Sound and vision: the best and the worst of David Bowie's acting career

This week marks the third anniversary of David Bowie’s death. With his usual impeccable timing, the great man bowed out (on January 10, 2016) just two days after the release of his final album, Blackstar, a critically acclaimed masterpiece in which he seemed to be dispassionately contemplating his own death. He’d kept his cancer treatments quiet, and left strict instructions that there be no funeral. His ashes were scattered in a private ceremony in Bali.

David Bowie may be gone but has not been forgotten: his albums are still selling by the shedload; Lazarus, the musical he created in collaboration with Enda Walsh, continues to tour the world; a new Bowie-themed app narrated by Gary Oldman has just been released; and Bowie has also been included in the new BBC2 show Icons, which profiles some of the most influential figures of the 20th century.

And closer to home, the Dublin Bowie Festival, an annual celebration of his life and work including gigs, tributes, art exhibitions and film screenings (for more info, visit www.dublinbowiefestival.ie), is currently in full swing across the capital.

Those film screenings are particularly appropriate, because acting was always a hugely important aspect of Bowie’s art and life. He was fascinated by performance and artifice, used dramatic techniques to create pop characters he could hide behind, and was regularly tempted to perform on stage and in films. Sometimes he was very good in them, sometimes rather bad, but his unearthly charisma made you want to look at him whatever he did.

Though music was always his first love, David Jones, as he was then, also showed a flair for drama at school. In 1968, he studied avant-garde theatre and mime with the legendary British dancer and choreographer, Lindsay Kemp. He was hugely influenced by Kemp’s flamboyant theatricality and passion, and would find mainstream success by introducing these elements to his music.

He played a role in Kemp’s avant-garde play Pierrot in Turquoise, which in 1970 was turned into a TV drama. He also played a ghost in a 1969 short called The Image, and turned up as an extra the same year in the British film The Virgin Soldiers. Bowie was honing himself for his greatest theatrical creation.

By the early 1970s, he had achieved some success with albums like Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World, but it was his 1972 record Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars that catapulted him to superstardom. He had for several years been toying with the idea of creating a flamboyant alter ego that would allow him to be more outrageous, and create a wall between the performance and himself. He based Ziggy mainly on Vince Taylor, a minor British rock’n’roll singer who had a nervous breakdown and became convinced he was part god, part alien. It was a brilliant creation – androgynous, unhinged, glamorous, threatening – and as Bowie’s drug consumption increased, the lines between he and Ziggy blurred. He started giving interviews as Ziggy, and later said that the character “wouldn’t leave me alone – that’s when it all started to go sour”.

Ziggy Stardust was retired permanently in 1973, but Bowie wasn’t finished changing, and in 1976 he took on a film role that perfectly fit his chaotic personal circumstances at the time. Bowie was in his ‘Thin White Duke’ phase when he accepted the part of melancholy alien Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Newton hails from a distant, technologically advanced but drought-ridden planet, and has come to Earth to find water to save it. But he has the misfortune to land in 1970s America, where he’s quickly corrupted by fast food, alcohol and television. There really was an otherworldly quality to Bowie’s performance: he spoke quietly and stared a little too intently, as though trying to figure all these aliens out.

But there was, perhaps, a more prosaic reason for his confusion. “I was totally insecure” at that point, he later claimed, “with about 10 grams [of cocaine] in me. I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end.”

In the late 1970s, Bowie moved to Berlin, cleaned up his act and produced perhaps his most brilliant trilogy of albums. Meanwhile, the acting continued, but not always successfully. In 1978, in David Hemmings’ Just a Gigolo, he played a demobbed Prussian officer who becomes a prostitute in Weimar Berlin. It was terrible, but Bowie was philosophical: “It was,” he later concluded, “my 32 Elvis films rolled into one.” When cast badly, he could be stiff and hammy, but in the right part, his acting came to life. In 1980, he bravely took on the role of deformed Victorian gentleman John Merrick in a Broadway production of The Elephant Man. He used movement rather than make-up to convey his character’s suffering, and his performance was critically praised.

In 1982, he appeared in a BBC TV film of Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s play about a debauched and murderous wanderer. Dressed in rags and sporting a sketchy beard that a hipster would be proud of, he was very good as the odious Baal, and performed Brecht’s songs beautifully.

Always patchy, never dull, Bowie’s film career reached its peak in the mid-1980s. In 1983, he may have regretted appearing alongside Catherine Deneuve in Tony Scott’s dodgy horror film The Hunger, but fared much better in the war film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, playing a British officer who refuses to bow to the whims of a sadistic Japanese prison camp commander.

He played a 1950s spiv in Julien Temple’s jaunty 1986 drama Absolute Beginners, also writing the film’s very catchy theme song, and donned a Ziggy-ish fright wig to play the party-pooping Goblin King in Jim Henson’s 1986 fantasy Labyrinth.

As he got older, his appearances became more selective. David Lynch persuaded him to play a mysterious FBI agent in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and he took a recurring role in the 1999 TV series The Hunger. The man had a sense of humour, and amusingly played himself in Zoolander, and Ricky Gervais’ Extras.

He seems to have enjoyed acting, but latterly found it too time-consuming, preferring to wander the streets of Manhattan taking photographs and people watching. And while performances in films like Basquiat (see panel) and Baal make one wonder just how good he might have been if he’d devoted more time to it, perhaps Bowie’s greatest creations were his various versions of himself.

As part of the Dublin Bowie Festival, Smithfield’s Lighthouse Cinema is showing Labyrinth (1pm and 10.45pm) and 2001 – A SPACE ODYSSEY (2.10pm)

Bowie’s top three performances

1 The Man Who Fell to Earth

Bowie was utterly convincing as an alien who comes to Earth to find water for his drought-ridden planet, but instead becomes addicted to alcohol and television.

2 Merry ­Christmas, Mr Lawrence

Nagisa Oshima’s drama was set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, where Bowie’s British officer Jack Celliers pays the ultimate price for failing to submit to the will of a crazed camp commander.

3 Basquiat

In Julian Schnabel’s biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bowie was uncannily good as the soft-spoken and ever-watchful pop artist Andy Warhol.

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