Golden Years: David Bowie’s essential movie performances

Golden Years: David Bowie’s essential movie performances

David Bowie.  Thin White Duke, Goblin King, Ziggy Stardust, Genius.  The world was shocked by his death, so soon after gifting us with his album, Blackstar.  Released on his 69th birthday and intended as a parting gift to us all, David Bowie was wonderful, weird, and surprising until the very end. One of most iconic films Labyrinth is returning to theatres as part of The Great Digital Film Festival.

While there’s no denying the musical talent Bowie brought to generations through his many albums and character incarnations, the film world has also lost a charismatic actor known for some iconic roles.  While Bowie may not have worked steadily as an actor, his roles were carefully chosen and memorable, allowing him to work with some of the most talented directors of the past 40 years.

Whether Bowie is the Goblin King, a beautiful androgynous alien, or the master of the fashion catwalk to you, we look back and celebrate his most iconic performances in film.

Labyrinth (1986); Directed by Jim Henson

If you’re of a certain age, David Bowie is and will always be Jareth the Goblin King.  Baby-napper Jareth is as exotic and charming as he is menacing in Jim Henson’s dark fantasy masterpiece which gifts us with both his acting presence and his musical skills.  Between the skintight pants, leather and ruffles, the fabulous wig, and that, ahem, codpiece, Bowie’s Goblin King is a sexy, ambiguous, romantic villain who likes singing, hanging out with goblins, and turning into an owl.  There’s more than a few young viewers who were terrified by Jareth’s ability to walk upside-down on staircases while singing “Within You.” A box office flop, Bowie’s casting elevates the film from forgettable kid flick to cult classic, a status achieved by more than a few films on this list.  

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976); Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Bowie’s first major on-screen appearance was the perfect mix of weird and arty that we came to expect from Ziggy Stardust.  As Thomas Jerome Newton, a humanoid alien who comes to earth from his arid, dying planet where water is at a premium, Bowie looked just like we’d imagined a strange being from outer space would look like.  Taking on several looks through the film which sees his alien become rich through technology in an attempt to build a spaceship to return to his home planet.  Depravity, wealth, sexuality, communication are all themes on display in the sometimes incoherent film, regarded as a cult classic. 


Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983); Directed by Nagisa Oshima

Competing for the Palme d’Or in 1983, Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence followed four men, including Bowie’s Major Jack Celliers, who keeps a terrible secret, in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in WWII. Though Bowie may be known now for his more outrageous roles on film like the Goblin King and The Man Who Fell to Earth’s humanoid alien, his role in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is much more subdued, but equally arresting. Oshima cast Bowie for the role of Jack after seeing him in “The Elephant Man” on Broadway. Bowie sure was an exclectic, multi-talented man.


The Hunger (1983); Directed by Tony Scott

Of course David Bowie would make the perfect vampire.  Bowie is John, the vampire lover of Catherine Deneuve in Tony Scott’s first feature film.  A sexually charged film most often remembered for the love scene between Deneuve and her conquest Susan Sarandon, The Hunger ups its coolness factor with the casting of Bowie.  By today’s standards, there’s not much left unsaid in the sexy vampire genre, but back in ’83, this was a pretty revelatory look at the immortal world.

Absolute Beginners (1986); Directed by Julien Temple

Since the late 1970s, Julien Temple – yes, Juno’s father – has made movies that typify the rock and roll attitude. Whether he’s making documentaries, or pseudo-musicals like the Jeff Goldblum-starrer Earth Girls Are Easy, Temple’s movies are almost always badass (while sometimes being a little camp). Maybe you haven’t heard of Absolute Beginners until now, but let’s fix that. Set in the 1950s jazz scene, Absolute Beginners follows a young photographer who finds himself smack-dab in the middle of the Notting Hill race riots. The film features musical numbers by Sade, The Kinks’ Ray Davies, and of course Bowie, who plays literally the coolest person alive, ad guy Vendice Partners. His number, “That’s Motivation,” has Bowie tap-dancing, striking poses on a giant typewriter, and climbing Mount Everest.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988); Directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese cast Bowie as Pontius Pilate opposite Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in his controversial look at the final days of Christ’s life.  Casting Bowie in the small role was a stroke of genius that went against the raging, over-the-top villain cinema often paints Pilate as in Biblical epics.  Instead, there is something much more inherently menacing and evil in the soft-spoken bureaucrat who orders Jesus’ death in order to maintain status quo in society.  It’s an unexpected turn that seems like a miscast on paper, but seeing it on-screen works so well that you’re likely to forget that this is the Thin White Duke.  Just one more example of how David Bowie always kept us on our toes.  


Zoolander (2001); Directed by Ben Stiller

The walk-off between Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) is the gift that keeps giving – even after fifteen years. In the one scene alone, we have Mugatu (Will Ferrell), the eldest Wilson brother, Blue Steel, wedgies, and choreographed “dancing” – a loose term here – to Devo’s “Whip It.” But by far the greatest cameo in this scene and, dare we say it, all of Zoolander – and yes, we’re including those by Alexander Skarsgård, Gwen Stefani, and Billy Zane – is the one by Bowie. There’s got to be a walk-off in this year’s Zoolander 2 between Derek, Hansel, and the new model played by Benedict Cumberbatch (he’s so hot right now), but if David Bowie doesn’t judge it, we’re disqualifying it from existence.

The Prestige (2006); Directed by Christopher Nolan

If you think “Nikola Tesla” and Bowie’s face doesn’t immediately pop into your head, then you’re not qualified to be Christopher Nolan’s casting director. In popular culture, Tesla’s name now goes hand in hand with the idea of a “mad scientist,” where the physicist and inventor, best known for his contributions to the field of electrical engineering, was considered more of a wizard than a man. It’s no wonder that Nolan tapped the otherworldly Bowie as Tesla, especially given The Prestige’s larger-than-life resolution to Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman’s magical rivalry. 

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