Tribute: David Bowie
As the world mourns the loss of an icon who changed pop music, let’s not forget David Bowie’s impressive, and sometimes abysmal, body of work on the big screen because it was all part of a greater performance
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER – The I-5 was a ribbon of wet blackness that emerged, intermittently, with each croaking swipe of the wipers. It was going to be a long drive from Vancouver to Tacoma, and in late October rain without someone to talk to, it was going to feel even longer.
No one wanted to see Bowie with me. Not this tour, at any rate. My partner was a former music promoter. After a lifetime of walking around with a headset and a deck of laminates around her neck, she had no desire to be a plus-one in press seats.
Besides, it was the Outside tour. A 1995 conceptual opera featuring Nine Inch Nails and Bowie playing the character of Nathan Adler, a man who judges the worthiness of art in a post-apocalyptic future, the Outside tour proved challenging. The NIN fans wanted more Trent Reznor, and the Bowie fans wanted less noise.
What we all got was the closest thing to mass audience art than anything I have ever seen before, or since. If Ziggy Stardust was the consummate rock icon persona, Nathan Adler was the exact opposite: A non-creative judge in a suit, lurking in a bleak landscape void of any color but red and a deep, bruised blue. Nathan Adler judges art, and the latest fad uses human flesh as the canvas, and sharp tools as the brushes.
Bowie said the whole album and tour were his response to the end of the last millennium, and the beginning of what he hoped would be a series of albums leading up to 2000: “It’s a diary within a diary. The narrative and the stories are not the content. The content is the spaces between the linear bits. The queasy, strange, textures…”
Sitting there in the cavernous, cold darkness of the Tacoma Dome, Bowie successfully conjured the mood of a coming apocalypse using paranoia, confusion and despair – which isn’t what you typically get from your average rock spectacle. Outside never let you sit there sedated by familiarity or dazzled by pyrotechnics. It pushed and pushed because it wanted you to think about escapism. It wanted you to feel the festering bed sores that develop on a sentient mind that no longer wants to get up and think.
More importantly, it let Bowie, Ziggy and the gang disappear. Bowie, small and ugly at times in character, wasn’t looking for rock star affirmation. Most people stand on a stage because they are desperate to be loved. But Bowie never pandered, never played to his own cliché, and never stopped growing as an artist.
And when I think about that Outside show, it’s his performance that sticks with me the most. He was in character as Detective Professor Nathan Adler pretty much the whole time. It was such a coup of stagecraft that it refocused Bowie as the consummate actor: A man who recreated David Jones as a persona he could gain safe distance from as David Bowie, and in turn, recreate again. He was a series of stories within a story, where you have to find the real meaning between the lines – and the person we did not see: The loving father and husband, the kid from South London who played guitar.
Stella Adler said she broke away from Stanislavsky because she found it was cruel to use your own pain to draft a performance. Acting could be done from the outside, as long as one believes in the character and empathizes. Perhaps Bowie was tipping his hat to Stella when he named his problematic protagonist.
At the very least, we know he was conscious of the process.
“To me it was a revelation that I could slip back into musical character after not working in that framework since 1976’s The Thin White Duke – let alone fragment into six or seven personae,” Bowie writes in the album’s release booklet, referring to his reunion with Brian Eno, and Eno’s urging he try on different hats.
He wore every one of them extremely well. Yet, despite his incredible performances as David Bowie, it’s ironic that he never really made it as an actor, despite a long list of credits on the big screen.
From the moment he was cast in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, it was hard for him to escape the whiff of stunt marketing, that his presence on the marquee was more about getting attention than talent.
It was even harder for his fans to accept him as anything other than David Bowie.
But David Jones clearly did have chops. We simply refused to see him as human. Now, as painful as it is to swallow, the truth is impossible to deny. He was whole and human, and he knew where the stage ended. So in honor of Bowie’s less-celebrated career as an actor, here’s a look at his most memorable thespian turns:
DAVID BOWIE’S MOST MEMORABLE MOVIE APPEARANCES:
- The Hunger (John Blaylock) – 1983: Tony Scott cast Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and David Bowie as the leads in this pre-Twilight vampire thriller. Deneuve and Bowie are a charismatic and mysterious couple that seduces Sarandon into their fold, with dire consequences – but super hot love scenes.
- The Prestige (Nikola Tesla) – 2006: It’s not a long scene, but it does feature the best entrance of Bowie’s career as he strides through the electrical shower of a Tesla ball to shake Hugh Jackman’s hand. Director Christopher Nolan also pulls the best dramatic performance from Bowie, playing on his understanding of misunderstood genius while allowing him to retain his air of magical aloofness.
- Basquiat (Andy Warhol) – 1996: So many people have played Warhol and tried to mimic his affectations. Bowie simply went with the texture of an art snob and worked backwards. The result isn’t Warhol, or even Bowie, but a bizarre hybrid of the two co-existing in the same body. It’s an odd alchemy and a strange performance, but it’s also quite funny. Bowie finds all the creases of ego on the canvas, and wears them like a feather boa.
- Labyrinth (Jareth the Goblin King) – 1986: Even with George Lucas as producer, the film bombed at the box-office, but Jim Henson’s movie starring Bowie as the dark villain Jareth and Jennifer Connelly as Sarah has certainly achieved cult status, thanks in large part to Bowie’s performance as a meanie who turns kids into goblins. And who doesn’t like a maze for a plotline? It’s like a yellow-brick road with walls.
- Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Maj. Jack Celliers) – 1983: Even playing Kiwi under a wide brim, Bowie’s presence as Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers brings rock star glam to this B-movie about Japanese POWs that features lots of awkward dubbing and bad acting. The homoerotic tension between Bowie and the young prison camp commander is what keeps it cooking, and Bowie wears it with all with a hint of Ben Hur, and a whiff of Peter O’Toole.
- The Man Who Fell to Earth (Thomas Jerome Newton) – 1976: Nicolas Roeg knew exactly what he was doing when he cast David Bowie at the height of his fame as an alien who came to planet Earth. Bowie got to assume a familiar persona with red hair and an outsider stance, but he took it another level and tried to bring it as much gravitas as style. The style won out, but for his first big role, he did everything he needed to do – which was to be David Bowie.
- The Last Temptation of Christ (Pontius Pilate) – 1988: “It doesn’t matter how you want to change things. We don’t want them changed,” says Pilate to Christ (Willem Dafoe) in Martin Scorsese’s taboo-bashing Bible movie. Everyone talked about Jesus’s sex scene, but there was so much more going on in this film that took on accepted gospel through amped up humanity. Casting Bowie as a soft-spoken, intellectually curious and emotionally perceptive Pilate ensured there were no easy villains, just as there were no spotless heroes.
- Absolute Beginners (Vendice Partners) – 1986: Back when neon purple was a thing, Bowie starred in Julien Temple’s retro feature based on Colin MacInnes’s book about London in the late 1950s. His co-stars included Sade and Patsy Kensit, which guaranteed plenty of press attention, but Temple’s seminal attempt at a Moulin Rouge still bombed at the box-office. Bowie’s music never felt entirely a propos of a ‘50s ode, but he sells his big scene – dancing on a typewriter, looking to corrupt a young photographer as an ad executive.
- Il Mio West (Jack Sikora) – 1998: The idea of Bowie playing a psychotic villain in a spaghetti western is reason enough to watch Giovanni Veronesi’s Il Mio West, but there are others, including Sandrine Holt and Harvey Keitel. Bowie plays a sociopath looking to even the score with Keitel’s hero, and because there is no such thing as overacting in this genre, everyone including the Thin White Duke gets to chew on the al dente scenery.
- B.U.S.T.E.D (Bernie) – 1999: Released as Everybody Loves Sunshine in Britain, this movie written, starring and directed by Andrew Goth may be the worst movie Bowie ever appeared in – but he’s still giving it his all as Bernie, a Fagan-like thug who keeps his boys happy with weapons and jobs. Bernie is the bad guy, and Bowie lathers up his performance with evil grimaces and a heightened working class accent, but he never proves all that scary – because like all of Bowie’s screen work, we’re always conscious of the actor.
(FROM TOP LEFT: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Hunger, The Prestige, Basquiat, Labyrinth, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Il Mio West, Absolute Beginners, B.U.S.T.E.D.)
THE EX-PRESS, January 12, 2016