But lest it be forgotten in the many tributes sure to emerge in the next 24 hours: Bowie was also an actor. Academy Award-winning? No. Gold at the box office? No. Yet Bowie, leaping into roles as diverse as Pontius Pilate and Andy Warhol, lent any movie — no matter how ridiculous — a certain glamour. Here was a musician whose sheer physical presence took rockers-turned-actors beyond the Elvis of “Blue Hawaii.”
“From the goose-stepping Prussian antics of ‘Just A Gigolo’ to the high-camp vampire flick ‘The Hunger,’ you know it will end badly, but who cares when he looks so bloody great?” Liz Hoggard of the Guardian wrote in 2006. “With that wiry, androgynous frame, pasty make-up and disconcerting stare (he has different coloured irises after a childhood fight), Bowie was made for cinema.”
Indeed, Bowie acted on-and-off for almost as long as he made records. His first credit came in 1967 when, at about age 20, he played a ghostly figure in the 1967 short “The Image” — silly, perhaps, but, 50 years later, a little unsettling as well. Such small roles, and Bowie’s erratic behavior, would lead to greater things.
“His travels on the mid-’70s publicity circuit were a kind of Method performance art unto themselves: increasingly unhinged, blatantly coked-up, yet somehow crisp, polite, even decorous,” Slate’s Jessica Winter wrote in 2010. “‘To me … you seem like a working actor,’ Dick Cavett remarked to his sniffly, skeletal guest in 1974.”
Bowie’s big splash came in 1976 with “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” The man known for the song “Life on Mars” played, appropriately, an alien.
“The choice is inspired,” the New York Times wrote of Bowie’s casting. “Mr. Bowie gives an extraordinary performance. The details, the chemistry of this tall pale figure with black-rimmed eyes are clearly not human. Yet he acquires a moving, tragic force as the stranger caught and destroyed in a strange land.”
It was the first of a spate of films that, as Bowie aged, would eventually keep him in the public eye as much as his music. Many were ridiculous. Many were flops. But many — among them, “The Hunger” (1983), “Labyrinth” (1986) and “Absolute Beginners” (1986) — driven by Bowie’s otherworldly presence or the songs he delivered for their soundtracks, became cult hits.
Though essentially an amateur when it came to the silver screen, Bowie knew he was something special.
“I feel very confident about my acting abilities,” he said in 1988. “Not that I think I’ll ever be a great actor, but I think I could be a substantially acceptable actor and offer something that no one else is offering.”
Still, he was careful about who he played — and, ever the aesthete, which directors he worked with. The list would come to include auteurs as formidable as Tony Scott, Christopher Nolan, David Lynch and Jim Henson.
It may have been Henson’s “Labyrinth” that solidified Bowie’s image in the minds of anyone born after 1980. Released three years after “Let’s Dance” — Bowie’s greatest-selling record and, arguably, last great record — the movie, a fantasy in the vein of “The Dark Crystal,” introduced a new generation to his work. Bowie played Jareth, a goblin king who pursues a young girl through a threatening Freudian underworld. The movie became a cable mainstay and, though Bowie danced and sang with muppets, he somehow didn’t look ridiculous. Or, if he did, it was the 1980s, and no one noticed.
“The result, a fabulous film about a young girl’s journey into womanhood that uses futuristic technology to illuminate a mythic-style tale, is in many ways a remarkable achievement,” the New York Times wrote, adding: “David Bowie is perfectly cast as the teasing, tempting seducer whom Sarah must both want and reject in order to learn the labyrinth’s lessons, and his songs add a driving, sensual appeal.”
Bowie even worked with Martin Scorsese, who cast him as Pontius Pilate in “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988). As Pilate — an icy, indifferent bureaucrat with a Roman haircut and a British accent — Bowie was terrifying.
“You understand what has to happen,” Bowie sniffed to Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe. “We have a space for you up on Golgotha — 3,000 skulls there, probably more. … I do wish you people would go out and count them sometimes. Maybe you’d learn a lesson. Probably not.”
“David Bowie was my first and only choice for Pontius Pilate,” Scorsese said at the time. “I never considered anyone else.”
“The guy was just sort of very quiet, like a lethal kind of Svengali figure, ” Bowie said in 1987. “Everything happened without him seeming to be taking any part of it. He was an extraordinary, hypnotic kind of guy.”
Praised for his turn as Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige” (2006), Bowie seemed to offer his films just that — the stamp of approval from the tastemakers’ tastemaker.
“Bowie’s Tesla makes a perfect circle with Thomas Newton of “The Man Who Fell to Earth”: They are visionary aliens abroad, revered and reviled for their mad-scientist gifts; their ideas are stolen and debased, they live out their latter days in isolation, and they can wear a suit like nobody’s business,” Winter of Slate wrote. “Thirty years apart, these roles also prove that — in the hands of the right director — David Bowie, Thespian, is a snazzy magic trick.”