Skip to main content

Very good. Very impressive. I’m sure we’ll chat again.

David Bowie
Top 10 Performances

The death of David Bowie has left a Ziggy-sized, Aladdin Sane-sized, Thin White Duke-sized hole in the world. As a musician, he was obviously peerless, but as an actor? As an actor, even a cracked one, Bowie seemed to get a continually frosty reception from critics, his performances frequently subjected to the common refrain that he, indeed, could not act. Of course, there was always the exception of The Man Who Fell to Earth, because he was just playing himself there.

I’ve never understood the barb; I can see Bowie wasn’t necessarily preeminent in the field, an Oscar-worthy thespian (although, when has that stopped a statuette being given out?), but I’ve always found him highly watchable in his roles, and appreciated his deftness in a variety of genres, from drama, to fantasy, biopic and comedy. Among those not on this list are his cameo in Yellowbeard (trying not to laugh as “the Shark”) his appearance in Dream On (as Sir Roland Morecock, no less; I’m only including film appearances, but the character name alone is worth a mention) or in Absolute Beginners (as the contrastingly appallingly named Vendice Partners). Bowie wasn’t a prolific movie actor, his most prolonged burst coming during the ‘80s, but of a little over 20 movies, it’s very easy to select 10 memorable performances.

10. David Bowie
Zoolander (2001)

I believe I might be of service?” The former David Jones cameoed as himself in a number of movies and TV shows, but by far the coolest appearance of “David Bowie” finds him compering a walk-off between Derek Zoolander and Hansel in Ben Stiller’s 2001 classic. Bowie had perfected a certain middle-aged cool at that time, an older (rather than elder) statesman of pop but one who still exuded “it”. In the the early ‘90s to early ‘00s he discarded the meticulous personas of old but revealed an “undisguised” guise no less arresting. Bowie completely gets the joke with Zoolander, of course, revelling in an exaggerated, playful version of himself. In particular, his reaction to Stiller’s attempted underwear extraction is priceless. Bowie is only on screen for a couple of minutes, but he even out-cools Billy Zane. And Billy Zane’s a cool dude.

9. Phillip Jeffries
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

Another brief appearance from the Bowie, looking most un-FBI in a Hawaiian shirt as long-lost Agent Philip Jeffries, missing on a mission to track down the Black Lodge. Of all the deranged and distracted elements in Lynch’s elusive and intriguing prequel/sequel to the TV series, Jeffries is perhaps the most intriguing. He never fully returns to the land of the living per se. Rather, Jeffries materialises ever-so-briefly in FBI HQ Philadelphia for a marvellous spot of Lynchian spatiotemporal oddness.

Dale Cooper, guided by a dream, views the video playback of a corridor in which he was stood moments before, staring up at the camera until the (formerly) non-present Jeffries walks by his video image. Jeffries attempts to deliver a message (in a less than glorious Southern accent, it has to be admitted) to Lynch’s Gordon Cole while intimating that Cooper (or rather his other side) isn’t what he seems. We also witness flashes of Jeffries’ visit to the Black Lodge meeting. Mainly, though, the antic presence of alien Bowie is a shorthand signifier and little more; who else would one expect to come across in the strangest of strange Lynch milieus? As such his performance requires him to do little other than weird us out, which of course, he does consumately.

8. Jareth the Goblin King
Labyrinth (1986)

One of George Lucas’ failed ‘80s, post-Star Wars attempts to come up with a new thing, this Jim Henson effort is much loved by (girls of) a certain generation, a reworking of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland as teenager-on-the-cusp Jennifer Connelly enters a muppet land presided over Bowie’s Goblin King, a Goblin King who has kidnapped her baby brother. A Goblin King packing quite a pouch in his goblin tights. That, and Dame David’s fright wig, got the most attention here (he bears a resemblance to Joanna Lumley at certain angles), although he also does some clever stuff with his (crystal) balls, sings a bit and strolls casually about a topsy-turvy Escher-esque castle lair.

 You can see where this went wrong with hindsight; Bowie’s posturing would have been fully at home amongst the Adam Ants and New Romantics a half decade earlier, but seems adrift amid Henson’s very family sensibility (Dreamchild, a year earlier, was much more effective). The picture is thus rather less than the some of its parts, but Bowie is having a lot of fun, particularly singing to, and kicking, muppets, and as a whole it’s much more agreeable than his other flirtation with (attempted) mainstream fare of the era, Absolute Beginners (even if, conversely, that yielded one of his best singles, while Labyrinth’s tunes are rather forgettable).

7. Major Jack “Strafer” Celliers
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Nagisa Oshima cast Bowie after seeing him on stage in The Elephant Man, citing his “indestructible” inner spirt. You can leap frog contemporary critics during this era if you want to find one praising Bowie’s performance and avoid the next slating it. He rises to the challenge of the role guilt-ridden Cellers, but it's the exotic unattainability of the star that is perhaps the key ingredient, as prison camp guard Ryuichi Sakamoto finds himself powerfully attracted to the thin white duke.

Except, this is the Bowie of Let’s Dance, the perma-tanned Bowie of the ‘80s rather than the milk and green pepper ingesting coke fiend of the mid-‘70s. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is very much of its era (throw a stone in that decade and you’d hit a movie with Tom Conti in it) and there’s a feeling that, for all the inflamed thematic explorations, this is ultimately more resonant for its aesthetics and imagery (Celliers buried up to his neck) than content. The dovetailing of Bowie’s newly inclusive pop face with the role is perhaps a little too neat, and, with its striking but intrusive Sakamoto synth soundtrack, Mr. Lawrence at times feels a little over-performed and over-telegraphed, rather than enabled to become its own fully immersive thing. Still, a more rewarding picture than the recent Unbroken, with which it shared certain characteristics.

6. John Blaylock
The Hunger (1983)

Bowie is the devoted, 200-year-old vampire companion who discovers his time has come, destined to be inevitably cast aside by long time companion Catherine Deneuve when the more delectable Susan Sarandon supplants him for attention. Duped into believing he was granted eternal youth, John Blaylock learns he is merely eternal, begins aging at an alarming rate and he is left to wither and waste away in the attic, along with Deneuve’s other former lovers.

Ostensibly this is a cautionary metaphor for addiction (somewhat addled, to Sarandon’s chagrin, by the revised ending), but one might also read into Bowie’s role a commentary on the ephemeral nature of the pop star, albeit he bucked that trend, retaining a permanence few were capable of. Bowie went on to resume his Hunger relationship as the host of the second series of the late ‘90s TV anthology of the same name, and this is one of his most affecting turns, coming on as too cool for school with Catherine Deneuve, to the strains of Bauhaus, but then rapidly devolving into a helpless state, left to rot like a Dorian Gray painting in the attic.

The early ‘80s, post-his success on stage in The Elephant Man, saw Bowie attempt a variety of movie roles, all them at least interesting, and as such they presented an almost inverted relationship with his investment in his musical career. One thing they evidenced is that he was in his element with a supporting role, brought on for maximum impact because he needed to do relatively little to make his mark. Bowie had reservations regarding the picture at the time, but The Hunger’s subsequent cult reappraisal has been largely justified. As an aside, it’s a shame it wasn't a bigger hit, since the also sadly departed to soon Tony Scott started out with the almost art-pop aesthetic of his brother but soon discarded it for frequently empty, shiny Hollywood baubles (which he invariably rendered with consummate skill).

5. Andy Warhol
Basquiat (1996)

Julian Schnabel’s biopic falls into the diligently linear trap of many a biographical movie, added to which, feeling such leeway is endorsed through depicting an artist, it indulges a less than focussed telling. What it definitely has going for it, that sees it through its rather languid course, is vibrant cast, from Jeffrey Wright’s outstanding lead turn to the many names in minor supporting roles (presumably many of whom wanted to express their art appreciation credentials). These include Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman (as a Schnabel stand-in), Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Courtney Love and up-and-comer Benicio Del Toro. And Michael Wincott, not playing a psycho. The most recognisable figure in this exploration of the empty commercialism of the ‘80s New York art scene is its forefather Andy Warhol, as essayed by Bowie no less (wearing Warhol’s actual wigs).

It’s a very funny performance, lifting what is a fairly downbeat, listless movie. His aging, not altogether there Andy is particularly amusing during a dinner party exchange where he gives up insisting that Saddle Row is in New Jersey, in response to a guest claiming, in an increasingly heated manner, that it is New York. “Oh, I didn't know that. Did you know that?” he asks Paul Bartel after a spell of back-and-forth, defusing the situation. In another scene, Basquiat walks in on Andy observing “oxidisation art” (piss-painting, sourced from a particular brand of beer). Asked why he doesn’t try it himself, Andy replies “I don't like beer”. Then there’s Basquiat’s mirthful response to Warhol’s anecdote “When I was little my brother and I had two pet ducks. We called them the Garcia brothers”. It’s all in Bowie’s approximation of Warhol, which is gloriously elsewhere.

4. Pontius Pilate
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

This rather absurd notion that Bowie couldn't act seemed to be the rehearsed script from most critics for along time, right up until his death, when miraculously they were suddenly singing a different tune. Fickleness knows no bounds. There is a certain truth, though, that he was best served by a role that made the most of his inimitable presence, the same way, say, you (hopefully) try to cast Christopher Walken in parts that don't waste him. In many cases (much on this list) it means he stands out against the background or his screen partners, and is given an accentuated or unusual role.

Last Temptation is something of an exception, wherein Bowie underplays as Pontius Pilate, offering a weary ruler whose matter-of-fact cynicism makes him seem the most reasoned and almost sympathetic personification of the man who sent Jesus to his death. Christ offers change in the way people think and feel, and Pilate informs him simply, be it killing or loving “We don’t want them changed”. His calm stillness is the perfect contrast with the storm that surrounds Willem Dafoe’s Jesus and, thanks to the eclectic cast assembled by Scorsese, Bowie doesn't seem at all out of place in this (over-stated as such) controversial telling.

3. Colin Morris
Into the Night (1985)

You’re really very good” Bowie’s moustachioed English hit man confides in Jeff Goldbum’s strung-out insomniac, who is engaged in a peculiar nocturnal odyssey with Michelle Pfeiffer’s alluring diamond smuggler. John Landis has always had a thing for the cameo, particularly prone to dropping in directors all over the place, and Bowie here is just another ingredient in the scene-by-scene different flavours of strange Goldblum encounters. He relishes the chance to deliver a cheerful vignette of black comedy. Like all the best villains, Colin Morris embraces being a bad guy, and treats Jeff as one of his professional equals (rather suggesting Colin might not be that good after all), before putting a gun in his mouth (“I like you, Ed. I do like you”). If Bowie appearances were rated for the impact he makes in the shortest time, this might come top, so delightfully dangerous is he. The last we see of Bowie’s Colin Morris, he’s engaged in a particular nasty knife fight to the death with Carl Perkins.

2. Nikola Tesla
The Prestige (2006)

The first time I changed the world, I was hailed as a visionary. The second time, I was asked politely to retire.” Falling into the camp of “Who better to play an icon of history than an icon of the present?”, Bowie’s manifestation of Nikola Tesla is a genius piece of casting on director Christopher Nolan’s part (Bowie initially turned it down, until the director flew out to see him and persuaded him no one else could play the part); Tesla remains an enigma, his scientific art and craft shrouded in half-legends concerning the potential of his work and conspiracy theories regarding the sabotage of a bright future of free energy for all. Who better to play him than an embodiment of mystery, a star known for keeping his audience guessing about his motives and just what he will come up with next?

Tesla also gives the Bowie the actor the opportunity to proffer a mature sage, embodying the wisdom that comes from having one’s ambitions derailed (a flip side to Jerome Newton in that sense, for whom the years lead only to advanced stupor). Bowie was in hibernation musically during this period, and withdrawn from the public arena generally, making the mysterious Tesla all the more potent a presence. He comes on with a magician’s sleight of hand, in a movie (possibly Nolan’s best movie) about the craft of stage magic, produces a spell out of (numerous) top hats and then withdraws, fundamentally affecting the thrust of this tale (and for some, bizarrely, spoiling it).

1. Thomas Jerome Newton
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Bowie’s signature role, one often lumped in with the also-Nicolas Roeg-directed Mick Jagger in Performance as a rare example of a pop star acquitting themselves with aplomb at the old acting lark. Whereas Mick can boast few other examples of his skill in this arena (Freejack, anyone?), Bowie fully grasped the thespian mettle at various points. Nevertheless, it’s surely no coincidence that Thomas Jerome Newton’s resonance is down to reflecting the fragile state of its gaunt star at the time, mired in a ravaging coke addiction and, as an actor, responding in the moment, instinctively offering an alien adjusting to and being debased by the debilitating world of Earth; as he said “I actually was feeling as alienated as the character was”.


While this couldn’t be said to “be” David Bowie any more than his cameo in Zoolander, there’s a raw, transparent quality here that is only accentuated by Roeg’s fractured yet intimate construction of the film as a whole (see also Don’t Look Now for the director eliciting powerful performances from his actors). Newton obviously counted for a lot with Bowie, not just in terms of that period in his life but also the broader subject matter, a Howard Hughes-esque recluse placed under a microscope as the world passes by, the potential of his life mission come to nothing (not that Bowie isn’t the last person anyone would look at in those terms), as he revisited it in his final year for the stage musical Lazarus.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

And you people, you’re all astronauts... on some kind of star trek.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
(SPOILERS) Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense, time travel plotting and Borg. Mostly Borg. Until Borg became, like any golden egg, overcooked. Oh, and there’s that other hallowed element of the seven seasons, the goddam holodeck, but the less said about that the better. Well, maybe a paragraph. First Contact is a solid movie, though, overcoming its inherent limitations to make it, by some distance, the best of the four big screen outings with Pic…

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers 4.1:The Town of No Return
The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Don’t get tipsy. We can’t have you hiccoughing in the coffin.

The Avengers 4.2: The Murder Market
Tony Williamson’s first teleplay for the series picks up where Brian Clemens left off and then some, with murderous goings-on around marriage-making outfit Togetherness Inc (“Where there is always a happy ending”). Peter Graham Scott, in his first of four directing credits, sets out a winning stall where cartoonishness and stylisation are the order of the day. As is the essential absurdity of the English gentleman, with Steed’s impeccable credentials called on to illustrious effect not seen since The Charmers.

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

A man who doesn't love easily loves too much.

Twin Peaks 2.17: Wounds and Scars
The real problem with the last half of the second season, now it has the engine of Windom Earle running things, is that there isn’t really anything else that’s much cop. Last week, Audrey’s love interest was introduced: your friend Billy Zane (he’s a cool dude). This week, Coop’s arrives: Annie Blackburn. On top of that, the desperation that is the Miss Twin Peaks Contest makes itself known.

I probably don’t mind the Contest as much as some, however. It’s undoubtedly lame, but it at least projects the season towards some kind of climax. If nothing else, it resolutely highlights Lynch’s abiding fascination with pretty girls, as if that needed any further attention drawn to it.

Special Agent Cooper: You made it just right, Annie.
I also like Heather Graham’s Annie. Whatever the behind the scenes wrangles that led to the disintegration of the Coop-Audrey romance (and it will be rather unceremoniously deconstructed in later Coop comments), it’s certainly the …