OF COURSE, THERE’S the face.
Lovingly caressed by every camera it meets, David Bowie’s visage is like no other. Light curves effortlessly around his impossibly sculpted cheekbones and sunken eye sockets, illuminating the surfaces and shading the contours without ever revealing the mysteries behind them. His lips, drawn taught in a knowing grimace, occasionally curl back into a wicked half-grin, but to us they confide very little. His eyes—uncannily asymmetrical since an adolescent scrap left one pupil permanently damaged and forever dilated—seduce, provoke and dismiss us, all within the span of a single glance.
Bowie’s beauty is untouchable, unknowable, but it doesn’t easily allow us to look away. It is a face too iconic to disappear into character. It stands inevitably apart, the countenance of a visitor from the molten planet of glam rock who floats far above our terrestrial shores. It looks down on us, looks through us, or stares, inscrutably, past the distant horizon, lost in a reverie we couldn’t begin to understand.
A SURVEY OF Bowie’s on-screen characters reveals a gallery of literal and figurative extraterrestrials: an intergalactic pioneer in The Man Who Fell to Earth; a centuries-old vampire in Tony Scott’s The Hunger; an Englishman interned in a Japanese P.O.W. camp in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence; and most queerly mysterious of all, Andy Warhol in Basquiat.
Strangers in a strange land, men in but not quite of the world, these alter-egos inspire fascination and revulsion in equal measure. Bowie’s characters attain gravitas through the performer’s singular physical presence and resonance through the echoes of his public persona. Bowie’s Bowie-ness inflects his every moment on screen. He is inescapably the half-grinning androgyne, flaunting social norms with a rock star’s coiled aggression and the inscrutable magnetism of an otherworldy prophet. In Bowie’s most sublimely cinematic moments, that dynamic pulls us outside the narrative illusion only to give us the context necessary to fully grasp the character. Such moments find truth in artifice, reality in fantasy, confessions in fabrications. The aesthetic looks back to Andy Warhol and Oscar Wilde yet it feels not only weirder and wilder but genuinely sui generis. Bowie was born Bowie.
The pop star chafed against the narratives thrust upon him, even the ones he had originally engineered. A famed inventor of on-stage personae, Bowie assassinated his public doppelangers almost as quickly as he created them. Ziggy Stardust—the rocker from Mars who remains Bowie’s most beloved creation—had his (sort of) final appearance less than two years after Bowie introduced him to the world in 1972. After Bowie next realized a commercially successful blend of funk/soul/rock in such mid-70s hits as “Young Americans,” “Fame,” and “Golden Years,” he abruptly moved to Switzerland and made a trio of experimental ambient-noise albums with Brian Eno. A subsequent cycle of Eighties-era crowd-pleasers like “Let’s Dance” and the Bowie-Queen collaboration “Under Pressure” was followed by ill-fated collaborations and forays into electronica that left longtime followers scratching their heads.
His private life proved a more typical rock-and-roll cautionary tale, marked by a long-time cocaine addiction and public fall-outs with band members and labels. Many fans who found solace in Bowie’s gender-bending, omnisexual vibes were later disappointed by revelations of womanizing and by Bowie’s public backpedaling over his “avowed” bisexuality.
David Bowie, dressed to thrill, as the eponymous intergalactic rocker of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)
THE “SWAN SONG” of Ziggy Stardust performed at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973 was chronicled for the ages by documentary legend D. A. Pennebaker. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is an ideal beginning for any consideration of Bowie on screen, both for foregrounding the performer’s “real life” persona as constructed artifact and for the tantalizing ways it complicates our understanding of Bowie at a crucial peak in his career. Pennebaker offers only fleeting glimpses of Bowie backstage. Those expecting rock-star antics will be disappointed. Staring ahead intently as assistants apply eyeliner or help him wiggle his way into the next form-fitting costume, Bowie remains notably placid and detached. Ex-wife Angie enters his dressing room to wish him well. He smiles with strained tolerance, but the vibe is clear: no chitchat, it’s time to get into character.
In a post-Gaga world, the Hammersmith Odeon feels downright restrained. Pyrotechnics remain at a minimum, and the only real on-stage antics come when guitarist Mike Ronson and bassist Tony Visconti engage in a playful instrumental showdown during “Width of a Circle.” Even Bowie’s famously outré costumes manage to charm and endear more than shock and awe. Bowie’s asymmetrical, semi-sleeveless singlet remains a slinky, daring knockout—and, I’ll lay my cards on the table here, pretty fucking hot. By contrast, the short, flowy white robe he dons throughout most of the opening songs feels less glam fabulous than sexy-housewife. But no matter. Bowie could have come on stage wearing sweatpants and a stained t-shirt and Pennebaker would have remained fascinated. He and his team train their cinema-verite gaze upon the singer in long, loving close-ups as he works his way through the playlist, his spellbinding features bathed in neon-red light.
Bowie on stage is a jumble of contradictory impulses that coalesce with startling ease. He looks out over the adoring crowd with a steady gaze and the occasional lascivious smirk, as if suggesting a private joke that the audience may or may not be in on. When he gyrates his hips ever so slightly, it’s a seduction that carries a faint whiff of disdain. Not that he really wants to push anyone away. The character-centric nature of Ziggy Stardust lends itself to song-as-storytelling—this was the decade of Rock Opera—and Bowie accompanies his supple vocals with gestures and facial expressions that are at-times disarmingly earnest. He beseeches us as much as he confronts us. Pennebaker may indulge in a few heroically monumentalizing low-angle shots, but his on-the-fly visuals produce an unexpected intimacy with the performer. We “know” Bowie in that we have observed his exquisite artifice up close and personal.
Unlike E. T., Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) can never go home in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).
THE EROTICIZED ALOOFNESS; the poignant isolation that comes from being worshipped and not understood; the pursuit of connection through ritualized gestures and otherworldly fantasies: such are the ideas upon which Bowie’s subsequent film roles rest. This was never more apparent than in his first starring role, as questing alien Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s beguiling SF allegory, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).
Sent to transport water back to his drought-choked planet, Newton builds up a business empire by patenting the advanced technologies he brings to Earth, all in the hope of funding an intergalactic H2O transport. He becomes an object of fascination for all who meet him, particularly boozy hotel worker Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), who becomes his lover, and womanizing fuel technician Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), who works on the ship that Newton hopes will save his planet. But ominous government machinations and Newton’s own growing addictions to alcohol and television land him in a luxury-penthouse-turned-prison-cell where he spends his days drinking between bouts of scientific probing and prodding.
As a performance, Bowie’s Newton doesn’t quite cohere in the traditional sense. It feels like a series of emotional and intellectual notes in search of a coherent melody. Bowie’s relative inexperience as an actor rears its head in some emotionally discordant moments, such as when Mary-Lou lashes out at Newton’s chilly reserve and violently clings to him until his shirt rips open. Bowie’s theatrically anguished reactions are less like Brechtian distanciation than studied melodramatic tics. And when Newton recalls his home planet, is the poignant longing in Bowie’s eyes really even there? Or is it an editor’s skillful slight of hand: a Kuleshovian juxtaposition of Bowie’s face with Roeg’s hypnotic deserts landscapes, twirling extraterrestrial bodies and milk-drenched intergalactic copulation?
It doesn’t really matter. The Man Who Fell to Earth wouldn’t have the same air of chilly, free-floating angst without this disjointed quality in Bowie’s work. Newton is a man who fell out of time as well as space. He floats through an ever more-garish miasma of televisual excess, insidious double-dealing and soul-deadening consumption. That Newton responds to these with a schizophrenic mixture of obsessiveness, contempt and erratic bouts of despair helps shifts the focus from psychology to sociology: how the world imposes itself upon—and eventually consumes—the individual.
Whether one sees this as a direct allegory for Bowie’s own objectification and deterioration depends on whether you share the film’s view of him as a passive tabula rasa upon which others project their own fantasies and fears. However you read it, the final image we see of Newton is the quintessence of dejection. Nursing his umpteenth cocktail, the ageless alien offers aging friend Nathan the only thing he has left to give: money. The diamond-hard countenance that once enticed others now only imprisons him in a perennially torturous present. His head falls forward, fedora blocking our view of his features. He remains slumped over as the credits roll, as if unwilling to allow us one more instant to gaze upon him.
Vampire John (Bowie) whispers not-so-sweet nothings in the ear of his bloodsucking lover (Catherine Deneuve) in Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983).
SEX AND DEATH dominate two of Bowie’s major film appearances in the early 80s.
The feature debut of Tony Scott, The Hunger (1983) follows a couple of centuries-old vampire lovers named Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and John (Bowie), who stalk the clubs and streets of 80s-era New York in search of sustenance. Their first on-screen appearance is so deliciously stylized that it pushes past proto-MTV flash to attain a kind of trash sublimity. Gliding through the shadowy corridors of a goth-punk club as Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy hisses and writhes in a nearby cage, they glimpse a young couple grinding on the dance floor. Miriam and John seduce them with little more than a look, luring them back to their cavernous Manhattan townhouse for some hot and sloppy throat-slashing. In many ways, the film is at its best in this sequence. Unburdened by plot mechanics, Scott can offer us teasing glimpses of Bowie and Deneuve shrouded in smoke and glimpsed through chain link: two very different sex symbols embracing the seedier undercurrents of their erotic appeal.
Bowie—his wavy, dirty blonde locks trimmed and dyed black—has no problem playing up the carnivorous libido that undergirds his on-stage wiggles and naughty smirks. Unlike The Man Who Fell to Earth, however, it’s the disintegration of Bowie’s body that plagues him, rather than its stubborn immutability. His ability to regain vitality through feeding deteriorates rapidly over the first half of the film, resulting in his rapid aging (and an ever-thickening layer of fright make-up) and eventual dismissal from the plot. The Hunger is ultimately a Sapphic fantasy, with Susan Sarandon’s aging specialist falling under the sway of Miriam’s charms. In its use of Bowie’s sexual magnetism as a signifier for all-consuming erotic excess, the film simplifies the singer’s persona without greatly diminishing its effect.
The homoerotic climax of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) finds Major Jack Celliers (Bowie) laying one on his captor/admirer Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto).
Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence casts Bowie as yet another obscure object of desire, but this time brings the ambivalent homoeroticism to the fore. Bowie’s Major Jack Celliers gets thrown into a Japanese POW camp during World War II, where he becomes the private obsession of camp commander Captain Yonoi (fellow rock-and-roller Ryuichi Sakamoto). Oshima films Bowie in full rakish-hero mode. That piercing glare burns with the righteous indignation of the dispossessed soldier. Those mussed blonde locks at once suggest innocence and roughish impetuousness.
It’s a spirited performance, touched by occasional bouts of Bowie-ish eccentricity (rarely has an act of miming been imbued with such simmering resentment) but ultimately his most traditional role—and in many ways among his least interesting. The film is clearly inspired by The Bridge on the River Kwai, with Bowie embodying a variant of William Holden’s renegade Navy commander. (There’s a reason that the performance most people remember from Kwai is Alec Guinness’s obsessive, conflicted Colonel Nicholson.) In the titular role of the British lieutenant colonel attempting to bride the camp’s culture gap, Tom Conti emerges as the more fully-fleshed out figure, as tortured by his indecision as Bowie is magnetic in his self-assurance.
But Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence earns a special place in the Bowie canon for its explicit acknowledgment of the singer’s queer appeal. Few other directors have been as forthright as Oshima in eroticizing Bowie’s lithe figure and beguiling good looks through the gaze of another male character. Oshima’s homoeroticism comes intrinsically intertwined with the emotional authoritarianism and violent masculinity that runs rampant in his vision of the Japanese military. Yet despite (or because of) the aggression that underlines the homosocial intimacy, an electric charge courses through the climatic kiss Celliers places on Yonoi’s cheek. It reminds us just how much of our fascination with Bowie’s lies in trying to figure out the precise proclivities of this highly sexualized yet ethereally sexless being.
1983 CAN ARGUABLY be seen as the apex of Bowie’s film career. His subsequent roles became smaller or less challenging. Scorsese’s choice to cast Bowie as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was in keeping with the film’s boldly revisionist take on the life and times of Jesus. Despite the provocative empathy Scorsese shows for the New Testament’s more-reviled figures, one detects a reductive strain in this bit of casting: the crown prince of 70s-era glam-rock decadence presiding (albeit with some reservations) over the death of the Lord. The 90s and 00s brought a handful of small, enticing roles, most recently as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Just as often came wink-wink cameos and voiceover work for animation. And as for Labyrinth (1986), well, you’d need a whole other essay to talk about Labyrinth.
What, ultimately, did Bowie get out of all this? His interest in performance is well-documented, including his studies in mime and avant-garde theater under dance instructor Lindsay Kemp in the mid-60s. His first film role came around the same time, as a handsome ghost haunting a young painter in Michael Armstrong’s 1967 short, The Image. Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and other stage personae concocted by Bowie over the years were all attempts to enrich and extend the elaborate narratives and characterizations that occur within his songwriting.
I’d indulge in some armchair psychology, but Bowie beat me to the punch. “Offstage I’m a robot,” he famously said of himself. “Onstage I achieve emotion. It’s probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David.” Performance becomes a way to process the inner turmoil that cannot be expressed privately. Is it a coincidence that Bowie accepted the role of Thomas Jerome Newton—a millionaire at once successful in and divorced from the world, slowly spiraling into addiction—right when his career was buzzing and his cocaine use skyrocketing?
Disgust or disinterest? It’s one and the same for Bowie’s Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996).
THIS BRINGS US to one last Bowie performance. Director Julian Schnabel casting Bowie as Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996) can initially seem at once obvious and muddled. Yes, they share a similar corner of public cultural consciousness: two skinny, memorably-coiffed white men who tweaked sexuality and performance within their respective mediums and developed devoted cults of loyal followers. Plausible, but pretty thin. Then there’s the aforementioned issue of Bowie’s Bowie-ness shining through whatever role he plays. It can work when the role itself is created for him or based upon a character whose own personality lacks particular distinction. But Warhol was nothing if not a personality with particular distinction. Viewed this way, the performance is kind of a mess. Bowie plays him with a look of perennially spaced-out bafflement, pitched somewhere between incomprehension and disgust. He never seems to want to touch anything, clasping his hands against his chest as if in fear of being contaminated by the banality of the world. When he talks, his lips curl involuntarily into an exaggerated sneer that goes beyond mere distaste. It’s like he’s lost control of some of his facial muscles. And then there’s the voice: an aggressively affected monotone, every slightly-off emphases wrapped in layers of quotation marks. Is it a Warholian comment on the very act of speaking? Or is Bowie just doing a strained imitation?
Yet, the more one watches the performance, the more heartrending it becomes. In her overview of Bowie’s acting career in Slate, Jessica Winter deemed Bowie’s turn as Warhol “a lazy, glib anti-impersonation.” (“When did Warhol ever sound like a Valley Girl with acid reflux?” she adds with an eye-roll.) This implies that impersonation was the ultimate goal. Schnabel knows how to cast actors who can inhabit a real-life character with something approaching verisimilitude. Look no further than the casting of Jeffrey Wright in the title role of the self-destructive painter. As with all of his performances, what is inevitably reflected in Bowie’s Warhol is Bowie himself. It’s nothing if not revealing—a sketch of an aging artist, flirting with self-parody, who attempts yet another act of reinvention to stave off the dire possibility of artistic obsolescence. The twitches and mannerisms that Bowie gives to Warhol begin to feel less like ill-judged attempts at imitation and more like a physical manifestation of the anxieties working just Warhol’s (and Bowie’s) inscrutable surface. It’s moving in ways that Bowie probably intended, and also in ways that he probably didn’t.
A brief scene late in the film particularly stands out. Perched cross-legged on his desk, Warhol receives a package from Basquiat. He finds a gift inside: a football helmet with Basquiat’s glued-on dreads sticking out of the sides. The significance is a touch cryptic, as it is with much of Basquiat’s art. Warhol examines it quizzically before placing it atop his head. He adjusts his glasses, shifts the helmet a bit, sighs, and stares off into space. He appears notably small in the frame, his nattily arranged ensemble offset by the ungainly headpiece resting atop his white coif. As a bit of visual comedy, it’s a throwaway. But it’s also a privileged moment, as it’s the last time we see Warhol in the film. Reflecting on it later, I kept returning to the look of quiet uncertainty on Warhol/Bowie’s face as he gazes off screen. For all the layers of artifice occurring in that moment, there’s vulnerability at play here that’s rare within Bowie’s on-screen work. Perhaps it’s appropriate that it is through the portrayal of that most self-consciously stylized of artists that this most self-consciously stylized of singers feels so curiously, poignantly life size. For just a moment, he falls to earth.
Matthew Connolly is an Editor at Alt Screen.
Selected films starring David Bowie—including Basquiat; The Hunger; The Man Who Fell To Earth; Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; and more—are playing at the Museum of Arts & Design, June 3rd-30th.
A new 35mm print of The Man Who Fell to Earth is playing at Film Forum, June 24th-July 7th.