Movie Stardust: David Bowie’s greatest film performances

Why Bowie's face was made for the silver screen

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth
Starman David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth Image Picture StudioCanal

David Bowie’s face was made for the movies. Those striking features, heightened by his heterochromia (differently coloured eyes), gave Bowie an otherworldly presence that burned bright on the silver screen.

Filmmakers were quick to recognise this, and after making his film debut in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1976, Bowie appeared in over a dozen films. He’s best known for Labyrinth, but there was much more to his acting than that.


 

1

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

Bowie was in the midst of his Thin White Duke phase when Brit director Nicolas Roeg cast him as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien sent to Earth to retrieve water for his ailing planet. Bowie, whose character amasses a billion dollar fortune before becoming corrupted by the worst of human nature, was sensational in his film debut. And to think, producers originally wanted the clean-cut and comparatively ordinary Robert Redford in the lead role.

Bowie recorded a separate soundtrack for the film, only to see it rejected in favour of a more conventional score by John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta. He later used many of his ideas in his 1977 classic Low.

2

Labyrinth (1986)

The surreal sight of Bowie dancing with a load of Jim Henson puppets is forever burned into the brains of anyone who grew up in the 80s.

The beloved cult hit saw a young Jennifer Connolly tumble into a fantasy land to save her baby brother from the clutches of the Goblin King. Bowie was both charming and sinister as goblin ruler Jareth, and the character is still nightmare fuel to this day. Labyrnith also happens to be the final film directed by Jim Henson. Bowie helped give him an incredible send-off.

3

The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese initially earmarked Sting for the role of Pontius Pilate in his controversial epic about the death of Christ. Bowie wound up playing the Roman ruler, turning up for a solitary scene where he informs Jesus (Wllem Dafoe) that he’ll be put to death for causing too much of a stir in Judea.

It’s a brief appearance, but the moment shows just how good an actor Bowie was. All the baggage of his incredible career slips away and you buy every second of his performance.

4

Basquiat (1996)

David Bowie in Basquiat
Artist as Artist David Bowie as Andy Warhol in biopic Basquiat. Image Picture Miramax Films

It takes a certain kind of star to bring to life Andy Warhol. Bowie did just that in Julian Schnabel’s critically-acclaimed biopic Basquiat, about the Brooklyn painter’s meteoric rise from living in a cardboard box to taking the art world by storm.

Bowie’s Warhol served as a key mentor figure for Basquiat, and how apt that the film casts one of the 20th century’s greatest artists as one of the 20th century’s greatest artists.

5

Zoolander (2001)

“This’ll be a straight walk-off. Old school rules.”

Bowie playfully poked fun at himself in Ben Stiller’s comedy classic, officiating a “walk-off” between preening models Derek Zoolander and Hansel McDonald. Michael Jackson’s Beat It provided the soundtrack, as Bowie stole the film from under the noses of Stiller and Owen Wilson. Zoolander 2 just won’t be the same without him.

6

The Prestige (2005)

David Bowie as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige
Electric performance David Bowie lent star power to Christopher Nolan's The Prestige. Image Picture Warner Bros Pictures

Batman director Christopher Nolan made it known he was a die-hard Bowie fan when he used Something In The Air to play out his breakthrough movie Memento. He got to work with the man himself in 2005 for magician mystery The Prestige.

Bowie played Nikola Tesla, the inventor known for creating the alternating current electrical supply system. He made a dramatic entrance through crackling electricity, gifting Hugh Jackman’s Angier a teleportation device crucial to his stage act. If anyone had the power to traverse physical space in his back pocket, of course it’d be Bowie.

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Loaded digital media manager Simon Reynolds has written about film and entertainment for various leading websites since 2008. Follow Simon at @simonreyn

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