The Review/ Feature/
Pin-Ups: David Bowie Goes to the Movies
Exploring the Starman's sometimes rocky voyages on the big screen
Some of the most enduring images in film history never ran through a projector, but began life as elements of promotional campaigns, and — thanks to nostalgia, notoriety, or sometimes just pure ubiquity — became iconic in their own right. Our ongoing series FilmArt looks at the advertising, posters, lobby cards and other ephemera that complement and enrich the filmgoing experience.
Since its premiere 35 years ago, Tony Scott’s chi-chi vampire movie The Hunger has defied any sort of critical consensus, yet both its harshest critics and most ardent defenders agree on its best quality — namely its bewitching trio of stars, Susan Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve, and David Bowie.
The various taglines used in the film’s print campaign — “Nothing human loves forever,” “Pour survivre ils ont besoin d’amour et de sang” (“To survive they need love and blood”), “So bizarre… So sensual… so shocking” — align The Hunger with the strain of trashy, erotic vampire films from the preceding decade, with titles like The Vampire Lovers, Daughters of Darkness, and The Velvet Vampire.
But in its trailer the film was sold less on its genre elements than on the unprecedented alchemy of its leads: “The timeless beauty of Catherine Deneuve, the cool elegance of David Bowie, [and] the open sensuality of Susan Sarandon combine to create a modern classic of perverse fear,” purrs the narrator.
For a director who would make his bones with bombastic blockbusters like Top Gun, Days of Thunder and Man on Fire, The Hunger is an anomaly. While Sarandon has diplomatically stated that “I think, coming out of commercials, Tony Scott was interested in the style of it, and I think he really accomplished that,” Scott himself was far more ambivalent about his feature debut. “Hollywood hated it: it was an artsy-fartsy esoteric up-itself vampire movie,” he declared, and he also dismissed it as “a direct knock-off” of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Mick Jagger-starring Performance — perhaps in no small part because Scott, like Roeg and Cammell, had cast a rock star in a lead role.
Unlike Jagger, who was making his screen debut in Performance, by the time of The Hunger David Bowie was a screen veteran by comparison, having played his first leading role seven years previously (in another Roeg production, as it happens): the art-house sci-fi flick The Man Who Fell to Earth. But even prior to that, Bowie had incorporated role-playing as a key component of his musical career, morphing in a mere half-decade from a gentle Space Oddity to intergalactic sex god Ziggy Stardust to Ziggy’s Americanized successor Aladdin Sane. “I always said that on most albums I was acting. It was a role, generally,” he said as early as 1974, a time when most of the world still didn’t know where Ziggy ended and Bowie began.
As Roeg already had experience with putting a rock star through his paces on screen, a savvy reader might conclude that it was his inspired idea to cast Bowie as The Man Who Fell to Earth’s ethereal protagonist Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who crash-lands on Earth and goes on to found a lucrative corporation based on patents from his super-advanced alien tech, with the goal of creating a space program that will one day allow him to return to his dying homeworld and rescue his wife and son.
But Candy Clark, who plays Newton’s lover/protector in the film, explains that “Nic’s original idea for the role … was the author Michael Crichton, because he was tall and a little bit unworldly. But my recollection is that [the film’s producers] Arlene Sellers and Alex Winitsky were talking to Nic and I about the casting, and I believe it was Alex who said, ‘Have you thought about David Bowie?’”
According to Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, Roeg liked the suggestion because he wanted “someone who was inside society but awkward in it.” Other members of the creative team felt similarly: “I can’t think of anyone else who could have played Newton,” said cinematographer Anthony Richmond; “Bowie was so strange, so ethereal, so androgynous.” Clark’s take is somewhat less cerebral: “[David] was so beautiful, just gorgeous to look at. In the film, he is at the height of handsomeness…. Look at David: his skin is luminescent. [...] He was absolutely perfect as the man from another planet.”
It’s easy to see why Roeg and co. would want Bowie for their lead, but what drew a rock star who was then at the peak of his fame to a meagrely-financed British sci-fi film being shot in the New Mexico desert? Bowie claimed that his memories of this period had been all but obliterated by his prodigious drug use, but in her tell-all book Backstage Passes his then-wife Angela offers a portrait of Bowie’s personality and headspace circa 1975: “[he was] a friend-abusing, sense-mangling, money-bleeding full-fledged Vampire of Velocity. Like coke addicts long before and after him he’d [arranged] an existence almost entirely devoid of daylight, to assume a worldview of paranoia.” On top of his crippling cocaine habit and growing obsession with the occult, Bowie had become embroiled in a drawn-out legal dispute with his former management.
So in the spring of 1975, weeks after his 28th birthday, Bowie relocated to Los Angeles from New York, seeking to leave the backstabbing and greed of the music industry behind for the friendly faces and welcoming arms of the movie business. “Me and rock-and-roll have parted company,” Bowie told Sunday Times writer Tina Brown in 1975. “I think I’ve caused quite enough rumpus for someone who’s not even convinced he’s a good musician.” Bowie then announced his new ambition: “Now I’m going to be a film director. I’ve always been a screenwriter. My songs have just been practice for scripts.” Of the many forthcoming projects Bowie cited, the most interesting is a film version of his concept album Diamond Dogs, which was to star Terence Stamp and Iggy Pop as father and son. (Stamp is only nine years older than the former Stooge, so it’s anyone’s guess as to which was to play which.)
For whatever reason (cocaine), Bowie’s directorial ambitions were never realized (apart from a handful of music videos later in his lifetime), so during the ten urban legend-inspiring months he spent in the City of Angels he accepted Roeg’s offer to star in MWFTE and embarked for the comforting climes of New Mexico in the summer. While Roeg described the film as “all about drinking” — as an increasingly alienated Newton turns to the bottle for solace from the disgusting banality of life as an Earthling — Bowie actually cleaned up for the duration of the film’s 11-week shoot, and on-set stories reveal a relatively sober and event-free atmosphere. Nevertheless, that essential outsiderness that Roeg had identified in Bowie remained in force for the fledgling movie star. “The one snapshot memory I have of that film is not having to act,” Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1993. “I wasn’t of this Earth at that particular time.”
Due to its cryptic narrative and the X rating granted it by the British Board of Film Censors, The Man Who Fell to Earth had only a modest release in its domestic territory of the UK, but it still garnered an exceptional poster by iconic artist Vic Fair, who completed most of the work on it in one night.
Distributors around the world used the would-be crossover star’s image in strategically disparate ways. Italian company Far International played up the film’s sci-fi elements, only including headshots of Bowie on their large two- and four-sheet posters. It was a prudent move: the Starman may have been a golden goose for his record company, but he had yet to prove himself one way or another at the movies.
Columbia Pictures, who released the film in territories like Japan and South America, took an image of a captive, drugged Newton and reframed it to present Bowie as a beckoning, shirtless rock star; the Turkish poster below, meanwhile, opted to focus on one of the film’s few “action” scenes.
In the US the film was acquired by respected American art-house distributor Cinema 5, which had been responsible for the successful stateside releases of films like Costa-Gavras’ Z and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, and would later create unlikely hits out of such disparate items as the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring bodybuilding doc Pumping Iron and the Canadian drag-queen comedy Outrageous! Uncharacteristically, Cinema 5’s usually well-intentioned head Don Rugoff cut 20 minutes from the film to enable an extra screening per day. “Nic took an entire year editing the picture and I got into a preview screening and had to call Nic and tell him, ‘They’ve chopped our film to bits. They’ve destroyed it,’” Candy Clark recalled. “Of course the film made no sense, so they couldn’t sell the product at all when it was first released.”
The film’s disastrous US release does have one undeniable legacy: its poster. Cinema 5 produced a couple of one-sheets for the film (including the subway poster above), but their primary artwork utilized a photo by Steve Schapiro of Bowie in profile, paired with the title rendered in Cinema 5’s unassuming white-on-black Neue Haas Grotesk house style.
The next year, this exact visual (with the film title clipped out) was recycled for what has become one of Bowie’s most critically lauded albums, Low — though at the time, the artist’s record company RCA declared the experimental, instrumental-heavy record unmarketable and initially refused to release it.
This lack of enthusiasm from his label perhaps accounts for Bowie’s seemingly offhand attitude towards Low’s artwork. “The reason was very corny,” Bowie explained of this straight-out cop from the MWFTE poster. “You see the album cover has a profile of me on it, and on the album itself I keep a very ‘low profile.’ I was very disappointed no one picked up on that. I thought it would have been obvious.”
Despite its commercial failure, The Man Who Fell to Earth developed a cult following over the years and remains the ultimate cinematic document of peak Bowie, his aloof, celestial image literalized in his playing of an actual extraterrestrial. Unsurprisingly, the man himself was a good deal distant from the persona(e) he had created, one who had the capacity to behave both reprehensibly and decently throughout his life. “Obviously his image is that he would be a freaky guy that dressed funny. We’d all seen the characters he portrayed over the years,” his longtime bassist Gail Ann Dorsey mused after his death. “Nothing about him was flashy or ostentatious or over the top. He was very normal.”
“Normal,” of course, is not the first word that leaps to mind at the mention of the name “David Bowie,” and it was not a characterization that many fans, or moviegoers, either wanted or could envision. While the artist never ceased to remind us that his assorted guises were just that, it proved difficult for viewers (including critics) to accept Bowie as anything other than “Bowie” whenever he tried his hand at acting. Where reviews of MWFTE had praised the aptness of his casting — “a convincing alien life form whose loneliness is beyond human experience” (Screen International), “clearly not human” (The Guardian) — subsequent assessments of Bowie’s performances in leading roles were more likely to castigate his apparent inability to play a human being. (Of his playing of a Manhattan bartender in the 1991 The Linguini Incident, Variety pilloried him as “completely miscast … too old and more like a toothy alien than a romantic lead.”)
This tradition began with Bowie’s immediate follow-up to The Man Who Fell to Earth. Originally, Bowie had announced that his next film would be the WWII thriller The Eagle Has Landed, in which he would star alongside Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland. “Sutherland is the reason that I chose to do it. If it wasn’t for Sutherland and the money, I wouldn’t be interested,” Bowie said at the time. “I’m more interested in a Bergman film called The Serpent’s Egg which is coming up, and I’d do that for nothing, just to work with Bergman.”
As it happened, Bowie would not get to work with either Sutherland or the Swedish master (who instead cast David Carradine as his Serpent’s lead), though he would find himself in a film with a setting similar to that of Bergman’s portrait of pre-Nazi Germany: Just a Gigolo, the tale of a Prussian WWI veteran who winds up a high-priced male prostitute in Berlin.
Just a Gigolo is one of those films that looks great on paper. Directed by one of its co-stars, David Hemmings — who had become an icon of Swinging London thanks to his starring role in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up — the film surrounded its leading man with a veritable beau monde of cinematic legends, including Kim Novak, Curt Jurgens, and Marlene Dietrich, in what would be her last screen performance. (Bowie signed on in the first place merely for the opportunity to appear alongside the then 77-year-old Dietrich, who was being paid $250,000 for two days’ shooting. But when Bowie was asked what it was like to work with Dietrich, he quipped “I must ask somebody who worked with her”: apparently, Dietrich had declared she would never to set foot on German soil again and filmed all of her scenes in Paris, while Bowie remained on set in Berlin.)
Like Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning 1972 hit Cabaret, Just a Gigolo was set at the height of Germany’s Weimar era, affording the opportunity to fit that clotheshorse cast in any number of ritzy period costumes. As the film’s assorted posters suggest, international distributors were more than eager to sell a product fashioned from these variously dapper and decadent parts.
The film proved to be a major disappointment, lambasted by reviewers and spurned by audiences. “Listen, you were disappointed, and you weren’t even in it. Imagine how we felt,” Bowie half-joked to NME in 1980. “It was my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one.” Bowie later claimed that he recognized the problems with the film from the outset. “I mean, oh God, I really should have known better. Every real, legitimate actor that I’ve ever met has told me never to even approach a film unless you know the script is good.”
Director Hemmings, meanwhile, had his own views about the film’s essential flaws, and they began with the rakish rock star at the centre of all those one-sheets above. “David has a special quality. The camera adores him. You can’t shoot him and lessen his attractiveness. The nature of the character he played demanded that I shy away from this,” Hemmings later lamented. “We took him into the worst shop in order to find the filthiest clothes and the real down-and-out look that was necessary for the character, and everything that David put on, it looked as if he’d just created a new fashion.”
That “special quality” mentioned by Hemmings would be fully embraced by the star’s next director. Coming to feature filmmaking from an extensive background in advertising with his elder brother Ridley, Tony Scott was surely attuned to the fashion-centric quality of Bowie’s presence when he cast him as the vampiric John Blaylock in The Hunger, as well as the artist’s unique aura of dark seductiveness and ability to be at once magnetic and repellent, menacing and sensitive. Nowhere is this better captured than in the film’s international poster designed by Jouineau Bourduge, which provokes at least this writer to overlook the dead guy and Catherine Deneuve and ask “Hey, who’s that guy in the sunglasses?”
Bourduge’s poster was used almost exclusively to sell the film internationally, and later on home video. (Typically, the Polish market provided an off-the-wall exception to the rule: in the country’s grand tradition of non-referential poster design, Wieslaw Walkuski’s one-sheet dispensed with Bowie, Deneuve, and vampires entirely.)
Playing an impossibly cool, seemingly ageless globetrotter was a role perfectly suited to Bowie’s public image, but the still-green actor didn’t find it to be one he was personally compatible with: “I was very uncomfortable with that role, although I loved being involved with a Tony Scott movie,” he later commented. While The Hunger marked his return to the big screen after the unqualified disaster of Just a Gigolo, Bowie had not abandoned acting in the interim: he played the lead in a television adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, and took the role of Joseph Merrick in a Broadway production of The Elephant Man.
It was this latter role that put Bowie on the radar of Japanese master Nagisa Oshima, who would give him what he would describe as the “least stylized” role of his career: that of Major Jack Celliers, a British officer in a Japanese POW camp in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. “I knew immediately that he was Celliers,” Oshima said later of seeing Bowie play Merrick. “He has an inner spirit that is indestructible, and that is what Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is all about. The inner human spirit that war cannot touch.” That said, Oshima also confessed that Bowie initially caught his attention in the Lost in Translation-esque whiskey ad below.
Oshima had initially approached Bowie about the project in 1980, but the UK-Japanese co-production suffered several setbacks and didn’t make it to principal photography until the summer of 1982. “I’d just finished The Hunger and the last thing I wanted to do was make a movie,” recalled Bowie, but the opportunity to work with the maker of the notorious In the Realm of the Senses evidently proved too much to resist.
Adapted by Oshima and British screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (who had also penned the script for The Man Who Fell to Earth) from The Seed and the Sower, a 1963 novel by Afrikaner author Laurens van der Post, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence centres on the conflict between Bowie’s Major Celliers and the POW camp commandant Yonoi (played by Japanese rock star Ryuichi Sakamoto), who becomes increasingly fascinated with his androgynous adversary; Tom Conti plays the title character, who strives to make piece between Yonoi and the unyielding Celliers, and the now-legendary Takeshi Kitano had his first major dramatic role as a brutal guard. (Commenting on his “stunt casting” of rock stars Bowie and Sakamoto, Oshima explained that he liked the effect that novice actors can have on professionals within an ensemble: “When they are confronted by the non-professionals, they become more honest and truthful in their performances.”)
At the film’s Cannes premiere in 1983, Bowie confessed that he had found a rare kinship with his character, who is wracked with guilt for betraying his younger brother during their schooldays. “I found in Celliers all too many areas of guilt because I grew so apart from my family,” he said; “I hardly ever see my mother and I have a stepbrother I don’t see any more. It was my fault we grew apart and it is painful — but somehow there’s no going back.” Still, the film’s English producer Jeremy Thomas echoed a familiar refrain about Bowie-as-actor when he described the film as being about “the love of one man for another man’s perfection” — once again ascribing to Bowie an ineffable, otherworldly quality.
The various posters for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence carried over this idea of unattainable perfection in a variety of ways. The international posters stylized Bowie as a rugged, sometimes smirking maverick set against the grim-faced Sakamoto; the German one-sheet, meanwhile, did away with Bowie’s co-star altogether.
In the US, the film’s distributor Universal took a different tack, rendering Bowie/Celliers as a flawlessly angular illustration, elevated above his co-stars; British distributor Palace Pictures took the trope the furthest by replicating Celliers’ Christ-like pose from one scene in the film.
Bowie described his experience on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence “a bit like making old rock ’n’ roll records, when James Brown and his band would do it just once.” According to Bowie, Oshima mostly filmed in sequence, edited in camera, and shipped the film off to his editor in Japan as soon as scenes wrapped. “By the time Oshima got back to Japan, he had a rough print within four days! I mean, I thought, ‘Hey, baby, that’s makin’ a movie,’ you know? Say what you mean, make it rhyme and put it to a backbeat — no fuckin’ about! It was just glorious.”
Perhaps inspired by Oshima’s no-nonsense approach, when Bowie left the production and landed in New York he recorded his new album Let’s Dance in 20 days, launching the most commercially successful era of his musical career: it became Bowie’s first top-ten album since before The Man Who Fell to Earth, and his first-ever platinum seller. This return to the top of the pop charts set the stage for Bowie to appear in what would be, for fans of a certain age, his most significant leading role.
In 1983, on the heels of his ambitious, decidedly not-Muppets movie The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson began planning another piece of high fantasy titled Labyrinth. Like its predecessor, the film’s fantastic world would be populated by creatures out of the Henson Workshop, but here the two primary characters — Sarah, a teenage girl searching for her kidnapped baby brother, and Jareth, the Goblin King who rules over the otherworldly labyrinth — would be played by actors. While Henson was initially interested in casting Sting as Jareth, his son John sagely counselled that while the Police frontman may be popular, “David Bowie is an artist — he’s got longevity.”
It took two years of meetings and conversations until Bowie officially joined the project, but when he did so he did so with verve. In addition to playing Jareth he agreed to contribute several new songs to the soundtrack (including “Magic Dance” and “Within”), which for many of the film’s young viewers would serve as their first introduction to his music — just as his indelible performance as the sly Goblin King would serve as their introduction to the phenomenon of “David Bowie” as a whole, and all the intriguing parts of the adult world that lurked behind his sly smile and tight trousers. (In The Atlantic’s must-read look back at the film, Alison Stine notes that “There’s both a paternal appeal and stranger-danger in Jareth, a confusing and unnerving quality given Bowie’s alleged statutory rape of two young fans in the ’70s [...] frankly, it makes Labyrinth difficult at times to rewatch as an adult.”)
When it came time to promote the film, the producers understandably opted to lean on their star’s iconic (and recently MTV-enhanced) visage. Bowie looms large (literally) in the advance poster by Steven Chorney, the first of Labyrinth’s many one-sheets.
By the time of the film’s release Bowie had been reduced in size (if not stature) in the film’s advertising, more accurately representing the balance between Bowie and his young co-star Jennifer Connelly in the film (it remains remarkable that the 14-year-old Connelly is never overshadowed onscreen by Bowie, who was then at the peak of his global fame and popularity).
Other iterations of the film’s promotional materials continued to seek a visual balance between Bowie, Connelly, and the Henson menagerie. (Curiously, in Japan the film’s behind-the-scenes talent seemed to be viewed as selling points equal to the movie’s stars.)
After Labyrinth, Bowie’s film work was largely limited to small parts in works by filmmakers he found interesting. “The few things I’ve made that were successful were because I homed in on the directors, as they had something I wanted to know about,” he explained in 1993. “And just... curiosity. I wonder what [Martin] Scorsese’s like — well you’ll find out, he’s offered you a role. [And] with somebody like that you don’t even question the role. You say, ‘Scorsese? Yeah, I’m doing it.’”
In addition to his Pontius Pilate in Scorsese’s long-cherished Passion project The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), over the next two decades Bowie held to this philosophy as he worked with everyone from Antonia Bird to Spongebob Squarepants. Apart from Labyrinth, it is these bit parts that tend to be Bowie-the-actor’s best-remembered roles: a sinister adman (with a bizarre transatlantic accent) in Julien Temple’s musical Absolute Beginners (1986); the mysteriously vanishing (and Southern-accented) FBI agent Philip Jeffries in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992); Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996); Nikolai Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006); and himself, in the “walk-off” sequence of Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (2001).
Of course, with an artist as unpredictable as Bowie there are more than a few oddities in his filmography — and perhaps none odder than the film that would feature his final leading role. In the little-seen 1991 comedy The Linguini Incident (which The Guardian recently declared that “nobody needs to see”), Bowie plays a bartender trying to finagle a green-card marriage with Houdini fanatic and aspiring escape artist Rosanna Arquette. (The film’s tagline: “He wants to be tied down. She wants to be tied up. It’s not what you think.”)
Why would the man who played such characters as the extraterrestrial Thomas Jerome Newton, immortal bloodsucker John Blaylock and the Goblin King deign to play a simple bartender? Perhaps the answer lies in the question itself — perhaps the man who worked so hard to avoid being pigeonholed in his music career had found himself typecast cinematically. “I’ve got more Martians-who-play-guitar scripts in my house than you’d believe,” he told Rolling Stone in 1983. “I mean, you wouldn’t think that many people wrote about Martians who play guitars, would you?”