State of the Art

David Bowie – the man who could have been a movie star

David Bowie, an underused and underrated film actor, appears here in “The Prestige” as Nikola Tesla.
David Bowie, an underused and underrated film actor, appears here in “The Prestige” as Nikola Tesla. Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

While everyone celebrates David Bowie’s half-century of music-making, can I say a word for the career that never was?

Though his Internet Movie Data Base page credits him with 39 film and TV appearances, as opposed to the 452 times his songs turned up on soundtracks, many of his performing credits are animation voice-overs, cameos and music videos. Only a handful hint at the movie actor he might have been, had he taken that aspect of his work more seriously – or had producers cared to use him more intelligently.

There was usually something otherworldly about him onscreen. His cultured, detached voice, musing face and withdrawn body language suggested someone uncomfortable among the mass of humanity, perhaps unable to comprehend it. He could never have been a leading man, because he was neither conventionally handsome nor masculine. But his intelligence and his constant reinvention as a pop star and public figure made me believe he could have had a John Malkovich-type career, had he committed to one.

He’s most famous for playing Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s 1986 movie “Labyrinth,” whose financial failure helped to convince financiers he couldn’t carry a film. He never had a leading role in a big-budget movie after that. But to get a sense of what might have been, try these five movies:

“The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) – Bowie, just 29, played the leading role in Nicolas Roeg’s science fiction piece about an alien who needs water for his dying planet. He comes to this planet to collect some, falls in love with a woman (Candy Clark) and, though he uses his extraterrestrial knowledge to start a technology company, finds himself undone by venal businessmen. Like all of Roeg’s films, it can come across as meditative or tedious, and I vaguely recall large helpings of sex.

“The Snowman” (1982) – This animated short about a boy who builds a snowman with magical powers on Christmas Eve earned an Oscar nomination. It benefits from the beautiful Howard Blake score (including the unforgettable song “Walking in the Air”) and Bowie’s presence as a narrator, who remembers childhood innocence long after it has been lost. He was a gifted narrator, famously recording “Peter and the Wolf” with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983) – A strange meeting of pop stars in a World War prison camp, with Bowie as Maj. Jack “Strafer” Celliers and Japanese singer/film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto as the camp commander who has contempt for British soldiers who surrendered rather than committing suicide to save their honor. Sakamoto’s score won a BAFTA (British Oscar), and both men give strong performances.

“Basquiat” (1996) – This drama about self-destructive graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat introduced moviegoers to the remarkable Jeffrey Wright, who has thrived mostly onstage (the “Hunger Games” movies notwithstanding). Yet it features a keen supporting performance by Bowie as Andy Warhol, who collaborated with him and introduced him to the New York art scene in the early 1980s.

“The Prestige” (2006) – Director Christopher Nolan’s most accomplished film stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as magicians whose rivalry leads to madness and murder. Bowie plays inventor Nikola Tesla, who creates a machine that Jackman’s character misuses against Tesla’s wishes. It was Bowie’s last important screen role and one that fit him perfectly: A contemplative and brilliant loner, haunted by what he might have accomplished.

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