In Movies, David Bowie Was Always So Perfectly Himself

The glam-rock superstar first appeared in "The Man Who Fell to Earth."
David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly appear in a scene from 1986's "Labyrinth."
David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly appear in a scene from 1986's "Labyrinth."

Known for four decades as an iconoclast whose work propelled androgyny into the mainstream, David Bowie didn't limit his glam-rock stylings to his music. Instead, he carried them throughout the many film roles he inhabited.

Whether conjuring voodoo as Jareth the Goblin King in the cult-classic Jim Henson fantasy "Labyrinth," portraying the like-minded Andy Warhol in a Jean-Michel Basquiat biopic or cameoing as himself in "Zoolander," Bowie's detached, otherworldly spunk was always woven into the fabric of his screen appearances. His characters were as odd as his Ziggy Stardust persona, and audiences worshiped him all the more for it. In the wake of his death, here's a look at some of his most memorable movie achievements. 

  • "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976)
    Bowie's film career began in 1976, a few years after his sophomore album, "Space Oddity," catapulted his musical fame. "The Man Who Fell to Earth" was a reflection of the image Bowie would foster throughout the rest of his life, namely that of Ziggy Stardust. He played a doleful humanoid alien in search of water to take back to his home planet. The movie's trailer announced, "Nothing you have seen or heard about David Bowie will prepare you for the impact of his first dramatic performance" and heralded him as one of the "few true originals of our time." Reviews were mixed, but Nicolas Roeg's film went on to garner cult status and inspire the cover art for Bowie's albums "Station to Station" and "Low."
  • "The Hunger" (1983)
    Before he made "Top Gun" and "Days of Thunder," Tony Scott cast Bowie in the erotic vampire thriller "The Hunger." Ahead of its time thanks to a controversial scene in which Catherine Deneuve seduces Susan Sarandon, the movie is known for its atmospheric blend of punk glamour and goth-chic terror. In his review of the film, New York Times critic Vincent Canby said that Bowie "becomes an increasingly interesting screen presence with each succeeding film." Sarandon, who shared a brief romance with the actor, hosted a screening of "The Hunger" in Manhattan last year, where we asked her to share her favorite Bowie recollection: "One of the best memories is when he was playing Madison Square Garden during the Serious Moonlight Tour and I was able to be on stage and just be that close to the music and that close to him," she said.
  • "Labyrinth" (1986)
    Bowie's signature role, Jareth the Goblin King seemed to encapsulate every whimsical aspect of Bowie when it hit theaters in 1986. Jareth's lair wasn't originally intended to be seen in the film, but when Jim Henson cast Bowie, he made the outlandish chieftain a prominent character and added musical numbers, including the famous "Magic Dance" and "As the World Falls Down." This work of campy voodoo divided critics and didn't find much life at the box office, but it became a cult staple on home video -- so much so that 2005's "MirrorMask," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, was originally conceived as a sequel. Moreover, this movie gave us bulging crotch shots and a defining Bowie lyric: "I move the stars for no one."
  • "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988)
    Martin Scorsese's biblical epic attracted vociferous protests from Christian groups because it departed from the gospels' accounts of Jesus' life. But critics heaped praise on the eccentric film, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Bowie played an even-tempered Pontius Pilate after Sting reportedly passed on the role. In her review of the film, New York Times critic Janet Maslin wrote favorably of Bowie's turn, calling his take on the Roman ruler "strikingly urbane."
  • "Basquiat" (1996)
    Julian Schnabel was a decade away from making "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" when his debut feature film, "Basquiat," offered an insightful take on the life of subversive artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bowie had a significant role in the movie as Andy Warhol, a friend of Basquiat's who also caroused with Keith Haring, Robert Rauschenberg, Madonna and, of course, Bowie himself, in the 1980s. Bowie was lauded for playing Warhol as affable and detached instead of pretentious, and in his review, Roger Ebert called the performance "remarkable" and "instinctively perceptive."
  • "Zoolander" (2001)
    When Owen Wilson's character challenges Ben Stiller's to a catwalking contest in "Zoolander," an unlikely expert in unconventional glamour pops up to adjudicate: David Bowie, playing himself. His appearance in the film is like a statement on the singer's entire career. He turns up, whips off his sunglasses and pronounces, “I believe I might be of service." Everyone in the room gasps in response, as they should.
  • "The Prestige" (2006)
    Christopher Nolan had Bowie in mind for the part of teleportation innovator Nikola Tesla in this decadent mystery. Bowie initially turned down the pitch, until Nolan flew to New York to change his mind. The subtle, small role is essential to the film, as Tesla encourages Hugh Jackman's magician character to both destroy the time-traveling machine and end his feud with his nemesis, played by Christian Bale. Moreover, Bowie imbues Tesla with the collected confidence that long characterized his own persona.

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