The Starman And His Star Power: Bowie On The Silver Screen

Bowie is standing in front of a lake, in the cool blue light. He has short, ginger hair that flops over his face. He looks, sadly, towards a flashing light on the side of a lampost.
Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

From the moment he beamed onto the UK’s TV for the first time on Top of the Pops in 1972, David Bowie operated with an otherworldly charisma, star power from another galaxy. Strikingly beautiful and pointing to the camera while singing “I had to phone someone so I picked on you”, his stardom was immediately born at that moment, and his androgynous look was simultaneously outrageous and widely imitated.

Obviously, his star power wasn’t just predicated on his image, but his commitment to and focus on visuals was one of the most important and pioneering parts of his work. His image was vital to building himself as a star and also to the characters he inhabited, with his many alter egos being just as distinguishable and iconic for their looks as they are their musical differences. This care in differentiating his personas was integral to his career on screen and makes it unsurprising that he moved into acting so seamlessly, as film is an art form where iconography is king and where image creates meaning. This is is why Bowie excelled at and was widely used in the small roles he took on. Just his presence can carry suggestions that breathe new life into a film and an otherwise maybe inconsequential character. 

Those small roles are a testament to the strength of his star power, but he could burn just as brightly and continually in more substantial roles which is proven in his feature film debut, Nicolas Roeg’s cult sci-fi The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). While bringing his Ziggy Stardust brand of star power to the role, Bowie works simultaneously to build his otherworldly mythology beyond his Ziggy alter ego and provide a glimpse of the man beyond his more aggressive and brash stage performances. The film follows Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien that has come to earth to find water for his drought-ridden planet. Disguised as a human, he sells patents for his advanced alien technology but becomes corrupted by modern American consumerism, developing an addiction to alcohol and television. 

The film is genre-blending – just like Bowie’s music – it blends sci-fi and romance into a corporate thriller that is threaded with analogies about the modern world – all held together by Bowie’s centralising performance. He carves a restrained brand of insular ennui and traverses from intrigued and determined to defeated and depressed with moments of manic despair. These manic scenes when Newton’s addiction has taken hold, and during a time of real addiction for Bowie, seem to be one of the few times in his acting career that he is as bombastic and volatile as his stage persona with the restrained malaise breaking through into desperate madness. 

One of the many ways his presence in the film creates new meaning is that it transforms it into a metaphor for fame. Newton is a man who is extraordinary but becomes unhappier and weaker the more successful he becomes. The casting was genius and exploitative but the film is not just a shallow star vehicle – while it wasn’t much of a critical or commercial success when it was first released it has since been reappraised and is rightfully regarded as a sci-fi masterpiece. Bowie’s famous androgyneity here is moulded into a post-gender sci-fi protagonist, who glides through the world he doesn’t fit in with a cool self-assuredness. He’s constantly positioned both within the landscape, and as alien to it, and the character of Newton embodies what Bowie as a pop star came to typify, an icon for the misfits and outcasts as an alien who is operating in a society that doesn’t understand him.

You could make a case that Bowie plays variations of himself in every film, probably because his star persona is so unmistakable. A tall, pale figure with an otherworldly and ineffable magnetism where even his crooked teeth – that might make any other star more relatable – just adds to his eccentricities. He’s a chameleon but so unmistakably himself, so while he is known for the characters he inhabits (like Ziggy, Major Tom and The Thin White Duke), they are still facets of Bowie’s persona, and we’re always aware we are watching him perform. There is an audience expectation that comes along with his presence in a film, and they delight in both its reassurance and subversion. It’s almost reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood stardom, when actors (who usually also had music careers) were so famous and beloved that it was harder for them to disappear into a character in the audience’s eyes. However, that doesn’t necessarily negate the strengths of the filmmaking or take away from the experience, it just adds another layer of meaning and enjoyment to their performance 

Bowie plays himself in the German-language film Christiane F. (1981), based on the memoir of a 14-year-old heroin addict and sex worker that lifted a lid on the 1970s Berlin teen drug scene. He appears in person only once, at his Berlin concert, materialising on stage out of a cloud of smoke in a sanguine jacket. His facial expressions are blank and his movements suave and fluid. While Bowie is now playing himself, he is still an otherworldly presence looming over the film from his music playing over the most pivotal scenes (he wrote the film’s soundtrack), to his image watching over the film’s events on posters in subways and streets. Like all coming-of-age films, despite this being a dark and tragic one, music is pivotal to portraying the lives of these outsider teens. Music shapes the identity of the protagonists and the entire film, and here Bowie is God; omnipresent and immensely influential.  But as the film gets darker and Christiane sinks into her addiction, he disappears; his posters are no longer plastering the walls, his music not playing. The dream he encapsulated, and the escapism, has dissipated. 

A young woman stands in front of a Bowie poster, in his Ziggy Stardust era - it is black and white and he has his eyes closed. The woman is facing the poster, only her long red hair is seen.
An image from Christiane F.

He returned to acting in Tony Scott’s feature directorial debut The Hunger (1983), an erotic horror following vampire Miriam’s (Catherine Deneuve) insatiable lust, doomed love affairs and infatuation with Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon). Bowie plays John Blaylock, Miriam’s current lover who she turned into a vampire some three-hundred years ago. The opening scene follows Bowie and Deneuve as a sexy, gothic couple stalking the clubs of New York for their prey. Deneuve is commanding and seductive and a match for Bowie’s ethereal cool as they walk through the dark club in black leather and sunglasses. The film is as stylish as its leads and is usually dismissed as being style over substance, but here the image and its beauty is the substance.

Bowie again excels at playing ‘the other’, and someone who occupies a liminal space in society; he’s a monster but looks human, he’s not alive but not quite dead. Just like in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie again perfectly captures Blaylock’s overwhelming sense of ennui, as a man who’s been in this world too long, and is desperate and weary.  It’s also a character who knows things the humans around him don’t and he carries this in his physicality, he’s ethereal and beautiful but he’s also weighed down. At the beginning of the film, he plays the role as somewhat of a lovesick puppy enamoured with Deneuve’s powerful vampire. However, it soon becomes clear he’s having crushing existential doubts and is eventually despondent after finding out his time on earth is coming to an end when he starts ageing rapidly. He doesn’t underplay these character changes, but moves through them effortlessly and subtly, matching the stylish, cool mood of the film. 

The Hunger was released at the height of the Let’s Dance era, an album that was his most straightforward pop record yet, and Bowie inhabited a suave 80s popstar persona. He was at this point a mammoth pop icon, and it’s interesting that he chose to star in films that feel less like star vehicles for David Bowie the pop star, and feel like an earnest attempt to introduce a new persona to the public: Bowie the actor. That same year – 1983 – he starred in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence from legendary, and controversial, Japanese director Nagisa Oshima. 

Bowie plays Major Jack Celliers, a new inmate at a prisoner-of-war camp in Japanese-occupied Java who has an indestructible rebellious streak and becomes an object of homoerotic obsession by his crazed captor Captain Yonoi (played by Ryuichi Sakamoto, another musician-turned-actor). Bowie here is blonde, tanned, conventionally attractive and poised, he is the epitome of the type of masculine hero you’d expect from a film set in World War Two but here his image is a bluff. The film’s themes of repression, desire, violence and resistance in the face of fear mould him into a different kind of hero, and scenes where Bowie picks flowers, sings and performs mimes are transgressive and transfixing. Bowie’s androgynous off-screen star persona lifts the ambiguously erotic scenes between Celliers and Yonoi to make them electrifying. Despite not finding much of an audience upon release, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is regarded by many as Bowie’s greatest on-screen role. 

Bowie sits in the passenger seat of an open topped Jeep, looking directly at the camera. He is wearing a green army uniform and there are tents in the background. They are in the jungle. In the driver seat sits a Japanese soldier, in his uniform, his white gloved hands on the wheel.
Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence

He starred in two more films, both released in 1986, that marked another sharp move in his on-screen career. Both films and characters are markedly more fun but also self-aware and even satirical. One of them is the on-screen role he’s most known for Labryinth (1986), Jim Henson’s fantasy musical. He plays Jareth, the Goblin King, to whom Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) accidentally wished away her baby half-brother and has to undertake a quest to the centre of an enormous, fantastical maze to find him. Despite it feeling like the role was designed for Bowie, other iconic musicians of the era like Mick Jagger, Prince and Sting were all in the running for the role, so it’s clear the filmmakers wanted someone to play Jareth who not only has a built-in powerful star persona but can also bring elements of brash showmanship and glamorous excess to the role. It’s evident Henson was after someone who could bring that extra layer of meaning to a character that is visually a parody of a 1980’s rockstar with his spiky mullet, ruffled blouses, leather coats and Siouxsie Sioux-like eye makeup. The film is a paragon of 1980s excess and Bowie encapsulates this perfectly as the fantastical villain.

The other film Bowie appeared in that year, Absolute Beginners, is also about unabashed 80s excess but this time in a very British style, with an anarchic, Day-Glo 80s sheen (despite being set in the late 1950s). The musical follows a group of working-class teenagers in West London in 1958, particularly young photographer Colin (Eddie O’Connell) and his love for career-driven fashion designer Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit), with a backdrop of simmering racial tensions, seismic post-war cultural change and the dawn of the youth culture explosion from the baby boom generation. Bowie plays a supporting role as adman Vendice Partners, a satire of the kind of shallow, arrogant and insincere crook that would’ve worked in advertising and pop in the 1950s (and 1980s) He plays Partners with a mid-Atlantic twang and a smugly deadpan cool, even when he’s tap dancing, singing on a spinning globe or dancing his way across a giant typewriter. 

Bowie stands in the centre of the image, words like 'dazzling' partially obscured behind his head on the white wall he is in front of. He stands looking out, arms raised in a V shape above his head. His hair is short, and he is wearing a suit.
Bowie in Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners was another commercial and critical failure, being panned by critics and making less than a quarter of its budget back at the box office, and is even one of the films blamed for the collapse of the film studio Goldcrest Films. Bowie had said that what always attracted him to a project was the director because as an artist that is what he cares about most: the process of making art. This is obvious in his film career and Absolute Beginners is directed by Julien Temple, who came to prominence in the punk scene, making music videos and short films, particularly working with the Sex Pistols. He is another distinctive and imaginative auteur filmmaker that Bowie was drawn to. Labyrinth was also a critical and commercial failure but follows a pattern of many films featuring Bowie; initially unsuccessful, they all became cult films that have since seen critical reappraisal. It seems Bowie had a penchant for picking films that were, like him, in many ways ahead of their time and took years to find their audience.

Unlike Labyrinth, Christopher Nolan said he couldn’t see anyone else in the role of inventor Nikola Tesla in his 2006 thriller The Prestige –  presumably, because the role is of a genius revolutionary, someone who is so completely ahead of his time, yet simultaneously comes to define it. Bowie emerges as Tesla for the first time from a blur of arcing electricity, nonchalantly walking out and then beginning his dialogue immediately after his magical introduction. The film and his role blur the boundaries of science/reality and magic, another liminal space that Bowie has resided in his entire career. He’s playing a real person but his star persona as a fantastical alien creature lifts the historical figure into an otherworldly realm.  The role is again a small but mighty one for Bowie and his ability to impact a film’s meaning and narrative with such a small role is not only a testament to his screen presence but also a sign that these directors knew just how to use him and his star power: as one of the most famous men in the world, whose image alone stirs the imagination.

Bowie’s acting career wasn’t the most prolific or renowned but each role was expertly chosen and a clear extension of his artistic intentions, with each character progressively adding to his star persona and also revealing sections of himself that hadn’t yet been seen. His work on screen was both transformational and reassuring, adding undeniable importance to the varied career of one of the greatest artists we’ve ever seen.

Bowie: Starman and the Silver Screen is at BFI Southbank until the end of January, with select films available to stream on BFI Player

by Maddy Sinclair

Madeleine (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s LabyrinthThe Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.

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