Remembering David Bowie: His Best Roles in Film

The loss of Rock God David Bowie has been felt all over the world (and likely on the planet he came from before assimilating to human culture). Bowie’s 18-month battle with cancer was not something many were privy to, and came as a shock as the announcement was made early this week. However, despite his ill health, the man was able to create a moment in time with his latest album and its subsequent videos. The theatrics stemming from this work were both beautiful and haunting, a constant reminder that this was the way in which he not only dealt with, but welcomed death as the next step in a series of life-long reinventions. While Blackstar was a perfect coda for his musical career, the accompanying videos served as a reminder of his abilities as an actor. Lucky for us, he left behind a diverse body of cinematic work that’s every bit as awe inspiring as his musical career. As we move forward into an unknown world—one without Bowie’s singular presence—we take a look back at some of his most memorable roles.

Basquiat– Andy Warhol

Bowie’s portrayal of Andy Warhol feels like a moment of inception. How can one important pop-culture giant portray the perpetuator of pop-culture without your head exploding? Easily, that’s how. With Bowie at the helm, Warhol came to life as a friend and mentor to the turbulent young artist Basquiat. What’s memorable about the role is the way Bowie was able to encapsulate the nonchalance that permeated off Warhol, a trait that made him all the more desirable to an outside world. His cadence and mumbled genius mirrored that of the artist, while his posture and severe distaste for normal as an act rather than a choice were clear within his characterization. A mere eleven years after Warhol’s death, Bowie’s portrayal was an important moment in time as an acting partner to Jeffrey Wright’s Basquiat as the two are able to play off one another well during their time onscreen together. The film would come out in between Outside and Earthlings, two Bowie albums that tend to get clumped in with the rest of his 90’s catalog as subpar to his earlier work.

Labyrinth– Jareth the Goblin King

Labyrinth is one of those films beloved by both cult fanatics and the general public because, well, it’s really fantastic. Embedded with a sense of wonder, the Jim Henson classic starred an angst ridden, teenaged Jennifer Connelly, a surprisingly agreeable baby, puppets, and the man himself. The magical background allowed for the perils of growing up to become a fictionalized adventure, with Bowie’s Jareth as the lusty easy out clause. Though his 1986 serious acting face beneath the make-up and superb wig were memorable, it would be his ever growing bulge showcased throughout the children’s film that would take the cake. The glittery madness that was Labyrinth remains a classic waiting in the depths of VHS cabinets and HBO showings for the next generation, and if that can’t instill some childhood back into those little mongrels nothing will.

The Hunger– John Blaylock

Let’s be honest, The Hunger is a bad movie. Described as an “erotic horror film”, it begins its journey in a night club featuring Bauhaus, creating a new wet dream for little new wave boys and girls everywhere. Ridiculous in itself, the tone is set with a gothic undertone working perfectly with the static “vampire” setting we’ve seen both on screen and in literature. Bowie’s character does not fare well, as forever with his partner Miriam Blaylock has an expiration; he has mere centuries to reap the benefits of living as a luminescent being of the devil’s doing. While most vampires hold onto their youth, Blaylock soon ages rapidly out of a cohesive existence, his body catching up to the time he’s stolen. He’s lovely in his work, believable as an immortal while holding onto an innocence that’s devastating once he realizes he’s doomed to a living death.  Similar to Labyrinth, the film is very 80’s in its approach while holding up due to the continued interest in subject matter, Bowie’s appearance, and the lesbian vampire sex scene featuring a young Susan Sarandon.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me– Phillip Jeffries

To the Twin Peaks fans of the world, Fire Walk with Me is an essential part of the story. Detailing the rise of Killer Bob as he tormented Laura, her laved anguish becomes barely discernable to those around her from the “acting out” they assumed was part of her character. An integral part of the overall story arc of the TP universe comes in a moment of terror with Agent Cooper’s realization that his fellow FBI agent has been corrupted by the demons of the Black Lodge, something he dreamed about previously. Played by Bowie, Phillip Jeffries has been missing from the force. When he finally returns his entrance is cloaked in a surreal majesty. Dawning an odd Western accent, Jeffries proceeds to explain where he’s been, and the terrifying reality of this separate world in which Agent Cooper will soon get himself wrapped up in. As quickly as he came, Jeffries suddenly disappears with Agent Gordon (David Lynch) screaming that he was never there to begin with. It is at this moment that the power of the Black Lodge and in turn Killer Bob is glaring; it seemed Jeffries was allowed to come back to warn his friends, but his soul remained in the other place. Bowie’s performance is short, but unforgettable.

The Man Who Fell to Earth– Thomas Jerome Newton

It isn’t easy playing oneself in one’s life-story, but as Bowie came to terms with his fame he was able to finally let go and depict his true origin through the medium of film. For those who don’t believe in the true story of the man from Mars, The Man Who Fell to Earth is the story of a young alien searching for a planet with water he can bring back home. He experiences humanity by falling in love, learning the ways of the world, and then is quickly shunned and experimented on for being slightly off from what society deemed normal. Released around the same time as his transitional albums Young Americans and Station to Station, the film would give Bowie an opportunity to showcase a different range as the main star. If you haven’t seen the film, or it’s been awhile, consider revisiting it with a new perspective. Bowie was a dynamic actor in addition to his music career, and just as Labyrinth wouldn’t have the staying power without his presence, so too would The Man Who Fell to Earth be lacking if he had not taken on the role. We like to think the government didn’t experiment on the White Duke, but presumptions could lead to disappearances and we’re sorry we’ll stop asking questions.

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