David Bowie is a performer, be that in the studio, on stage or even on the silver screen.The documentary “David Bowie Is,” about the seminal art exhibit currently touring the globe, will play Tuesday simultaneously in theaters around the nation. But it’s a continuation of his work in pictures, be that in documentaries, concert films and, occasionally, as an actual actor. Here are some of his finest performances in the movies.
‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ (1976)
Bowie had appeared in an experimental short film, “The Image,” in 1969, but he didn’t make a proper crossover into film until the mid-’70s. Appropriately he was playing an alien: a being seeking a way to bring water back to his arid planet but who instead gets distracted by the ways of man. It’s a film as radical as the music Bowie was making at the time: The director was Nicolas Roeg, of the elliptically edited “Walkabout” and “Don’t Look Now,” and the film is often as otherworldly in its structure as its character — or, for that matter, its star.
‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ (1983)
In “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Bowie was playing on his image. Turns out he can be a very good thespian too. One of his other too few lead roles lies in this quietly intense WWII drama set in a Japanese POW camp, with Bowie as a prisoner whose relations with a sadistic Captain (Ryuichi Sakamoto) border on the homoerotic. It’s a magnetic performance, and one that happened only because its director, Japanese New Wave legend Nagisa Oshima (“In the Realm of the Senses”), saw Bowie’s stage performance in “The Elephant Man.” Alas, Bowie has said that he dislikes screen acting, as he finds the slow production pace doesn’t gibe with his impulsive artistic process. At least this one paired him with another director as iconoclastic as he was: Oshima, who, like Bowie, had spent his career repeatedly reinventing himself.
‘The Hunger’ (1983)
Audiences were lured into Tony Scott’s MTV-style vampire opus for the much-reported sex scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. But the real pull is Bowie’s brief performance as Deneuve’s longtime companion. He’s only in the first 30 minutes, having suddenly discovered he’s rapidly aging, turning into a crusty, white corpse in fast-forward. But it may be his best performance, one teeming with regret and elegance, one that maintains dignity in the face of looming mortality. When he dies the movie mostly goes with it.
One of the great all-star teams of movies featured Jim Henson, Terry Jones and Bowie, who’s made to look like a leopard as a “Goblin King” who wants to woo a teenager (Jennifer Connelly). His plan? Kidnap her baby brother and trap her in a puppet-laden maze. (The ’80s were weird.) Bowie is all rock star here, and it’s one of the only films he’s been in that actually uses his music, including the showstopper “Magic Dance” and the more contemplative “Underground.”
‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988)
Bowie’s appearance in Martin Scorsese’s controversial reworking of the Christ tale is so small you might not even notice him. He plays Pontius Pilate in one scene, shot from afar as he sternly lectures J.C. (Willem Dafoe) about a very un-Bowie-like concept: the idea that one shouldn’t want to change things but keep them the same.
Many have attempted to portray Andy Warhol, but Bowie — who wrote a song for him on his 1972 album “Hunky Dory” — comes the closest to embodying him without lapsing into parody. He plays the artist in his latter years — a shadow of his former self yet still aloof as he sucks the young and doomed Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) into his questionable orbit.
‘The Prestige’ (2006)
For its first hour Christopher Nolan’s dueling magicians great builds up the introduction of inventor Nikola Tesla, who may be the genius to help one illusionist (Hugh Jackman) triumph over another (Christian Bale). When he finally arrives, not only is he David Bowie, but he gets one of the all-time great movie walk-ons, sauntering through a wild electromagnetic field. Later Tesla reflects on his career, which for Bowie surely hit close to home: “The first time I changed the world I was hailed as a visionary. The second time I was asked politely to retire.”
Bonus: David Bowie as David Bowie
Sometimes Bowie just got to be Bowie. As early as 1969 he was performing some of his early, bouncy, Anthony Newley-esque songs in the music short film “Love You Till Tuesday.” In 1973, at the height of his fame, he had a concert film, “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture” — which, curiously, was not an immaculately shot picture but instead a rough and zoom-heavy one by direct cinema legend D.A. Pennebaker (of the Bob Dylan doc “Don’t Look Back”). The next year he was alarmingly fragile and shaken in the hour-long documentary “Cracked Actor.” He was sprightlier in 1982’s West German docudrama “Christiane F.,” which features a scene where the protagonist goes to a Bowie concert. And then there’s his walk-on in 2001’s “Zoolander.” (You could also argue that he’s essential playing himself — credited as playing one “Phillip Jeffries” — in few minutes he appears in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.” He’s simply adding to the weird of an already out-there movie.)
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