People are thinking a lot about David Bowie's music today, and they should—for a guy who left his mark on many aspects of culture, music undoubtedly benefited the most from Bowie's vision, experimentation, and passion. But film, too, gained quite a lot from Bowie's endeavors. While Bowie's goofy, crotch-bulging appearance in the even-goofier Labyrinth might be one generation's touchstone for Bowie as an actor, his career in front of the camera sprawled far beyond that, as Bowie seemed to take on whatever roles he found most interesting (or the most fun) at the time. Sometimes this resulted in Bowie doing a voice on SpongeBob SquarePants, and sometimes it resulted in classics like The Last Temptation of Christ. Bowie's death is a clear and massive loss for music, but his absence will also mark film.
Weirdly, the first thing I think of when I think of Bowie as an actor is one of Christopher Nolan's less-appreciated efforts, The Prestige (2006), in which the always-fascinating Bowie played another fascinating figure, Nikola Tesla. Bowie looks—and sounds—different enough in the role that, in one of the more surreal and frustrating filmgoing experiences I've had, I just couldn't place him. I knew there was something deeply familiar about the actor, but—fittingly for The Prestige, and fittingly for Tesla—I couldn't quite figure it out until the end credits rolled. The result—instead of "Oooh, look, it's David Bowie!"—was simply a Tesla who stole every scene he was in.
Probably more noteworthy is Bowie's starring role in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), which Mercury Music Editor Ned Lannamann correctly notes is "one of the strangest, most indelible visions of alien visitors committed to film." As Ned wrote on the film's 35th anniversary:
Thomas Jerome Newton wasn't the first role David Bowie had played—he'd been hiding behind characters like Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust since the beginning of his music career—but The Man Who Fell to Earth was Bowie's first major film role, and it's so ideally suited that it's difficult to tell where the actor ends and Newton begins. Bowie's unearthly gauntness and mismatched eyes already made him look alien-like, but when Newton reveals himself to his earthling girlfriend, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), stripping off his nipples, contact lenses, and genitalia, it's one of the creepiest moments in science-fiction history.
Scorsese's great The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was also a big one for Bowie: In one of the film's best performances, Bowie took on the role of Pontius Pilate, and man is he good in it, his coiled menace writhing beneath slithering words. "It's also said that you do miracles," he croons to Christ. "Is this good magic, or bad magic? Could we have some kind of... ah... demonstration? I mean, could you do a trick for me, now, say?"
Bowie's film and TV appearances ranged all over the map: Take 1983, for example, where he both starred in Tony Scott's vampire flick The Hunger and popped up wearing a shark fin in the otherwise forgotten pirate comedy Yellowbeard. He played one more weirdo in 1992's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me; he played Andy Warhol in 1996's Basquiat; and he played David Bowie in both Zoolander and Extras. And it's also worth nothing Bowie had another connection to film: Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, is the acclaimed writer/director of Moon and Source Code.
But back to that episode of Extras, which had one perfect scene that somehow pulled together a number of Bowie's different facets: his musical genius, his humor, his sly grace, and that razor-sharp edge of darkness that was always just behind the smile. No matter how many times I watch it, this scene remains laugh-out-loud funny—and a scene that's sad, that's mean, and that features the most beautiful song ever sung about a pathetic little fat man. But yeah, it's mostly hilarious, and it encapsulates why David Bowie was the fucking best:
I'm going to keep this video open in a tab today; whenever I get sad about Bowie, that's what I'm going to watch, and that's what's going to make me laugh. It's a reminder of what we've lost, true—but it's also a reminder of how much we got from Bowie, as both a musician and an actor.