This week the Film Society of Lincoln Center is hosting a retrospective of David Bowie’s film and video work — not just the 1973 concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and a program of Bowie’s music videos, but an impressively thorough slate of his work as an actor. It’s a collection of almost nothing but cult movies and intriguing rarities. Complete listings and showtimes.
(Some of the rarities are so difficult to see, in fact, that I dearly wish I were in NYC this week. If only there were some way for this series to make it out to L.A. — it’d make a fine alternative to the cinematic dog days of August.)
Rock stars crossing over into acting was fairly common in the 1970s and ’80s; Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey and even Ringo Starr had sporadic film careers for a while. As the most theatrical of rock performers, Bowie was a natural to segue into acting, especially since he had studied as a mime and acted in short films even before his first hit, 1969’s “Space Oddity.” His breakthrough as Ziggy Stardust a few years later was defined by artifice and distance — performance was built into his every move.
Bowie was never going to be cast as a regular working-class bloke: his most famous work as an actor is his starring role in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), in which, of course, he plays an alien, a part that traded on his own musical personae at the time.
His other best-known films are the Jim Henson fantasy Labyrinth (1986), in which he plays a goblin king who menaces the 14-year-old Jennifer Connelly, and Tony Scott’s feature debut The Hunger (1983), in which he plays a vampire who is hundreds of years old but now rapidly aging, and who is fellow vamp Catherine Deneuve’s paramour.
Neither movie was a box-office hit in the ’80s, but funnily enough Labyrinth has become a midnight-movie favorite during the last 10 years, and The Hunger — well, “cult movie” is probably too inadequate to describe what a second life the movie has enjoyed. Goths love it for the Bauhaus performance of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” during the opening credits (a real hoot to see on the big screen), and the steamy love scene between Deneuve and Susan Sarandon is an iconic moment of lesbian cinema.
(I once saw The Hunger at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco with a mostly female audience. The crowd participated with you-go-girl exhortations directed at the screen throughout the movie, building up to the big moment, at which point a reverent silence descended on the theater.)
But two of Bowie’s best performances as an actor are character turns from more recent years. He makes for a very amusing Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), but more than that, Warhol acquaintances have commented on how accurate Bowie’s portrayal is.
Not as well known is Bowie’s turn as eccentric visionary inventor Nikolai Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006). Bowie is so little recognizable in the role that many people I know who saw the movie had no idea he was even in it. He was an inspired choice for the part of a slightly cracked genius who’s almost literally on a very different wavelength than anyone else.
Missing from the Lincoln Center series are Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), where Bowie turns up late in the film as a jaded, urbane Pontius Pilate, and — a crazy cult movie to end them all — David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, where he has a cameo as an FBI agent come to deliver cryptic, otherworldly warnings. Scorsese, Lynch, Nolan, Schnabel, Nagisa Ôshima; not a bad collection of directors for any actor to have worked with, let alone someone for whom acting was a side gig.
A couple of more obscure entries in Bowie’s acting resume are what make this series stand out. There’s the 1982 BBC adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, directed by the celebrated Alan Clarke, in which Bowie plays a wastrel poet and singer who descends into criminality; Bowie also sings five Brecht numbers. As far as I know Baal has never gotten any kind of U.S. release, and there doesn’t seem to have been a DVD of it anywhere, so the two screenings are a true rarity.
Also up is David Hemmings’ Just a Gigolo (1978), also not on DVD. By all accounts this is a stinker, exactly the kind of dud that moonlighting rock stars tended to turn up in; Bowie once described it as “my 32 Elvis movies rolled into one.” He plays a Prussian officer reduced to working as a you-know-what in Weimar-era Berlin, and no doubt graces a lot of evening wear. Hemmings somehow persuaded Kim Novak and Marlene Dietrich to appear in the film; Dietrich declined to leave her apartment in Paris when shooting began, so her scenes are edited together to make it look like she and Bowie are in the same room. Might be fun to see for the unintentional camp value.
Also rare, but also far more notable is the 1981 German film Christiane F. — Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. Out of print on DVD in the U.S., this movie never screens theatrically, so the two screenings this week are a coup — just keep your fingers crossed that the print is subtitled, and not the horrible English-dubbed version that was on the DVD. Based on a true story about a girl in 1970s West Berlin who became a heroin addict at age 13 and a prostitute a year later, Uli Edel’s movie makes excellent use of Bowie songs from 1976–79 to set the very grim scene in Berlin’s Zoo train station.
Even more noteworthy, Bowie himself appears in concert in the movie. The real-life Christiane F. caught Bowie’s 1976 tour at Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle, and the film recreates the concert, with Christiane (Natja Brunckhorst) working her way up to the foot of the stage during “Station to Station.” Filmed in 1980, when Bowie had long since moved on from his Thin White Duke persona of ’76, the scene finds him rocking a look that appears to be inspired by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, right down to the red jacket. True to his gift for appropriation as ever.
For a look at the history of Christiane F., click here. You can watch a trailer for the movie here:
For more on the use of David Bowie’s music in movies, click here.