David Bowie Movies — All His Cinema Roles

Bowie movies (a still from 'The Man Who Fell to Earth')

Over his long career, David Bowie made a surprising number of movie appearances. Many were cameos, but a good number were more substantial. Here we take a look at each.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

When director Nicolas Roeg (Performance [1970], Don’t Look Now [1973]) was looking around for someone to play alien-turned-tech-disruptor Thomas Jerome Newton, he thought first of Peter O’Toole and Michael Crichton. In the end he plumped for David Bowie, whose otherworldly persona had caught his eye in Alan Yentob’s 1975 BBC documentary Cracked Actor. Here was a man as strange as the film Roeg proposed to make.

Bowie inhabits the character of Newton less by acting his way into the part than by being himself (or ‘himself’). It works. He brings just what is needed, and no more, to this study in alienation and despair. Other characters age, but not Newton, whose otherness leads increasingly to feelings of loneliness and homesickness. Alcohol becomes his crutch, even as he is falling prey to deep-state and corporate sabotage. Clearly, the rock-star existence has schooled Bowie nicely for the role. 

One thing he nails especially well is the soft-spoken entitlement in Newton’s manner as he goes about setting up his tech empire: an important clue perhaps to the almost superhuman self-belief at the core of Bowie’s own artistic will-to-power.

Highlight: Bowie singing ‘Jerusalem’ in church like a man who can’t hold a note to save his life.

Just a Gigalo (1978)

Bowie adored Berlin, and when Benjamin Britten protégé and Blow-Up star David Hemmings approached him to star in a film set there in the Twenties, the temptation proved too great to resist. That no less a person than Marlene Dietrich would be involved was the icing on the cake. What better way to take his leave of the city that had hosted him so productively since 1976? And what better way to pay homage to the Weimar era, in whose artistic and cultural energies he had long found such inspiration?

Bowie plays an “officer of Prussian descent” who returns to Berlin after the Great War. Needing to keep body and soul together in horribly straitened circumstances, he is reduced to becoming a gigolo in the employ of a Baroness (Dietrich). Along the way, he is courted by a gay Nazi (played by Hemmings) keen to enlist him in the nascent movement.

In the event, the film was so poorly scripted and ill-realised it was a disaster of comical proportions. And Bowie didn’t even get to act with Dietrich: his dialogue with her was filmed piecemeal in Berlin (Bowie) and Paris (Dietrich).

None of the film’s awfulness is really Bowie’s fault. He plays along gamely enough. And he himself was philosophical in retrospect: “I had a wonderful time making that movie because by the second week we looked around at each other and said, ‘This is a pile of shit, so let’s have a good time!’”

He famously quipped elsewhere that Just a Gigolo was “my 32 Elvis movies rolled into one.” He was being a little unfair. It’s definitely better than Harum Scarum. Indeed, if you play it on mute, it’s actually quite watchable.

Highlight: David Bowie gets to not act with Marlene Dietrich, twice.

Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture (1979)

Pennebaker’s concert film merits inclusion in our list as it enjoyed (eventual) theatrical release. This is Bowie’s last ever performance as Ziggy, and it’s quite a moment when he announces this shocking fact to the crowd at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973.

Bowie is beautifully on song throughout, and one is struck by how shrewd in retrospect was his decision to follow up Hunky Dory with an all-round rockier sound: he was thinking of live-show energy. The band here (starting of course with Mick Ronson on lead guitar) is as sensational as their frontman.

Highlight: The end of ‘Rock and Roll Suicide.’ Bowie, having just killed off Ziggy, touches hands with audience members and sings “You’re wonderful!” He is encouraging these young ‘uns to give themselves permission to be their freakiest selves without apology. ‘Don’t copy me,’ he seems to be saying, ‘emulate me.’ Powerful.

Christiane F. (1981)

Not really an acting role, this, but Uli Edel’s provocative classic about teenage heroin addicts in West Berlin features Bowie in a cameo concert performance of ‘Station to Station.

The Hunger (1983)

Bowie co-stars with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in Tony Scott’s erotic horror movie about a New York-based vampire couple whose two centuries together are about to end happily never after. If The Man Who Fell to Earth saw Bowie succeed by being so very Bowie, The Hunger represents an acting triumph for him in the other direction: the rapid on-screen ageing of his character John Blaylock allows him to escape his own unignorable Bowie-ness. For the first and last time, we get to see him lose his iconic visual identity in a film. And to be able to watch him on screen without thinking, ‘That’s David bloody Bowie, that is’ is really rather glorious. 

As Blaylock goes from decadent co-predator of unsuspecting fine young clubbers to a man whose compromised blood has plunged him with terrifying suddenness into a gerontological nightmare, Bowie reveals serious acting chops last seen in the 1980 Broadway production of The Elephant Man. Not conventionally pretty enough to be Dorian Gray, he is just perfect for this role as another time-mocking aristocratic decadent. Shame about the ending though. 

Highlight: Opening Credits — Bowie and Deneuve stalk their prey as Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy sings ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead.’ Filmed not in New York but at London’s Heaven nightclub.

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983)

The standout performance in Nagisa Ōshima’s prisoner-of-war film may be that of Tom Conti (who learned Japanese phonetically for his role as the humanely mediating Lt. Col. John Lawrence), but Bowie acquits himself handsomely throughout. He plays Major Jack Celliers, an indomitable South African prisoner who becomes an object of romantic and erotic obsession for the Imperial Japanese Army camp commander Captain Yonoi (played with disturbing intensity by Ryuichi Sakamoto).

Bowie was unprecedentedly pleased with his acting in the film, and viewers and critics have tended to share his enthusiasm. (The word ‘presence’ keeps coming up.) He manages to bring the understated otherworldly energy of Thomas Jerome Newton to the part, though the sadness he captures here has a more human-all-too-human source — his character’s betrayal of his younger brother back in their schooldays, for which he wishes to atone in the awful here and now. And Bowie gives good ethical. 

The final shot of him is a miracle of film-making chance: as the camera takes leave of him buried up to his head, a moth lands on his brow.

Highlight: Celliers, in a final and fatal act of self-sacrificing heroism, interrupts an execution by walking up to the executioner and giving him the thing he most dreads and desires — a man-kiss.

Yellowbeard (1983)

After finishing work on his comeback album Let’s Dance, Bowie let Pythons Eric Idle and Graham Chapman talk him into doing a cameo in Mel Damski’s upcoming pirate comedy. The film was a flop, but it does have the large virtue of boasting the only known sighting of Bowie wearing a shark fin on his back. And his parting line, delivered in a thick Devon accent, is one for the ages: “Shall I… meet you in the pump-room, sir?”

Into the Night (1985)

John Landis’ comedy thriller features strong lead performances by Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer. Goldblum is a frustrated (and, as he only found out today, cuckolded) office drudge who gets fortuitously drawn into the high-stakes world of Pfeiffer, a holder of precious jewels that several bunches of bad people want to get their hands on. A moustachioed Bowie plays hitman Colin Morris. He has barely five minutes on screen, but he makes pretty damn decent use of them. That nasty smile is worth the price of admission alone.

Highlight: The world finally gets an answer to the age-old question, ‘What would it look like for David Bowie to engage in mortal combat with Carl Perkins?’

Absolute Beginners (1986)

In 1984 Julian Temple did a fine job directing Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, a long-vid promo for Bowie’s single ‘Blue Jean’ in which Bowie plays two different characters. The pair came together again in 1986 for Absolute Beginners, a dayglo musical-with-a-social-conscience set in 1950s London. Bowie has a substantial cameo as insufferably mid-Atlantic ad exec Vendice Partners. The film was poorly received on account of its uneven and try-too-hard quality, but Bowie did get a much-needed hit single out of it in the form of the eponymous song.

Highlight: The unfeasibly cheesy set-piece number ‘That’s Motivation’

Labyrinth (1986)

Jim Henson’s film about a teenage girl who must enter the Labyrinth to rescue her baby half-brother from Jareth the Goblin King gives Bowie a leading part as said rascal. He doesn’t waste it, and clearly has fun sporting the big hair and look-at-me codpiece. He brings an insinuating darkness to this child-catcher role that is gratifyingly surplus to the requirements even of Terry Jones’ witty screenplay. It’s all a far cry from his Seventies heyday, of course, but many Bowie fans appreciated seeing him play up his defining countercultural Otherness in a way not seen for an uncomfortably long time.

Highlight: ‘Magic Dance.’ So bad it’s good.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel caused a furore upon release. William Dafoe plays a Jesus more prey to temptation than some of the faithful could handle.

Bowie gets a scene as Pontius Pilate, and he makes the most of his three-and-three-quarter minutes. With a countenance more in sorrow than in anger, his Pilate shows the troublesome prisoner as much humanity as a representative of hard-nosed worldliness can.

The Linguini Incident (1991)

Hard to know what Bowie was thinking in accepting the co-lead role in Richard Shepard’s crime caper. He plays Monte, an English bartender in a restaurant who must marry waitress Lucy (Rosanna Arquette) in order to win a very high-stakes bet. A plan is hatched to rob the restaurant, and things come to a climax when Lucy must save the day with an underwater Houdini act. 

Amusing in spots the film may be, and Bowie’s comic timing is not half bad, but you honestly wish he’d turned the job down as a vehicle too cheap for his talents. Is he trying to puncture his legend? Or does he hope this role will lead to better roles down the line? Rather baffling.

Highlight: “Ladies, this is absurd. You are both so unutterably beautiful. Why don’t we do the sophisticated thing and all sleep together?”

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Bowie gets a brief cameo in David Lynch’s still unnerving film. He plays FBI agent Phillip Jeffries, who turns up at the FBI field office in Philadelphia after having been AWOL for a long time. On the evidence of Bowie’s traumatised performance, it’s a great shame that Lynch didn’t make more use of him, here and elsewhere.

Basquiat (1996)

Bowie enjoys a fairly heavy on-screen presence in Julian Schnabel’s biopic of troubled artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. He plays Andy Warhol to Jeffrey Wright’s Basquiat. Wright gives a mesmerising performance, while Bowie’s whiny, arch-adolescent turn as Drella feels uncomfortably (or, according to taste, enjoyably) like a bitchy settling of scores. He certainly immerses himself beautifully in the character, making this the closest we’ve come since The Hunger to seeing Bowie on screen as someone other than Bowie. 

Highlight: Basquiat follows Warhol and associate into a restaurant and introduces himself by showing samples of his “ignorant art.”

Gunslinger's Revenge

Bowie has a substantial part in Giovanni Veronesi’s by-the-numbers Italian Western. He plays Jack Sekora, a nasty piece of goods who arrives in a village to settle scores with Johnny Lowen (Harvey Keitel).

Bowie seems to be enjoying himself, but one cannot quite shake the sense that he’s miscast for the role. And the old problem figures large: we never really see beyond the fact that this is David Bowie Acting. His performance never reaches the escape velocity required to go beyond hammy cosplay. Another miss, alas.


Everybody Loves Sunshine (1999)

Bowie co-stars with Andrew Roth and Goldie in Roth’s hard-nailed gangland film set in Manchester (released under the title B.U.S.T.E.D in the United States). He plays Bernie, an old-school “good bad guy” (director’s description) from South London. He shows studied restraint in the role, stealing a scene or two by not trying to. His 1970s interest in London gangland culture has stood him in good stead.

Rice's Secret (2000)

This is a Canadian family drama directed by Nicholas Kendall. For the second time in his acting career, Bowie ends up with a part originally conceived for Peter O’Toole. He plays the late Mr. Rice, an enigmatic but kindly man who appears with his young friend Owen Walters (Bill Switzer) in a series of flashbacks. 

At the heart of the plot is a supernatural premise that recalls, in a softer key, The Hunger. Bowie makes unassertive use of his scanty screentime, passing on life lessons to the boy (“Only a great man can laugh in the face of death”) made all the more poignant given the grace with which the actor himself would face his own demise in a few years’ time.

Zoolander (2001)

In which David Bowie cameos as a dude called David Bowie. He’s judging a “walk-off” between models, which requires him to undertake the following taxing sequence of manoeuvres: watch walk-off, bang hand on floor, and say word “Disqualified.” Ho-hum.

Directed by Ben Stiller.

The Prestige (2006)

Christopher Nolan’s late-Victorian drama pits two stage magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) against each other in an obsessive game of one-upmanship. For the small but telling role of engineering genius and techno-futurist Nikola Tesla, Nolan needed someone with charisma and oddness in equal parts. There was, he felt, only one man for the job: David Bowie. At first Bowie said no (perhaps believing at this point that he had said yes over the years to a few too many dodgy movie roles), but Nolan’s persistence paid off.

It was the good call. Bowie’s longstanding fascination with manipulated audience perception and identity games makes The Prestige a more congenial vibe-fit than certain previous movie involvements. He inhabits the part of Tesla with austere aplomb, though doesn’t in truth have a whole lot to do beyond speaking in a Balkan accent and looking like a mirthless genius resigned to the grim ways of the world. It’s enough.

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About the author

Daragh Downes is a writer, critic and musician. He has written music features and reviews for The Irish Times and has discussed musical, literary and cultural matters on Irish national radio. For many years he lectured on literature, aesthetic theory and cultural history at Trinity College, Dublin.

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