up to his neck in sand, and snips off a lock of his hair as a keepsake.

As Gregory Desilet noted:

Celliers did not succeed in single-handedly winning the war or avoiding his own death, but he did succeed in altering the way in which one Japanese officer framed the enemy.

The overwhelming success of Let’s Dance threw Bowie into a creative impasse and it took him some time during the 1980s and 1990s to relocate his authenticity after the misguided experiment of the Tin Machine albums. Bowie’s on-screen performances continued well into those two decades and beyond, appearing as Jareth in Labyrinth (1986), as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988), Warhol in Basquiat (1996), and providing his singular take on Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006).

david bowie - labyrinth

They continued to underline his abilities as a performer and the unpredictable presence and charisma Bowie could bring to films. As the Goblin King in Labyrinth he seemed to be in his element, happily sending himself up as a subversive manifestation of Jennifer Connelly’s subconscious, while he provided Jim Henson’s fantasy with a great set of songs for the soundtrack. It may have been a commercial failure but Henson’s film has since become a cult favourite. His wry performance as Warhol in Basquiat was also remarkable and caught the physicality and presence of the artist who, as much as Bowie, excelled at playing the part of himself.

His involvement in Absolute Beginners (1986) was only best remembered for his brilliant title song rather than his role as Vendice Partners, and cameos in Into the Night (1985), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Zoolander (2001) were supplemented by his musical presence on the soundtracks to such films as Lost Highway (1997), Memento (2000), A Knight’s Tale (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Inglourious Basterds (2009), and The Martian (2015), to name but a few.

He may not have been active on screen, or in the studio, between 2004 and 2013 because of ill health, but directors were always keen to acknowledge his impact on our cultural lives in the soundtracks to their films. He was also willing to send himself up and have a lot of fun; be that as the voice of Lord Royal Highness for the animated television film SpongeBob’s Atlantis SquarePantis (2007) or sitting down at a piano and demolishing Ricky Gervais’ character with an improvised song in a 2006 episode of the television series Extras. Finally, much of his music and many of his characters inspired the fantasy police procedural series Life On Mars (2006) and Ashes To Ashes (2008).

From the impact generated by his untimely death, it’s clear David Bowie was one of the most recognised creative artists on the planet. He leaves behind an incredible body of work, and through song and image he will live on and hopefully we’ll remember him “play out an all night movie role” as we remain “hooked to the silver screen.”

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