Hooked to the silver screen: David Bowie on film

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A man with more faces than Loki and more talent than your average musical genius, David Bowie left us with a rich array of on-screen personas and characters. Whether you met him as Labyrinth’s toddler-snatching Goblin King or your Bowie love stretches back to his ethereal turn in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, you’ll have a favourite big-screen Bowie. We have ten of them. Here’s Empire’s salute to David Robert Jones, a true magic-dancing, walk-off-adjudicating movie hero.

The kiss of death - Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Tom Conti got the title role but Bowie got most of the big moments in Nagisa Ôshima’s trippy POW drama as a stubborn New Zealand officer who gets right under the skin of his young Japanese camp commandant. There’s enough homoerotic undercurrent to power one of Nikola Tesla's coils with Bowie trading off his otherworldly screen presence in this Christ-like moment of aggressive self-sacrifice. The Japanese, not seeing the funny side of this, beat him up and bury him up to his head in the ground.

Don’t forget your hat - The Prestige (2005)

Emerging from a self-generated electrical storm like a frickin' Terminator, Bowie made a memorable entrance as science boffin Nikola Tesla in The Prestige. The accent is even thicker than the moustache but as Tesla, a small but key role in Christopher Nolan’s magical morality play, Bowie brings gravitas, panache and some excellent cravats. Here, having schooled Hugh Jackman’s dangerously-driven illusionist Angier in the misuse of power(-cables) over lunch, he invites him to collect his hat. “Which one is mine?” asks Angier. “They’re all your hats,” waves Tesla, nonchalantly. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you let people know you can do magic.

“I believe I might be of service…” - Zoolander (2001)

Derek and Hansel’s simmering grudge comes to the boil in a Rocky-style walk-off towards the end of Zoolander - but who could possibly oversee this clash of male model titans going all alpha on each other? We know. The Thin White Duke. And there, removing his sunglasses and unleashing pop’s bluest corneas like a flashbulb, is the man himself. “I believe I might be of service,” he modestly suggests. In a comedy chock-full of great cameos (Zane! Voight! Duchovny!), Bowie takes MVP - Most Valuable Peacemaker - honours in one flick of those golden locks.

Telly overload - The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

david bowie the man who fell to earth

Bowie had a special place in his heart for Nicolas Roeg’s spaceman story, a kind of arthouse Mork And Mindy. He always saw it as a love story, one on which he sprinkled his stardust as extra-terrestrial emissary Thomas Jerome Newton sent to our blue planet to find water (think Kal-El, only thirstier). So much so, he helped write a stage adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel which played off-Broadway last year. Two years after Ziggy Stardust introduced the idea of Bowie in space, it was a radically unconventional showcase for his magnetic, if occasionally uneven screen presence. Blinking in front of 12 screens, Newton’s alienation crystallises in a torrent of terrible American telly. Netflix and chill, this ain’t. In fact, Bowie looks about an episode of The A-Team away from a nervous breakdown.

Forever? - The Hunger (1983)

david bowie the hunger

Bowie plays John, an 18th century cellist made supposedly immortal by Catherine Deneuve’s vampire Miriam, in Tony Scott’s horror classic. Bowie does a good job of getting across the exhaustion and ennui of his elongated life, and the romantic tragedy of his final scene – in which he finds he finds Deneuve hasn’t been entirely truthful with him about his expected span – is one of his most moving. His crumbling to death in a hospital waiting room is also one of the film’s drier jokes. Bowie returned to the world of The Hunger in 1999, acting as the host for the second season of the TV series, and starring with Giovanni Ribisi in Scott’s own episode, Sanctuary.

“Killing or loving, it’s all the same…” - The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)

David Bowie, while not perhaps the most obvious Roman functionary in casting history (we see him more as a funky space angel or John the Baptist), does stellar work in a small role as Pontius Pilate. Martin Scorsese’s camera initially frames him from about 600 yards away to emphasise the impersonality of his interaction with Willem Dafoe’s Jesus, but swiftly cuts closer to capture the subtlety of what Bowie's doing here: authoritarian, reasonable and composed while delivering quietly devastating lines like "we have a space for you up on Golgotha"... and quietly wringing his hands throughout the entire scene.

"Shall I meet you in the pump room, sir?" - Yellowbeard (1983)

It seems nothing but appropriate that David Jones should have appeared in a pirate movie, so it’s a shame he only got an uncredited cameo. One of those examples of a famous rock star knocking about with his comedy pals, he gets a scene – and a soft, West Country accent that you’d imagine amplifies into a suitably tremendous “a-haaaar!” - as “Henson”, who apparently has an illicit relationship with Eric Idle going on. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Marty Feldman, Cheech & Chong and Spike Milligan also set sail in the hit-and-miss (mostly miss, it must be said) Pythonesque British comedy, but Bowie didn’t get to meet any of them in the pump room.

"You remind me of the babe…" - Labyrinth (1986)

Altogether now: Voodoo! Who do? You do! Do what?... Crushed into a pair of extraordinary strides and a silver frightwig, Bowie played Goblin King Jareth, kidnapper of Jennifer Connelly’s baby brother in Jim Henson’s puppet fantasy. This setpiece sequence of him performing Magic Dance begat a generation of crotch-focused emotional scarring. Above the waist, however, it’s a fun, mischievous performance: pantomime but also scary. Who wants to be his consort? You do!

"Who do you think this is there?" - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

You may have heard of him from the academy. Bowie’s nutsoid cameo in the post-series Twin Peaks prequel movie saw him playing former FBI agent Phillip Jeffries. Having disappeared in mysterious circumstances two years earlier, he reappears suddenly – in a Thin White Duke suit - in the office of the hearing-impaired Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (played by director David Lynch), raving that he’s not going to talk about Judy. He then, over a surreal montage including The Man From Another Place and Bob, fails to explain anything other than that he’s “been to one of their meetings… and then there they were!” Then he disappears again. And it turns out he was never there. Recently released deleted scenes suggest he might be an accidental time traveller. His southern drawl is amusing – but not bad.

"Sure they’re yours, Bruno. Everything good’s yours" - Basquiat (1996)

Another silver wig, this time in the service of playing Andy Warhol, mentor to Jeffrey Wright’s titular collage artist. It’s actually a wig that belonged to Warhol, as did Bowie’s glasses and jacket. Fey and camp, but playful rather than pretentious, Bowie’s version of the man he knew was hailed by other Warhol insiders as one of the most accurate screen portrayals. This scene of him first encountering Basquiat and his “ignorant art” is a fine tribute – as is Bowie’s acoustic song Andy Warhol, released as the b-side to Changes in 1972.