Sound & Vision: the story of David Bowie on screen – and the roles he turned down

David Bowie as an actor was a rare and unusual thing – and, for many, an acquired taste or an object of ridicule.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Four years ago, the New Statesman was considering putting together an issue devoted solely to interviews. When my editor asked who I would like to choose as my subject, I didn’t have to think too long: “Bowie,” I replied. But with an unusual proviso: we would only discuss his acting work.

Do I need to tell you it didn’t happen? Of course I don’t. But one must always shoot for the stars.

I made my pitch to Bowie’s longtime publicist, the esteemed Julian Stockton, who sent back the gentle dampener I had anticipated: “I will certainly make David aware of the kind invitation but as am sure you know he hasn’t done any interviews in getting on for the best part of a decade. To be perfectly honest it doesn’t look like this is going to change any time soon.”

It didn’t. And it didn’t matter. He had been made aware of my request and, for someone whose best friends at the age of 13 had been Aladdin Sane, Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, that was enough.

The closest I had previously got to him was seeing him live four times in 1995, on the magnificent and bizarre Outside tour, or when I held in my quivering fingers a letter he had typed in 1969 to the DJ John Peel. In it, Bowie had asked if he could perform on Peel’s show: recording so close to Charing Cross station would be handy, wrote Bowie, “as my last train leaves at 12.15”.

Besides, he was a good turner-downer, so I was in fine company. He refused to let Todd Haynes use any of his songs for the 1998 glam-rock film Velvet Goldmine (the title was taken from a Ziggy-era Bowie B-side) because he was saving them for a project of his own. (That turned out eventually to be the musical Lazarus, which opened last month in New York.)

Velvet Goldmine trailer

Haynes’s movie was the Bowie story by another name – in this case, the Bowie character was called Brian Slade, and played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers – but Bowie himself didn’t much like the movie. “He got the gay stuff right,” he said later, “but he can’t do story.”

He also said “no” to Danny Boyle – twice. The first time was when the director was putting together the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics.

“I got to meet Bowie for the first time when we were prepping that,” Boyle told me. “For me growing up, he was everything. So I can’t tell you how nervous I was. He wouldn’t do live performance so we couldn’t get him, but he gave it his blessing. There was a lot of hassle involved in doing the opening ceremony but meeting him was one of the joys. If only we could have got him there, it would’ve been great.”

The second rejection came more recently, when Bowie refused the use of his music in a planned musical film by Boyle and the screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce. Boyle said last year he was “in grief” over the decision.

That made his consent all the more highly-prized. He let Lars Von Trier use “Life on Mars?” in Breaking the Waves. And “Young Americans” has surely never been put to better use than it is in the closing credits of Dogville, Von Trier’s allegory for the savagery of the US.

Dogville end credits

Bowie on screen was also a rare and unusual thing – and, for many, an acquired taste or an object of ridicule. With the exception of his mesmerising lead role in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which it was generally assumed he was playing himself (an alien), his acting work had not been universally loved.

The Man Who Fell to Earth trailer

He could never shake his essential Bowie-ness and disappear into a part, but that was precisely what made his acting work so eerily commanding when the match between him and the part was exact.

A musician with a compulsion for playing roles within his music (Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke), was always going to be drawn to cinema. But it’s perhaps surprising how long it took Bowie to make his film debut.

He had been kicking around ideas for several years before Roeg asked him to play the forlorn extra-terrestrial stranded in New Mexico. There had been talk of a movie based around the Diamond Dogs album (itself salvaged from a proposed musical of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four).

Seeing Alan Yentob’s 1975 documentary Cracked Actor – in which a peg-toothed, paper-skinned Bowie is chauffeured around America’s West Coast like a bag of bones in a hearse – convinced Roeg he had found his alien.

Studio executives were wary. “They came on set,” recalled Roeg, “and said, ‘We’re a little concerned about David’s performance.’ I said, ‘Well, how should an alien act?’ He was perfect – the inflections, everything, so original. He wasn’t inventing it himself, he was being it, which is a very curious thing.”

Cracked Actor

Bowie’s co-star, Candy Clark, has remarked that his performance contained “very little true acting”. Indeed, its hallowed status as the one Bowie film beyond criticism owes a lot to the perception that he was playing himself at the time.

“I didn’t enjoy it as a movie to watch,” Bowie said. “It’s very tight. Like a spring that’s going to uncoil, it’s got these terrific tensions, these very inhibited feelings in it.”

More acting followed: opposite Marlene Dietrich in Just a Gigolo (which Bowie later described disparagingly as “all my Elvis movies rolled into one”), The Hunger (as a vampire cellist who ages 300 years in one afternoon), Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (as a defiant PoW), Labyrinth (a tight-trousered Goblin King), The Last Temptation of Christ (Pontius Pilate) and Into the Night (as a hit-man named Colin).

Among those he turned down was the Bond villain role in A View to a Kill, dashing producer Albert R Broccoli’s hopes to “exploit his unique physical oddity – his different-coloured and different-sized eyes”.

But he brought gravitas to Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners, in which he played the slick, ruthless ad-man Vendice Partners, who tap dances on a giant typewriter.

“David had worked in advertising early on and saw through it all,” said Temple. “He’d read Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, the hip critique of that whole wave of advertising, and he was interested in using that weird transatlantic DJ voice – he really got off on that. He was also quite obsessed with the Sinatra thing, and he made Vendice very Rat Pack-like.”

Acting roles became rarer for Bowie from the late 1980s onwards, falling largely into the category of eccentric cameos: David Lynch’s sinister Twin Peaks prequel Fire Walk With Me, himself in Zoolander.

One exception, and his most electrifying performance since The Man Who Fell to Earth, was his portrayal of the electrical innovator Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s Victorian thriller The Prestige.

Bowie is as dynamically dislocated as ever, seeming both haunted and distracted, though he was his usual down-to-earth presence on set: “Bowie shows up wearing a t-shirt and a pair of jeans and a baseball cap,” said the film’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, in 2006. “And right away he told us: ‘I’m not very good at hitting marks. Then of course he nailed his marks every time.’”

Temple, I think, has the measure of the on-screen Bowie:

“He’s very good in supporting roles but I’m not sure, with the exception of The Man Who Fell to Earth, that he was really a lead actor. The charisma of that type of rock star was different to what was required of a movie star. Rappers in America have made a much more powerful transition to movies than people like Bowie or Jagger.

“He’s a very good actor, certainly, but I think it’s hard to transfer what’s so effective in one discipline to another without bringing along the baggage of the rock star image.”

But when it clicked, it was precisely that image and aura that made him like no other actor who ever fell to earth.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.