“I’m an instant star. Just add water and stir.” – David Bowie
English singer-songwriter and actor David Bowie is continuously regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century for his experiments with his work and for pushing the boundaries of conventional art. Although he was always a musician first, Bowie appeared in over 30 movies, television shows and theatrical productions.
His performances in iconic works of cinema such as The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence have led many critics to believe that he could have made it as a successful actor if he had chosen to do so over a life in music. Apart from his acting, the use of his songs in soundtracks of films by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch and Wes Anderson also contribute towards the improvements of the art of cinema.
“All the films I have done, the theatre work, I haven’t learnt a thing,” Bowie once joked in an interview. When pressed further about his motivation to go ahead with an acting project, the star said, “Generally, the director [attracts me to a role].
“If I feel I’m gonna learn something working with that director, whatever the role is, I generally say yes to it…It’s good to watch how those people work, how they work with their crews, what kind of relationships they have with their crews, how much they depend on who [and] how much actually comes from themselves.”
As a tribute to his contribution to the world of cinema, we revisit David Bowie’s enigmatic film roles and rank them in the order of greatness.
12 David Bowie film roles ranked:
12. Just a Gigolo (David Hemmings – 1978)
This West German black comedy is set in a post-World War I Berlin and stars Bowie as a Prussian officer who pursues an alternate career by becoming a gigolo. Undoubtedly one of the forgettable additions to Bowie’s filmography, Just a Gigolo was panned by critics and was disliked by Bowie himself.
“Everybody who was involved in that film – when they meet each other now, they look away,” Bowie later reflected in an interview. “Listen, you were disappointed, and you weren’t even in it. Imagine how we felt… It was my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one.”
11. The Linguini Incident (Richard Shepard – 1991)
Critics were not very receptive to this 1991 American crime comedy but Bowie received praise for his performance in The Linguini Incident. The film starred David Bowie and Rosanna Arquette as two disgruntled restaurant employers who hatch a plan to the rob their bosses.
Bowie’s co-star Eszter Balint said of him, “I remember being supremely star struck because there’s not that many people that could floor me when I meet them, and he’s one of the few. He was very easy. I was so surprised. He was such a good hang and a super smart guy.
“I’m impressed by a good brain, and he was really smart and articulate, and a fun hang. I was surprised by how much I liked him in person.”
10. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch – 1992)
Intended as a prequel to Lynch’s masterful television series Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me is a characteristically surreal experience for the viewer. It asks more questions than it answers, the film continues the legacy of Twin Peaks in a bizarre manner and features Bowie in a strange cameo performance as the missing FBI Agent Phillip Jeffries.
“There were very bad reviews. I was under a bad cloud during that time and it just didn’t go well,” Lynch said while referring to the poor critical reception of the film. “But I loved the film and when you do something you believe in and it doesn’t go well it’s OK. If you sell out like I did on Dune and it doesn’t go well then you really die.”
9. Zoolander (Ben Stiller – 2001)
Directed and written by Ben Stiller, Zoolander is a bizarre parody of the fashion industry which also stars Stiller as a vapid fashion icon who gets caught up in an assassination plot. Bowie steals the show in his cameo performance where he comes on as a judge for a “walk-off” between Stiller and Owen Wilson’s character.
Stiller later admitted that Zoolander was conceived as a character sketch for the VH1 Fashion Awards. However, he worked on the script over multiple years and finally managed to get the studio to approve this project. Film historians now believe that the reason why it did not perform well at the box office was because it was released just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
8. The Hunger (Tony Scott – 1983)
A loose adaptation of the eponymous novel by Whitley Strieber, The Hunger is a horror/erotic thriller which is set in 20th century New York and focuses on a love triangle between a vampire couple (played by Bowie and Catherine Deneuve) and a gerontologist (Susan Sarandon).
Even though it was initially dismissed as a terrible vampire film, time has helped established the 1983 work as a cult classic. David Bowie later commented about the film, stating that “the first twenty minutes rattle along like hell – it really is a great opening. It loses its way about there, but it’s still an interesting movie.”
7. Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple – 1986)
An adaptation of Colin MacInnes’ book which explored life in London during the late 1950s, Julien Temple’s musical navigated the difficult labyrinths of love in the fashion world. The film was a critical as well as a commercial failure but Bowie’s title song spent nine weeks on the charts, even hitting number two on the British charts.
Co-star Patsy Kensit recalled, “David Bowie, who was playing an ad man called Vendice Partners, only said hello and goodbye to me, but then one day he came into the makeup room, picked up a brush and started doing my hair – it was the most erotic experience I’d ever had.”
6. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese – 1988)
A cinematic translation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial 1955 novel, the film humanises the mythical figure of Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe) by showing him as a vulnerable figure who is riddled with doubts and fears. This artistic choice led Scorsese to face backlash from conservative Christian groups who could not process the nuanced depiction.
Bowie is fantastic as Pontius Pilate, the official who was handed the responsibility to oversee the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Scorsese’s 1988 film won him an Academy Award Nomination for Best Director and has now become a vital part of modern Biblical discourse.
Scorsese explained, “He’s God. He’s not deluded. I think Kazantzakis thought that, I think the movie says that, and I know I believe that. The beauty of Kazantzakis’ concept is that Jesus has to put up with everything we go through, all the doubts and fears and anger.
“He made me feel like he’s sinning—but he’s not sinning, he’s just human. As well as divine. And he has to deal with all this double, triple guilt on the cross. That’s the way I directed it, and that’s what I wanted, because my own religious feelings are the same.”
5. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan – 2006)
Set in 1878, The Prestige is superficially structured as a conflict between two magicians but it directs its investigations towards the depth of the human psyche. The fantastic cast features Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine among others. The film earned Nolan two Academy Award nominations, including a nomination for Best Achievement in Art Direction. With fantastic acting performances all around and a compelling narrative structure, modelled like a magic trick, The Prestige remains one of Nolan’s finest films.
On top of all the artistic merits of the film, it is a pleasure to watch David Bowie as Tesla. Nolan explained his casting choice, saying, “For me, David Bowie has this extraordinary charisma and presence that an audience can invest in right away.”
Nolan also spoke about his expectations for the film, “I hope it will resonate…For me, there’s a real fascination with the idea that we create stories and enjoy stories to build complexity into a world that we fear may be too simple.” The Prestige did exactly that and will remain one of the more interesting works in Nolan’s remarkable filmography.
4. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Ōshima – 1983)
Based on Sir Laurens van der Post’s experiences as a POW of the Japanese during World War II, Ōshima’s brilliant 1983 war film featured Bowie as a rebellious South African British officer. His performance as Major Jack Celliers was labelled as his “most credible performance” and received widespread critical acclaim for his work.
Co-star Ryuichi Sakamoto said, “I never pursued an acting career, it’s not my intention, but it’s a fact that I acted in a film for the very first time with David Bowie, who was amazing. And it was my very first film music. So two very new things came to be at the same time. Working with David Bowie, I was with him for a month, every day, on a very small island in the South Pacific Ocean. For a month!”
3. Labyrinth (Jim Henson – 1986)
A delightfully strange fantasy film, Labyrinth follows the travails of a 16-year-old girl (played by Jennifer Connelly) who is forced to find her way in a dangerous labyrinth filled with magical creatures. Her primary objective is to save her baby brother from The Goblin King (David Bowie). Labyrinth is yet another work in Bowie’s filmography which was not appreciated at the time of its release but has gained a cult following since then.
The director’s son, Brian Henson, pointed out that “this is a weird and kind of wonderful departure he did in his career. Departure I don’t know is the right word, but he was right at the top of his popularity. It was not long after ‘Modern Love’ and he was huge at the time, and he so enthusiastically jumped on board this. He wrote all the songs himself, and they were great.”
He added: “And then he played this wonderful role where he’s kind of making fun of the personality of a rock star. He plays this overly flamboyant, spoiled rotten, self-centred King of the Goblins. He had a wonderful sense of humour, David. And he has a wonderful sense of humour all the way through. I think he knew he was kind of making fun of himself, in a fun way.”
2. Basquiat (Julian Schnabel – 1996)
A biographical drama about the extremely talented postmodernist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (played by Jeffrey Wright), the film follows his meteoric but troubled rise to the apex of the art world. He is discovered by art icon Andy Warhol (Bowie) who mentors him and becomes his friend. After Warhol’s death, Basquiat struggles with the isolation and the drug abuse which eventually leads to his tragic demise at the age of 27.
“I saw [Andy Warhol] just about everywhere in New York in the late ’70s and the early ’80s,” Bowie said. “I didn’t go much beyond [noting] what his spirit was, the way he moved and stuff, his attitude. It was more of an impersonation than anything else.”
1. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg – 1976)
Starring David Bowie as a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to collect water for his drought-stricken planet, The Man Who Fell to Earth provided Bowie with the role he was born to play. Finding a perfect balance between the allegorical realism of the American wasteland and the surrealism of the narrative, Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 experiment with the sci-fi genre have inspired artists ranging from Philip K. Dick to Alan Moore who have said that Roeg’s film is a source of inspiration for them.
Roeg said he “really came to believe that Bowie was a man who had come to Earth from another galaxy. His actual social behaviour was extraordinary – he hardly mixed with anyone at all. He seemed to be alone – which is what Newton is in the film – isolated and alone.”