An oft-derided example of a musician-turned-actor, we pick out David Bowie’s best acting performances.
To imply that David Bowie is a bad actor is ridiculous – his entire career has been one long act, him playing at being whatever it might be that took his fancy, at whichever particular moment of his life he was at, at any given point. Bowie defined this ideal best himself, describing himself as “a human Xerox machine”. His film career isn’t as critically revered as his music is, not by a long way, but often overlooked are some of the better performances.
Bowie’s best performance, as John ‘The Elephant Man’ Merrick, is also the one which was not committed to film
Ignoring his first actual celluloid appearance, lo-fi short The Image, which is a combination of Night of the Living Dead-style atmosphere and hokey mime, Bowie made his Hollywood debut in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth as, if you can believe such a thing, an alien. Nic Roeg’s auteur vision and skill as a filmmaker are unarguable, but his casting of Bowie is as exploitative as it is inspired. A stranger in a strange land, Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton is as much an alien in relation to his home planet as he is in his mission on Earth. And Bowie’s performance, sublime as it is, is that of a lost and incoherent drug addict who is used by those around him for their own ends. It’s his best performance, mainly because he isn’t acting.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is the 70s equivalent of modern train wreck television, watching a man fall apart in real life and catching it on camera to present as fiction (that said, it’s a good film and Bowie’s still alive today, so no harm done). But arguably Bowie’s best performance, according to critical consensus, is also the one which was not committed to film. A successful broadway run as the disfigured John ‘The Elephant Man’ Merrick, that was performed without any heavy make-up effects, showcased Bowie’s nuanced character performance and his heavily stylised vocal affectations. A long-running production, which saw Bowie largely out of the musical spotlight for the duration, no one bothered to record it in its entirety, which means we only have a few small clips such as this to judge it on.
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In the advent of the release of Let’s Dance, Bowie became a global pop star of epic proportions. With that in mind, the performances he gave in both The Hunger (he played the moody vampire lover of moody vampire Susan Sarandon – they must have basically asked him if he could pretend he was still a cocaine addict) and as Major Celliers in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence are both against the grain of his newfound mainstream success.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is Bowie’s best film, a real film, as opposed to being a vehicle for a pop star to appear in
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is Bowie’s best film, though his performance is aided by the overall quality and integrity of the movie he acts in. It’s a real film, as opposed to being a vehicle for a pop star to appear in (there’s still room for some hokey mime, though). And then there is surely Bowie’s most famous role, a performance that for many gave them their first look at David Bowie, the music their first ‘taste’ of his sound. Which means Labyrinth is tricky – Bowie gives an excellent performance as an implicitly sexual being, without ever being directly suggestive of the act (though the whole movie is astonishing in its presentation of a young girl fighting between an acceptance of her burgeoning puberty against the childhood she must therefore leave behind) but… it’s David Bowie.
David Bowie, doing songs with muppets. The Berlin trilogy never seemed so far away. It’s the man who recorded Station to Station, and who doesn’t remember doing so, singing with some puppets. It’s not that Labyrinth is a bad film – far from it (though Dark Crystal is better than Labyrinth; come at me internet) – it’s more a case of how we can see Bowie’s once strong arthouse credentials fast diminishing, if not all dried out by this point. But, when you get a powerhouse of a song like Magic Dance, can anyone really complain?
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Featured image: Palace Pictures
Inset image: British Lion Films