The (oh jesus this is terrible) late David Bowie was, in his protean personae, command of iconography, and godlike charisma, one of the 20th century’s definitive movie stars—within and beyond the realm of cinema itself, which mostly struggled to bend him to its purposes. Generous and varied in his cultural enthusiasms, he was a frequent and welcome cameo; his songs, with their epic scope and unfathomable depths, were ultra-cinematic, ace soundtrack material. As an actor in other people’s movies—like as a presence in other people’s lives—Bowie appeared as a kind of signal of otherworldliness, called upon to sprinkle the proceedings with a little stardust.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
“Only David Bowie could be said to be typecast in the role of an aloof alien conquering the world through cultural innovations,” wrote Jake Cole, of this parish, about Bowie’s first star vehicle, and still his definitive film, with its flourishes of extraterrestrial longing, media overload, psychotropic languor rent with bursts of paranoia, sinister sex appeal, and eerie sound design. Bowie was at the height of his drug use at the time, and his body in this movie looks like a straw full of milk; he is very believable as a being unique, and alone, in the universe.
Just a Gigolo (1978)
Yeah, so during his Berlin period, Bowie played a doomed Weimar Republic male prostitute in a disastrously received Cabaret knock-off directed by David Hemmings. Here you can watch him be pretty and self-effacing, pretending (through the magic of shot-reverse shot) to look at another era’s androgynous confrontational sex object, Marlene Dietrich (in her last film). Especially in his first decade of film work, Bowie was, surprisingly, very good at looking abashed, waveringly poised, shy.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Bowie is again an ethereal object of illicit and historically fraught desire, here as the self-contained Allied POW with whom a Japanese camp commandant becomes obsessed, in Nagisa Oshima’s drama about war guilt, repression, and grace. Bowie’s basically blond, bisexual Jesus in this movie, which seems about right.
The Hunger (1983)
Another role that seems about right: disco sex vampire.
Into the Night (1985)
I’m just including this one so we can all appreciate this very important picture. If you want to see Bowie playing a hitman like a used car salesman, with thin breezy grins underneath a weasely mustache, there’s more here.
Absolute Beginners (1986)
A post-Let’s Dance Bowie sings an ode to selling out in this misbegotten musical trading in on 80s British nostalgia for the youthquake of the late 50s and early 60s. Soul-sapping, sure, but also he tap-dances on a gigantic typewriter, I dunno, Let’s Dance is a pretty good record, too.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Bowie, as Pilate, interrogates a man he doesn’t believe is the Messiah, a miracle, the messenger of a kingdom not of this earth. He tells him: It doesn’t matter how you want to change things, we don’t want them changed. He’s less persecutor to Christ than mentor, one worn-out godhead to another. Things would get better.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
The Black Lodge was all Bowie’s idea. I buy that.
Andy walking, Andy tired, Andy take a little snooze.
The Prestige (2009)
Playing Nikola Tesla, Bowie brought his film career full circle: his last major role, like his first, was that of a mysterious man from another place, bringing technology indistinguishable from magic. How comforting to know he came out the other end.
There’s just one more thing I’d like to mention, though:
Velvet Goldmine (1997)
The 1988 BBC radio documentary Bowie at the Beeb (not the 2000 CD box set—it’s available as a bootleg) segues from a Radio One performance of “Starman” into a retrospective interview with BBC radio producer Jeff Griffin, who recalls that during a morning recording session, while Mick Ronson was doing guitar overdubs, Bowie, in the control booth, started doodling on a piece of paper. When Bowie left the booth to record vocals, Griffin recalls, he looked at the sketch: “I was really amazed to see it was a drawing of a singer with a hole in him, and the caption underneath was, ‘Singer being shot whilst on stage.'”
Bowie was so image-conscious that he seems, even in his affable later years, to have stage-managed his own death, and he famously refused to license his music to Todd Haynes, and forced rewrites to push the film’s story further away from that of his own life. (Though the title, and Bowie stand-in Brian Slade’s fantasy of in-concert annihilation and self-effacement-by-persona, obviously remain, among other familiar details.)
The film works all the better for it—Bowie remains very much the structuring absence here, the black star around which Sandy Powell’s mod and glam costumes, and the platform-perfect new and vintage songs on the soundtrack, all orbit.
The film, too, is the perfect tribute to the man who sang of “Believing the strangest things, loving the alien.” Throughout the narrative, an alien-bestowed bauble, representing starry genius and transcendent bisexuality, is passed from character to character, symbolic of their difference, which is at first a burden, and ultimately an ecstasy.