David Bowie on screen: 10 very different film and TV characters
There’s more to David Bowie’s movie appearances than just Jareth The Goblin King in Labyrinth and judging the ‘walk-off’ on Zoolander. He’s played a gangster, a vampire, a cowboy, heck he’s even been The Elephant Man for a Broadway production.
This list is by no means exhaustive nor are these movie roles all world-class performances, but much like his ever-changing musical tangents and alter-egos, Bowie keeps us intrigued with his character choices on screen.
The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
In one of only a handful of starring roles, an otherworldly Bowie is an alien who comes to Earth looking for a way to extract and transport water to his own planet. The impact of this 1976 sci-fi film was felt on Bowie’s Station To Station and Low, both of which featured stills from the film on their sleeve art. Later this year, expect to see the stage show based on this film.
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983)
Defiant and deliciously tanned, Bowie plays a British prisoner of war character, Jack Celliers. He’s an object of cruel fascination for the commander of the POW camp, Captain Yanoi, played by Japanese star Ryuichi Sakamoto. Tom Conti plays John Lawrence, a character who speaks fluent Japanese and is trying to bridge the gap between the opposing sides. This flick dishes up on pride, honour, cowardice, shame and culture clash.
The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)
Talking about clash of cultures… Bowie, sporting a relaxed perm, portrays Pontius Pilate with a softly spoken British accent and a somewhat sympathetic disposition to the tormented Jesus of Nazareth - who happens to have a breezy American accent. It was a little hard on the ears and diluted the experience of the story.
Bowie plays himself in a piano bar as Ricky Gervais’ character, Andy Millman, tries to impress him with small talk about balancing fame and artistic credibility. This gives rise to an impromptu little ditty that turns into a crowd singalong: “Pathetic little fat man / He sold his soul for a shard of fame / He’s banal and facile / He’s a fat waste of space”… with just a hint of inspiration from ‘Life On Mars’.
Absolute Beginners (1986)
The Duke crooning the title track to the movie is just about the highlight of this film. Bowie is an ad exec, Vendice Partners (it’s the '80s!) who tries to take advantage of the movie’s male protagonist and gets to dance on a typewriter along the way.
SpongeBob's Atlantis SquarePantis (2007)
As his Lord Royal Highness, Emperor of Atlantis, Bowie isn’t instantly recognisable as the voice of the protector of bubbles. He’s obviously hamming it up somewhat and having a grand old time on the job here.
The Prestige (2006)
Nineteenth-century London is the setting for this collision between two illusionists as they set out to outdo each other with bigger and more daring tricks. Bowie cuts a fine figure as Nikola Tesla who tries to warn Hugh Jackman’s character, Robert Angier, of the cost of his quest for supremacy. One of the very few occasions you’ll see Bowie rockin’ a mo.
David Bowie might be a rock god and cultural icon but he’s also more than up for the task of playing a henchman dressed as a shark - or more accurately a man who wears a floppy shark fin strung onto his back and tends to every need of his master. In this 1983 pirate comedy with members of Monty Python and Cheech and Chong, Bowie’s ‘shark’ is an uncredited cameo, but totally unforgettable.
This film depicts New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s swift rise to international art stardom in the ‘80s. Bowie embodies Basquiat’s friend and mentor, Andy Warhol, with plenty of subtle notes to his softly accentuated speech, mannerisms and movement. There’s a lot to be said for the wig he wore in the film and the authenticity it lent to Bowie’s portrayal. Apparently, it is an original that once belonged to Warhol himself.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
In this Twin Peaks prequel/sequel, Bowie turns on some classic ‘80s smart-casual style as Agent Phillip Jeffries who appears at FBI headquarters after being missing in action for some years. He has a rant about ‘Judy’ and The Black Lodge, and then disappears just as mysteriously. Hit the rewind/replay to enjoy the weirdness again because it’s all too brief.