First published online by Ryan Gilbey.
He hasn’t performed in public for six years, or released an album in almost a decade, but there is a lot of David Bowie about. His music featured prominently in both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games: Danny Boyle included a shot of him playing a discombobulated alien in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth; and the closing catwalk show played out to the sound of Bowie’s Fashion (a big disappointment to those hoping for a rumoured live performance of Heroes). Even in his absence, Bowie eclipsed the stars who did turn up.
Next year, the Victoria and Albert museum will host an extensive exhibition of Bowie’s costumes, while the ICA in London pays tribute to his film work this weekend — an underrated aspect of his creative life that is easily as significant as his knack for throwing together a satin-and-thigh-boots ensemble. Unlike Madonna, Prince or Eminem, Bowie was an actor almost from the moment he began performing. He trained as a mime under Lindsay Kemp, who was also briefly his lover. When Kemp told a journalist in 1974, “I taught David to free his body,” it was more than innuendo: mime technique is visible in everything from the Ziggy Stardust live show to Bowie’s Broadway portrayal of The Elephant Man.
He had been kicking around film ideas long before Roeg cast him as that forlorn extraterrestrial stranded in New Mexico in the mid-1970s. There had been talk of a film based around the Diamond Dogs album, while the documentary-maker DA Pennebaker, who shot Bowie’s 1973 concert movie Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, was approached to collaborate on a fictional project: “He thought maybe I could help him, but I explained I didn’t know how.”
Though the Ziggy Stardust film wasn’t shown widely until 1983, chronologically it was Bowie’s first full-length picture. “I love the film because it’s so off-the-cuff,” Pennebaker tells me. “We didn’t have a lot of cameras. We hardly showed the band. It’s a very sexy film, and nobody knows why; he’s just standing there singing. But I liked that idea: one man, one concert.”
Pennebaker was on the Mississippi when he heard that he was wanted in London to shoot what would turn out to be Ziggy Stardust’s swansong. “I thought the record company said ‘Bryan Ferry’. I’d never heard of David Bowie.” He met the singer backstage. “He was like a businessman; he didn’t have that mercurial quality that booms out of him on stage. He was putting on his makeup and talking to his wife, Angie. He was behaving quite rationally, although he did say, ‘Last night my mother saw her first spaceship’, which I just put down to general conversation.”
Bowie blamed his own boredom with Ziggy for his initial lack of interest in the movie. “I was so fed up with him,” he said in 1983. “But I dragged [the film] out and thought: ‘This is a funny film! This boy used to dress like that for a living? My God, this is funny! Incredible! Wait till my son sees this!’”
After killing Ziggy off in that July 1973 concert, Bowie cultivated a new persona: the gaunt Halloween Jack, as seen in Alan Yentob’s disquieting 1974 BBC documentary Cracked Actor. With peg-teeth, skin like paper and hair the colour of burnt marmalade, Bowie is chauffeured around America’s west coast like a bag of bones in a hearse, while Yentob gently probes the singer’s relationship with his alter egos and interviews swooning US fans. Bowie might have looked like death warmed up and then left to go cold again, but it was the Diamond Dogs tour, glimpsed in Yentob’s film, which transformed him from freak into American superstar.
As well as capturing that point of commercial breakthrough, Cracked Actor convinced Roeg that he had found his man who fell to earth. “I went to meet David at his house in New York,” he recalls. “After about three hours, maybe longer, he arrived and apologised for his lateness. I said, ‘Let’s have a chat.’ He said, ‘We don’t need to chat. I want to do the film. So – I’ll see you there.’ I headed straight for the bar and had a large one. ‘I’ll see you there.’ Fantastic!”
They met again on set. “He kept rather distant, which was rather good for the part. He arrived in that car you see in Cracked Actor, and it had a whole trailer with a library of books. He always went back to that trailer. We spent a couple of evenings together but in the main he was separate; separate but always there. I felt he was perfect – the inflections, everything, so original. He wasn’t inventing it, he was being it.” The studio executives were more sceptical about Bowie’s take on alien life. “They came on set one day after seeing the rushes and said, ‘We’re a little concerned about David’s performance.’ I said: ‘Well, how should an alien act?’”
That performance’s general immunity from criticism may owe something to the perception that he was playing himself. “I didn’t enjoy it as a movie to watch,” Bowie later said. “It’s very tight. Like a spring that’s going to uncoil, it’s got these terrific tensions, these very inhibited feelings in it.” But his use of stills from that film on two subsequent album covers (Station to Station and Low) suggested that any discomfort was mixed with some pride.
With the exception of The Man Who Fell to Earth and the unloved 1979 drama Just a Gigolo with Marlene Dietrich, which he described as “all my Elvis movies rolled into one”, Bowie has taken only supporting parts on film. Within the space of a few years in the 1980s, he was a vampire cellist who ages 300 years in an afternoon (Tony Scott’s The Hunger), a defiant and pretty PoW (Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence), a tight-trousered Goblin King with an exploding hairdo (Labyrinth), Pontius Pilate (The Last Temptation of Christ) and a hitman named Colin (Into the Night).
The director Julien Temple first worked with Bowie on the 20-minute promo film Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, in which he played the dual role of nerdy fan and preening rock god. “It examined that split which exists in him,” Temple says. “There’s ‘normal David’ and ‘incandescent David’. He wasn’t like those performers who exhibit a star-like aura wherever they go. We went to the Notting Hill carnival together, and people wanted to touch him, which was odd because he was this very normal south London guy. It was when he performed that a transformation occurred.”
Temple went on to cast Bowie in Absolute Beginners as the ruthless, amoral ad-man Vendice Partners, who dances on a giant typewriter. “David had worked in advertising early on and saw through it all. He was interested in using that weird transatlantic DJ voice – he really got off on that – and he was quite obsessed with the Sinatra thing. He made Vendice very Rat Pack-like.”
Bowie’s film acting became more infrequent from the late 1980s on, his time dominated by one ambitious world tour after another. But he did hint that he was fostering a grand cinematic plan when he turned down Todd Haynes’s request to use his music in Velvet Goldmine (named after a Bowie B-side), claiming he was holding them back for his own project. (Interviewed later on Jonathan Ross’s Radio 2 show, he was dismissive of Haynes’s film, which featured Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a Bowie-esque glam-rock chameleon: “He got the gay stuff right, but he can’t do story.”)
While his son, Duncan Jones, is now an accomplished director (he made Moon and Source Code), Bowie’s film work has become confined to eccentric cameos. He played himself in Zoolander and in the Ricky Gervais series Extras, and could be heard as Lord Royal Highness on SpongeBob SquarePants. But one notable exception raises a hope that we haven’t seen the last of Bowie the actor: as the electrical innovator Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s Victorian thriller The Prestige, he is memorably haunted and distracted, though he was a down-to-earth presence on set. “Bowie showed up wearing a T-shirt and a pair of jeans and a baseball cap,” the film’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, recalled in 2006. “And right away he told us: ‘I’m not very good at hitting marks.’ Then of course he nailed his marks every time.’”
Temple believes that Bowie’s legacy as an actor lies in his more fleeting, enigmatic appearances. “He’s very good in supporting roles but I’m not sure, with the exception of The Man Who Fell to Earth, that he was really a lead actor. The charisma of that type of rock star was different to what was required of a movie star. Rappers in America have made a much more powerful transition to movies. I think it’s hard to transfer what’s so effective in one discipline to another without bringing along the baggage of the rock star image.” This, argues Bowiefest co-curator Natasha Dack, is what makes him such a powerful screen presence. “He doesn’t disappear into his roles. It’s always him. He’s always got that essential Bowieness.”