Tribute: A brief history of David Bowie in the movies

The multi-faceted singer and artist notched up several idiosyncratic film credits.

Multi-hyphenate talent David Bowie, who has died of cancer at the age of 69, worked in several musical genres over a career that spanned over 45 years. Bowie was also a producer and an artist, a fashion icon, a spokesperson for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, and an actor.

Here is a short film from 1969, the year Bowie released his first hit, Space Oddity. Bowie plays a spectral figure who steps out of a painting being made by an artist. The spooky short is by Michael Armstrong, who went on to make the horror film Mark of the Devil and the parody House of the Long Shadow, and is fittingly called The Image.


In 1972, Bowie released the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, featuring a fictional rock star who communicates with extraterrestrial beings. Ziggy was one of Bowie’s many idiosyncratic personas, which made him the perfect choice as the lead in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Bowie plays an extra-terrestrial who arrives on Earth to find water for his drought-stricken planet.


For Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), taboo-busting Japanese director Nagisa Oshima cast the androgynous and allegedly bisexual Bowie as a prisoner of war at a Japanese internment camp during WWII. The camp commander, played by Ryuichi Sakamoto, develops a homo-erotic fixation with Bowie’s character, who uses this obsession to lead a rebellion against the Japanese.


One of the most unusual characters played by Bowie is the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Martin Scorsese’s controversial adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel of the same name is an unconventional depiction of the life of Jesus Christ (played by Willem Dafoe).


Bowie also seems a natural choice to play Andy Warhol in Julian Schanbel’s 1996 biopic of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bowie plays Warhol, Basquiat’s mentor, as an “an art world Wizard of Oz, a fraud and a nervous wreck straining desperately for each noncommittal pose”, writes Janet Maslin in The New York Times.


More persona-collecting for Bowie, this time in Christopher Nolan’s richly atmospheric The Prestige (2006), about rival magicians in England in the late 19th century. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are the leads, while Bowie portrays Nikola Tesla, the brilliant physicist and inventor whose teleporting machine plays an important part in the plot.


In the fashion world satire Zoolander, David Bowie plays himself – an effortlessly cool and eternal fashion icon.

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