It's not surprising that the musician famous for Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke was also a pretty great actor.
It's a pact she made with countless lovers over a lifetime that will never end. Vampire Miriam—played with steely, sexy cool by Catherine Deneuve in Tony Scott's tale of bio-curious bloodsuckers, The Hunger (1983)—offers her partner everlasting life. Only she knows full well it's a bad deal, and that, in fact, her partner will shrivel to an impotent vegetable after 300 or so years, and become a prisoner inside a useless body. John Blaylock happily accepts this offer, foolishly believing it to be of good faith. When he begins to slip away, his body betraying him, he's naturally perplexed as to why.
As Blaylock, David Bowie gives a masterful performance, one in which the realization that he is running out of time washes over his face. During The Hunger's first act, he turns from star-crossed lover locked in a torrid affair he believes will continue into infinity into a weak, confused shell of a man. In doing so, he's trading copious amounts of shower sex for life in a coffin he's too weak to escape. As Blaylock, Bowie captures the turmoil perfectly.
"Bowie elevates any film he's in," says Melissa Anderson, lead film critic at the Village Voice, who has written often about Bowie's film career in the past. Of the many wide-ranging movies Bowie has appeared in, Anderson is partial to The Hunger, in part because of Bowie's crushing performance, but also perhaps, she says, because its release coincided with the peak of her own Bowie mania. "He was just as magnetically protean in his performances on film as he was onstage," she says.
You don't have to dig too deeply into Bowie's IMDB to find evidence of this claim. And in the face of his humongous music career—which spanned five decades and 27 albums before he succumbed to cancer Sunday night—it's sometimes easy to forget the guy was a hell of an actor too. In his film career Bowie gave stellar, show-stopping performances, along the way "playing everything from a gender-tweaked extraterrestrial to a club-hopping vampire to Pontius Pilate, to Andy Warhol," says Anderson. His were meaty roles of startling diversity, though frequently with the same through line—outsiders with a ton of heart.
On screen Bowie was directed by some of the best—the aforementioned Tony Scott in The Hunger, Martin Scorsese in The Last Temptation of Christ, David Lynch in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, Jon Landis in Into the Night, uh, Ben Stiller in Zoolander. All of them got top notch performances out of the Thin White Duke.
"Bowie was a lovely actor, consistently, especially considering that it wasn't even the thing he was most famous for," says Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek. "I'm not sure I can recall a bad David Bowie performance in a movie—even in lesser material, he was always a magnetic presence."
Consider Labyrinth, the Jim Henson-directed, George Lucas-produced film that provided Bowie his most recognized and iconic film role. It's a movie populated by puppets, goblins, and a complex plot line that begs to not be taken too seriously. In it Bowie plays Jareth the Goblin King, one of the two main flesh and blood roles in the film, and his performance anchors the absurdity, making the whole thing plausible through sheer force of will. In an interview Henson has said he chose Bowie because he "embodies a certain maturity, with his sexuality, his disturbing aspect, all sorts of things that characterize the adult world."
The same could be said of his remarkable turn in the role that would become his breakthrough a decade earlier, Nicolas Roeg's 1976 science-fiction drama The Man Who Fell to Earth. In it, "The casting alone is remarkable: With those praying-mantis legs and mismatched eyes, Bowie really does look like something not of this Earth," says Zacharek. "And his performance, as an alien who's trying to save his dying planet—and return to his family—is so sensitive and multi-layered that it's devastating."
While filming that part, Bowie admitted in a 1983 interview with Kurt Loder for Rolling Stone, he was absolutely wrecked on cocaine, in a fragile state of mind and barely knew what was being filmed around him.
You see him possibly the same state, though as magnetic as ever, in Alan Yentob's Cracked Actor (1975), an installment of the BBC arts-documentary series Omnibus. "This episode captures Bowie in the nascence of his plastic-soul phase," says Anderson. "Among its most indelible scenes is the shot of the cadaverous singer in the back of a limo winding through the Southern California desert; Bowie is blissed out while listening to Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman"—and probably completely coked out—and incongruously takes swigs from a half-gallon container of two-percent milk."
"Bowie was a better actor, even, than many people who have 'devoted' themselves to acting," says Zacharek.
That could be partially do to his years spent training as a mime with Lindsay Kemp in the 1960s, says Anderson, and the reason he "could so effortlessly create—and shed—so many musical personae made him immensely appealing to a variety of filmmakers."
"He was just a natural performer, able to communicate beautifully both through his music and in front of the camera," says Zacharek. "He was a rare and special being."
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