The Norwich Film Festival take a look back at the iconic star and explore his brief work in film.
Following the death of the legendary rock star, many spent their time reminding themselves of David Bowie’s revolutionary work as an artist. There is no question that Bowie was one of the main developers in a new branch of rock and roll music. Bowie was an inventor, ecstatic and explicit when portraying his characters, which amplified his songs as artistic lives of their own. But his characters did not stop at his music, as his film career was just as fascinating as his ability to write songs. Throughout his life, Bowie played all types of different characters: an alien, a commander, a vampire and even himself. In this article we’ll explore Bowie’s incredible talents in portraying characters in his film career.
Fans will always remember Bowie for Labyrinth (1986), perhaps his most famous film, in which a misbehaving and selfish girl learns the values of friendship and compassion during her quest to save her baby brother. Bowie’s portrayal of the Goblin King Jareth comes across as enigmatic and charming. There is a considerate side in his evil persona towards the baby he has kidnapped, while he simultaneously spends most of the film ridiculing and intimidating his subjects. Being given the chance to perform musical numbers in the film, Bowie’s strengths in acting haunting and playful resonate while he sings and dances with Jim Henson’s puppets over how to transform a child into a goblin. The film was not a massive success in the box office, but since Henson’s death in the 90’s, many critics came back to the film with a newfound appreciation for its fantastical world, one that Bowie furthers with his mystical persona and great singing.
Under the direction of Nagisa Oshima in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), Bowie was able to explore along with his co-stars the relations between soldiers from opposing sides of war. Bowie’s character, Major Jack Celliers is a rebellious but righteous man that admits to not being a criminal but a soldier, evident in his compassion for his fellow prisoners and his refusal to needlessly fight when challenged by captor. Oshima himself said that Bowie had “an inner spirit that was indestructible,” something we experience throughout the film, as Bowie’s character must struggle with imprisonment and helping his fellow victims.
As well as valour and honour, Bowie was given the opportunity to explore sexuality, particularly in two films: The Hunger (1983) and Just a Gigolo (1978). In the former, Bowie plays a rapidly aging vampire who must face the horror of immortality without the beauty of youth he was promised. As his condition gets worse and worse, Bowie stands as the image of our darkest fears; isolation, rejection and eternal damnation haunt him until he is no longer capable of living normally. Alongside Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, he delivers an electric performance full of tension, gore and, most distinctly, sex. In Just a Gigolo, his employment of sexuality becomes more of a necessity, as Bowie plays a World War I veteran who works in a brothel out of desperation to find employment. However, this film did poorly in its release, with most people claiming David Bowie was miscast. Above all other faults, perhaps director David Hemmings’ largest one was attempting to place the driving force that was Bowie in a position of inconvenience and coercion. David’s stimulating presence was just unable to fit into a poor script that could not achieve humour or tragedy; instead he floated by on a film that lingered in somewhere the dull middle.
There is a recurring theme of addiction and downfall in Bowie’s films, his most critically acclaimed being The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). As the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, Bowie exemplifies the corruption in the path to goodness through alcohol in Nicholas Roeg’s classic sci-fi. Newton is a vulnerable and delicate being that naively wishes to succeed in a world (Earth) that is abundant in vices, swallowing up all of his hopes for the sake of instantaneous pleasure. Any hopes of saving his home planet from a terrible drought are crushed the second he begins an affair with Mary-Lou, played by Candy Clark. This distraction from his task is the pivotal point where things begin going downhill, but as well as introducing the alien to alcohol and television, Clark and Bowie’s relationship focuses largely on sex. As his first film and seen in his aforementioned works, Bowie is clearly fascinated by the effects and mechanics of lust. In each movie, while creating different characters, he also explores different ways in which the indulgence of lust may direct our lives.
But Bowie had a more innocent side as well. In Luc Besson’s Arthur and the Invisibles, he returned to the role of a playful villain as Emperor Maltazard. The movie itself focuses on the adventures of a young boy that discovers a magical world in his garden, and Bowie’s ability to employ the evil of a villain along with some light-hearted humour adds to the fun of the plot. There is even a scene reminiscent of Labyrinth, in which one of Maltazard’s guards must remind his minions to applaud him, as Jareth reminds his subjects to laugh at his jokes. Following his contribution to children’s films, Bowie plays the Lord Royal Highness of Atlantis in SpongeBob’s Atlantis SquarePantis, where his authoritative tone is nicely used to present a regal and powerful character.
Even in his cameos, Bowie was able to create an unforgettable presence, making him one of the most talked about assets of the film. He was given the opportunity to play Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, and continuing with the theme of vices and obsessions, he enigmatically warned a magician of the dangers in a man’s reach exceeding his grasp. Making another brief appearance in Zoolander as himself, Bowie hilariously judges a competition about the removal of underwear in all seriousness.
Though many of these films never received the acclaim Bowie would get in his music, they remained familiar with the topics his music explored. Love, obsession and beauty circled round his film career like the themes an author holds throughout his or her life. Additionally, when he wasn’t a protagonist he would be asked to play the antagonist or a significant voice of authority. Such was the presence of David Bowie, one that demanded and received attention when he himself would mention nothing of it. If we have learned anything from Bowie as an actor, it is that his films were picked in a special consideration, and that his versatility could range his roles from sombre to hysterically funny.
By Thomas Rososchansky.