When watching David Bowie act, I get the feeling that he never had to audition for any role. Due to how decisive the characters are to Bowie, he probably got most of his work with directors coming to his doorstep. An enigma in filmmaking, an eclectic conundrum alien who defined his performances… These are some of the films I’ve been lucky enough to have seen him in.
• The Man Who Fell To Earth
Bowie plays an alien who is sent to Earth to bring back water for his home planet which is experiencing a catastrophic drought. His addiction to earthly pleasures like drugs and alcohol becomes crippling and is later used against him to keep him captive in a luxury apartment. Years pass and by the time he escapes it is believed his family and world are dead. He’s now stuck on earth and alone. Bowie’s performance as the alien is subtle and well crafted. At times he is emotionally vulnerable like a young child, then dismissive, arrogant, and charming. Overall he seems lost and fogged by his naivety and alcohol dependences. This was Bowies break out film role, and is still one of his best.
• Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
In this film Bowie portrays an American in a Second World War Japanese POW camp. He is the object of obsession from his captor (played by composer of the film Ryuichi Sakamoto). The film examines the guilt that often arises when deciding between love and duty. Though aspects of the acting and direction are perhaps dated a bit now, it’s a film that becomes clear in its overall scope and vision once you’ve reached the end. An easily overlooked oddity on the Criterion Collection, this was also the break out role of director-actor Takeshi Kitano.
There isn’t much to say about Bowie’s portrayal of Jareth the Goblin King. It’s often the gateway performance for most Bowie acting enthusiasts. Jareth is enigmatic, commanding, and memorable. He somehow took a role that should have been down right possessive and creepy, and instead made a solitary romantic. He’s solely responsible for a score of sexual awakenings in young women and men, counting Labyrinth’s influence alone.
• The Prestige
Nolan only had Bowie in mind to play another character shrouded in a bit of mystery, Nikola Tesla. Bowie at first turned down the role. But when Nolan flew to meet him, after a few minutes Bowie agreed. Though his part in the film is very small, it’s the keystone of the story. He is foreboding yet astute with every line.
Nikola Tesla: Mr. Angier, have you considered the cost of such a machine?
Robert Angier: Price is not an object.
Nikola Tesla: Perhaps not, but have you considered the *cost*?
Robert Angier: I’m not sure I follow.
Nikola Tesla: Go home. Forget this thing. I can recognize an obsession, no good will come of it.
Robert Angier: Why, haven’t good come of your obsessions?
Nikola Tesla: Well, at first. But I followed them too long. I’m their slave… and one day they’ll choose to destroy me.
Robert Angier: If you understand an obsession, then you know you won’t change my mind.
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