With his genius for conjuring strange alter egos and theatrical aliases, it’s no surprise that David Bowie forged a vital second career as an actor. His first film, Nicolas Roeg’s haunting 1976 sci-fi brainteaser, The Man Who Fell to Earth, remains Bowie’s finest — probably because it caught the artist at one of the more vulnerable periods of his life. The New York Times rightly called his performance as a fragile visitor from another planet “extraordinary” — an otherwise routine commendation that took on hyper-literal meaning because of Bowie’s unique persona.
Throughout the remainder of his career, Bowie would return every so often to dip his toe back into the celluloid waters, sometimes for a deep, immersive dramatic turn; sometimes just to poke holes in his own image. But as a screen presence, he was always fascinating and occasionally hypnotic. Here, a look at his most memorable movie moments:
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), directed by Nicolas Roeg
Made during Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” period, during which he admitted to crippling paranoia and cocaine abuse, Nicolas Roeg’s film is both bizarre and beautiful. Bowie, pasty and dissipated, plays Thomas Jerome Newton, a space alien in New Mexico tasked with bringing water back to his drought-stricken home planet. Bowie’s power in the film comes from his look and the physicality of his performance. He’s like an insect drawn to the bright lights of the camera, the very lights that will destroy him with their heat.
Just a Gigolo (1978), directed by David Hemmings
The sort of melancholy Euro arthouse indulgence that only could have come out of the 1970s, David Hemmings’ wistful melodrama is most notable for being Marlene Dietrich’s final film. It’s easy to see why Bowie, who plays a drifting Prussian war vet, would sign up: a once in a lifetime chance to share the screen with the legendary Weimar icon.
The Hunger (1983), directed by Tony Scott
Come for the sapphic vampire sex between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve, stay for Bowie as a rapidly aging bloodsucker looking for a cure. Director Tony Scott’s moody, art-directed erotic thriller looks like the world’s slickest after-hours MTV video, but Bowie and Deneuve give it some bite as a louche centuries-old couple preying on both the weak and the willing.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), directed by Nagisa Oshima
Nagisa Oshima’s artsy WWII drama about a stubborn British officer held in a Japanese POW Camp feels like a preciously twee hat-tip to David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. And while it hasn’t aged particularly well, Bowie’s central performance is bold and affecting.
Absolute Beginners (1986), directed by Julien Temple
MTV auteur Julien Temple’s razzle-dazzle jukebox musical stars Eddie O’Connell and Patsy Kensit as lovestruck teens in 1958 London. Wet streets, neon lights, singing, dancing, hot-button race themes clumsily handled with kid gloves, it’s all here. Bowie steals the show as a smooth, seductive ad exec crooning the title track.
Labyrinth (1986), directed by Jim Henson
Written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones and executive produced by George Lucas, Muppet maestro Jim Henson’s guilty-pleasure creature-feature fantasy gets additional gonzo points for casting Bowie as the film’s fright-wigged King of the Goblins, Jareth. And hats off to Bowie for agreeing to do this scene…
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), directed by Martin Scorsese
Bowie only registers a few scant minutes of screen time in Martin Scorsese’s powerful, heartfelt speculative drama about the life of Jesus, but he makes them count. As Pontius Pilate, the Roman who sentenced Jesus to his crucifixion, Bowie makes you see both the sympathy and the cold realpolitik in his judgment.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), directed by David Lynch
What’s weirder than a David Lynch dream sequence? How about a David Lynch dream sequence with creepy cackling, backwards-talking gibberish, and David Bowie as a herky-jerky apparition with a baggy suit talking (or not talking about) Judy in a southern-fried accent?
Basquiat (1996), directed by Julian Schnabel
Bowie seems to have had a blast donning a platinum wig and playing legendary Pop artist Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Is it cartoony and fey? Sure. But he also manages to capture Warhol’s childlike sense of deadpan wonder.
Zoolander (2001), directed by Ben Stiller
If you’re going to have a high-noon male-model walk-off with “old school rules” who better to emcee and judge it than Bowie?
The Prestige (2006), directed by Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s puzzle-box film about the obsessive rivalry between a pair of illusionists in turn-of-the-century London is a brainteasing delight. And one of its slyest pleasures comes with the show-stopping introduction of Bowie as industrial pioneer Nikola Tesla from behind a wall of electric currents. His brief role zaps the film to life.