Today’s Top 10 comes from longtime Scene-Stealers community member and writer Will Dawson, who blogs at willwritesaboutmovies. Take it away, Will:
The world lost an icon when David Bowie passed away from cancer last Monday at the age of 69. Like many, I am a huge fan of Bowie’s music work; I even own all of his albums and one of the best concert experiences of my life was seeing David Bowie perform his last show in Detroit on the Reality Tour in 2004. He did a three-hour set and his first encore was just as long as his regular show! Suffice it to say when I found out he died I was a shocked and saddened, but also glad that he created a monumental lifetime of music that will always remain with us.
While his music is certainly great, the focus of this Top 10 list is on Bowie’s film output. While it is true that he did not make a lot of films compared to say other musicians like Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, he did prove to be a memorable actor and screen presence in the movies he appeared in. Perhaps this was due to playing “characters” in his musical life or his knack for being a good showman, but he really knew how to act on film and give compelling performances, even in movies that were not so great. For this list, the movie in question had to be a dramatic film (so no documentaries like the filmed version of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Movie) and also had to be a feature (Bowie starred in a lot of short experimental films that are worth checking out, especially The Image, but for the sake of argument, we are sticking to feature films).
10. Agent Phillip Jeffries in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (1992)
Sure this only amounts to a cameo, but what a great cameo it is. Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) begins to tell his boss Gordon (David Lynch) about a dream he had: after being missing for two years, Agent Phillip Jeffries stumbles into Gordon’s office and describes how he has been to weird places, before he disappears again. I think what makes the role great is the fact that such an inconsequential and weird part was played by Bowie and that he does a really great southern accent, making sure that his screen time is well spent. As for the movie, if you are really into Twin Peaks I say go watch it, if not skip it.
9. David Bowie in “Zoolander” (2001)
Another cameo, but a great one at that, Bowie’s role in this one is to serve as a referee to an underground fashion walk off between Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson). The reason this is great because who better than David Bowie to judge an underground fashion walk off. The fact that he does not phone in the cameo makes it wonderful too.
8. Pontius Pilate in “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988)
A small role, but a pivotal one, Bowie portrays one of history’s most infamous characters and brings a humanized nuance to the role. Bowie’s Pilate is not so much an evil man willing to kill Jesus, but one that is more bureaucratic and more concerned about trying to keep social order between Rome and the Jews. Bowie also brings a tinge of cynicism to Pilate’s performance: He has seen people like Jesus (Willem Dafoe) preach about love before and it does not matter what the message is because everyone will end up the same.
7. John Blaylock in “The Hunger” (1983)
Now we are getting into the meat of Bowie’s filmography. Serving as Tony Scott’s film debut and perhaps best known today for having a sex scene between an in their primes Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, The Hunger is an interesting Vampire movie that certainly paved the way for the whole “vampires are sexy” subgenre. While I do appreciate a decently filmed sex scene (seriously, this might be the best one ever put on film), it is Bowie’s performance that really makes the movie memorable. As the husband and fellow vampire of Catherine Deneuve’s character Miriam, John hunts with Miriam for blood in the streets of New York in the early 1980s. When it turns out however that John will age rapidly due to being a vampire, he becomes a disfigured old man that attacks a friendly little girl and is put into a coffin while hauntingly saying “Kiss me…”. It is true that The Hunger can be over-the-top and kind of ridiculous, but Bowie’s turn as the dying John injects humanity to an otherwise humanless role as a vampire.
6. Andy Warhol in “Basquiat” (1996)
Another great role from Bowie, this one as the immortal artist Andy Warhol in the biopic of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bowie is really spot-on as Warhol, providing the appropriate amount of imitation. For this role, it would have been easy for the actor to be really hamming it up, but instead portrays Warhol with a certain kind of restraint and even compassion. The relationship between Warhol and the young Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) is also touching. In addition to Bowie the cast also features Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Benicio Del Toro, Parker Posey, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Tatum O’Neal, Courtney Love, and numerous others.
5. Vendice Penters in “Absolute Beginners” (1986)
Is Absolute Beginners convoluted? Yes. Did it nearly bankrupt the British film industry? Yes; but, I love it anyway. This movie is in the “ridiculously bad its great” variety of alongside other stalwarts like Newsies, Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room. The story (which has barely any relation to the Colin MacInnes’ novel on which it’s based) deals with youths in late 1950s London. Did I also mention that it is a musical? Bowie portrays Vendice Penters, a self-made man who acts as sort of the antagonist for the proceedings. Bowie portrays this part for all its worth a good dose of camp, and the hallmark is definitely is when he starts dancing on a giant typewriter (see video below). Bowie also did the title song for the movie, which ranks among some of his best work. In addition to Bowie, the musical performances also feature Ray Davies, Sade, and the Style Council. Fun fact: Bowie also had a hit with the title song.
4. Jareth the Goblin King in “Labyrinth” (1986)
Perhaps Bowie’s best known acting role, Labyrinth has become a major cult classic and many people know Bowie just from this role. The story is about teenage Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) who has to go into a Labyrinth and has to save her baby brother from the Goblin King (Bowie). While the movie is pretty campy, it features great visuals from director Jim Henson and the story is actually pretty good. Bowie makes a great bad guy too, and it seems like he really is having fun with the part. Take a look at “Dance Magic Dance” be sure to dance around the room.
3. Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige” (2006)
A movie that has been overlooked in the 10 years it came out, “The Prestige” is an amazing film and one of Christopher Nolan’s best. Featuring a great cast with Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, and others, it would have been hard to stand out, but Bowie does just that with his role as real-life scientist Nikola Tesla. Like his other roles, Bowie’s portrayal of Tesla is nuanced and memorable. As Tesla, he serves as sort of a warning to Hugh Jackman’s character Danton, telling him that a man’s ambition can bring about his downfall. Seriously, check out the performance in the scene above.
2. Jack Celliers in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983)
The most overlooked movie in Bowie’s filmography, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is not a Christmas movie, but is instead a psychological POW war drama. The Mr. Lawrence in the title is actually Tom Conti, but the protagonist of the movie is Bowie as soldier Jack Celliers as he matches wits with the camp commander portrayed by Ryuchi Sakamoto; The commander is not only a sadist, but is also obsessed with Celliers and even harbors romantic feelings for him. One of the few leading roles that Bowie had, Bowie makes the most of his opportunity portraying Celliers as someone who is not only trying to survive the POW camp, but also someone who realizes the hypocrisies of war. While the movie was unavailable for many years, The Criterion Collection has released an excellent restoration of the movie on DVD, and it is definitely something to check out.
1. Thomas Jerome Newton in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)
Who else but David Bowie could play an outsider alien who is corrupted by the vices of earth? Bowie’s greatest role, and also his first, centers around Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who has landed on Earth and is trying to bring water back to his home planet. Using alien technology to become rich, Newton ends up being betrayed by humans and ultimately by his own vices. Amazingly, this role was not written exclusively but was instead based upon an earlier novel by Walter Tevis. Its incredible because this role Bowie was born to play: that of an outsider who is trying to bring peace but is instead done in by humanity that takes advantage of him. The movie is similar to themes that are explored in Bowie’s music, especially in the Ziggy Stardust persona Bowie cultivated. The role has also proven timely and has influenced every other Alien coming to earth role ever since (think of Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin). Overall, if there is one movie Bowie is to remembered for, it is this.