In the summer of 1983, a man calling himself David Bowie appeared on the cover of Time magazine. With his blond coif and portfolio of smooth platinum hits, this tanned and tailored crooner of what he dubbed "positive music" seemed a man apart from the shape-shifting, gender-melding '70s pop mutant also known as David Bowie, whose spookier guises had included the Lost Spaceman, the Alien Sex Machine, and the Funky Disinterred Corpse. It was as if Lady Gaga had suddenly morphed into Michael Bublé.
But later that same year, this clean-cut, mainstream Bowie did something reassuringly, Bowie-ishly bizarre: He played a lead role in Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. To invest one's peak pop-star capital in a bleak homoerotic drama, set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and directed by the provocateur behind the art-porn shocker In the Realm of the Senses—well, that's the kind of loopy career choice you'd expect from the fellow who brought us the Anorexic Centaur Centerfold, the Stewardess as Rock God, and the Human Lightning Bolt.
In Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (newly available in excellent DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion), Bowie portrays the soldier Celliers, a beautiful Brit with a slippery charisma and a potent rebellious streak. He is an enigmatic born leader, a delicate object of myriad desires and revenges, a picker of flowers and performer of mime. Which is all to say, he is a close variation on David Bowie—and thus a representative role for the singer-thespian. Bowie always excelled at playing the magic freak: the world-weary, otherworldly outsider who is both adored and condemned for his destabilizing mojo. And because Bowie's insuperable Bowie-ness glitters too brightly for him to vanish into any one part, a close look at his film and theater roles is a case study in the merits of stunt casting.
Bowie dabbled in acting from the earliest stages of his career, appearing as a hard-to-kill wraith in the goofy 1967 short The Image, vamping with Lindsay Kemp's mime troupe, and in 1972-73, touring the world as Ziggy Stardust, extraterrestrial rock idol. His travels on the mid-'70s publicity circuit were a kind of Method performance art unto themselves: increasingly unhinged, blatantly coked-up, yet somehow crisp, polite, even decorous. "To me … you seem like a working actor," Dick Cavett remarked to his sniffly, skeletal guest in 1974. Clearly on Cavett's wavelength, the BBC's Alan Yentob borrowed the title of a Bowie song for Cracked Actor(1974), a documentary that portrayed the 27-year-old chameleon as a boy genius disappearing into a lucrative make-believe world—a limousine-shaped cocoon of fame, workaholism, and premium-grade cocaine.
The documentary turned out to be an audition tape of sorts for Bowie's first and richest feature film. After catching Cracked Actor on TV, director Nicolas Roeg knew he'd found the lead for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), a free adaptation of Walter Tevis' science fiction novel about a visitor from a dying planet. Bowie's Thomas Newton is an alluring space invader in earthling drag who secures a bevy of profitable electronic patents and swiftly achieves corporate world domination, only to be betrayed by those closest to him. Rich, brilliant, sad, alone, of indeterminate age and DNA—Newton is the Bowie of Cracked Actor with a degree in chemical engineering.
Despite Bowie's relative lack of acting experience, his typecast presence in The Man Who Fell to Earth is a gimmick that works: His elegant awkwardness and vaguely put-on accent befit a creature who's learned to be human by watching satellite TV. And per usual, he's game for anything. Full-frontal nudity? Check. A sex scene employing a phallic gun and Candy Clark slathered in old-age makeup? Sure thing. Drunken screaming at a grid of television sets from a gynecological chair? While wearing a girdle and knee pads? Done:
Late in The Man Who Fell to Earth, after Newton's cover is blown, he falls into the hands of government scientists who subject him to endless poking, prodding, and X-raying, as if he were a deviant lab rat. The circus-freak aspects of the Bowie persona were likewise deployed in the hit 1980 Broadway production of The Elephant Man (you can watch a few minutes of his well-reviewed turn here and here). Having played a beautiful soul imprisoned in a hideously deformed body, Bowie then played the precise opposite as nihilist poet-slut in Bertolt Brecht's Baal for the BBC in 1982. In some ways, Bowie-the-actor is custom-made for Brecht. The writer's famous estrangement effect, which poises the audience at a critical remove from the action on stage, synchs not only with the hint of pretense in Bowie's every word and gesture but also the background noise of his celebrity—the slightly distracting whisper of Hey, that's David Bowie! that buzzes around any part he takes.
By this point, Bowie seemed on the cusp of a full-fledged acting career. In 1983, in addition to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Bowie appeared in The Hungeras (typecasting again!) the 400-year-old lover of vampire goddess Catherine Deneuve. The movie is a schlockfest of early-MTV flourishes (flash cuts, flapping birds) and it's most noteworthy for a demure love scene between Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. But the opening credit sequence is irresistible: While Bauhaus perform the sinuous goth standard "Bela Lugosi's Dead," Deneuve and Bowie prowl a cavernous nightclub in search of fresh blood, smirking hotly at each other and blowing pheromones with their cigarette smoke.
The Hunger is mostly downhill from there, and for some reason, so was Bowie's thespian endeavor. He declined the villain role in the Bond film A View to a Kill (1985) that went to Christopher Walken (who was by all accounts the best part of a bad movie). The musical Absolute Beginners (1986) was a bust, despite a fun set piece or two. In Jim Henson's dire fantasy-adventure Labyrinth (1986), Bowie's hair-metal Rumpelstiltskin was upstaged by Muppets. For the biopic Basquiat (1996), director Julian Schnabel had the ostensibly excellent notion of casting Bowie as his fellow savant of mass production, Andy Warhol, but Bowie whiffed it with a lazy, glib anti-impersonation. When did Warhol ever sound like a Valley Girl with acid reflux?
In recent years, save for a priceless cameo from time to time, Bowie's memorable on-screen contributions have been either strictly musical (his "Putting Out Fire" is the anthem of the avenging angel Shosanna in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds) or strictly genetic (his son, Duncan Jones, directed last year's splendid debut Moon). But a small, pivotal role from a few years back serves as a deft reminder that Bowie should drop by our movies more often. In Christopher Nolan's dueling-illusionists drama The Prestige, Bowie was ideally cast as the great inventor Nikola Tesla, replete with spectacularly electromagnetic rock-star entrance: