As incredibly diverse and influential as David Bowie was in the world of music, he was comparably as shapeshifting and compelling in his film career. This film career, as a side gig, had Bowie working with the likes of Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Julian Schnabel, David Lynch, and Jim Henson among others. Quite the part-time job.
Some of Bowie’s most iconic film performances accentuate his idiosyncrasies, seemingly written with I’m in mind. Others manage to work his acting prowess into more straightforward roles. Regardless of the tone of the picture he was in, David Bowie brought pathos and weight to his role. Be it big or small, Bowie’s presence was always felt. Here are five unforgettable Bowie film roles:
5. Nikola Tesla, The Prestige – An odd thing happened when I watched The Prestige in the theater. I sat, watching Nikola Tesla, unable to place who the actor was behind the mustache. His voice was so familiar, and yet, his face was only somewhat recognizable. It spoke to Bowie’s ability to tone down his unique appearance and handle Thomas Edison’s adversary with reserved nuance.
4. Pontius Pilate, The Last Temptation of Christ – Martin Scorsese’s controversial story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene had Bowie portray Pilate, the man who tells Jesus he must die because he is a threat to the Roman Empire. Bowie’s performance is small, but impactful, discussing magic and testing Jesus’s resolve.
3. Jack Celliers, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – Having Bowie portray a British soldier in the thick of World War II is unconventional to say the least. But Bowie, as a soldier butting heads with Japanese soldiers in a prison camp, is a sharp examination of honor and loyalty and devotion in the face of surrender. Bowie steals the show from a wonderful cast.
2. Jareth the Goblin King, Labyrinth – Easily Bowie’s most commercially successful film was also one that felt made for him. Henson had considered Sting in the role before his kids convinced him Bowie was perfect for the role. Sometimes your kids know better. The glam rock opera verve of Labyrinth belongs to Bowie, and no other could have filled those shoes.
1. Thomas Jerome Newton, The Man Who Fell to Earth – David Bowie’s first feature role, playing an androgynous alien lifeform searching for water for his dying planet, is another role seemingly made for Bowie’s offbeat personality and angular figure. His frame enhances the alien Newton, and his curious mannerisms are absolute perfection. Bowie’s performance here, Ziggy Stardust incarnate, announced his arrival in cinema with authority.