If you’re not already aware, musician, visionary and performer David Bowie could do just about anything. While Bowie has been acclaimed as a musician for much of his career, the singer’s acting roles are equally notable. Bowie has starred in sci-fi, horror, fantasy, war dramas, art films, and everything in between, and has managed to incorporate his larger-than-life persona into each of his respective performances. Bowie’s film roles also demonstrated his remarkable range and presented layers to an already impressive set of skills.
Updated December 7, 2022: If you’re a David Bowie fan, you’ll be happy to know that we’ve updated this article with more of the talented musician’s best movies.
For fans of Bowie’s film roles, there’s a heated discussion as to who constitutes his best performance to date. Luckily, we’ve compiled a roundup of some of Bowie’s most dramatic, campy, harrowing, or gonzo roles in one place. Take a look and find out which film truly represents the pinnacle of Starman action.
10/10 Just a gigolo
For David Hemmings’ highly ironic 1978 drama Just a Gigolo, Bowie appears as Eastern European soldier Paul von Przygodski, who, returning from World War I, finds work as a high-class prostitute in a German brothel run by Baroness (Old Hollywood icon Marlene Dietrich in her latest film role). Bowie is handsome and charming, but the film fails to take advantage of the musician’s charisma and feels like a spectacle without substance.
Just a Gigolo was not well received by critics, audiences and Bowie himself, who described the film as “my 32 Elvis Presley films rolled into one”. However, this film should only be seen to find that Bowie’s film flop is still more interesting than many other films.
9/10 The Prestige
Pictures from Warner Bros.
Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige is notable for many reasons, and Bowie’s devious but hard-hitting cameo as Nicolai Tesla is a real highlight. Despite the brevity of the role, Bowie’s theatrical swagger and cheeky humor meshes effectively into the character’s part of the film and leaves a lasting impression. While the role could have been a glorified boilerplate, Bowie manages to ensure that Tesla’s appearance is essential to the themes, and he perfectly captures the genius’ restless spirit and eccentricity.
Nolan reportedly begged Bowie to appear in the film and, luckily for viewers, he not only agreed but delivered a scene-stealing role that enriched the film in the process. Bowie’s performance in The Prestige was well received by critics and audiences and proved that even in a brief role, Bowie could still create a performance that resonated.
8/10 Absolute beginners
Pictures of Palace
Julien Temple’s 1986 musical Absolute Beginners explores life in late 1950s London, showing the transformation from the jazz era to 1960s rock and roll. Bowie is only a minor player in the film, an advertiser called Vendice Partners, but its catchy title track became hugely popular in the UK and spent nine weeks on the charts.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen worse play in a great British film… That song, in my opinion, was the only good feature in the whole film,” IndieWire quoted Jake Eberts, whose film studio Goldcrest Films snagged. collapsed after the commercial failure of Absolute Beginners.
It’s no secret that Bowie was a master at embracing the absurd and that certainly extends to his film performances. In 1996’s Basquiat, Bowie plays none other than iconic pop artist Andy Warhol. Bowie’s performance here lacks subtlety and is clearly frantic, but his over-the-top nature and flamboyant touch are delightfully entertaining, his theatrical style lends dynamism to the role, and his line-readings and mannerisms strike the right balance between campy and self-conscious. self. .
Many performers have taken on the role of Warhol, and while some have portrayed him as a tortured visionary, Bowie’s exuberant and fiery take on Warhol is refreshing to behold. Also, bonus points for the way Bowie shamelessly rocks the Warhol wig; again, this is a man who knows a thing or two about hairstyles.
6/10 The Last Temptation of Christ
Based on the controversial novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, Martin Scorsese’s epic 1988 religious drama The Last Temptation of Christ humanizes the figure of Jesus Christ (played by Willem Dafoe), tormented by the temptations of demons, wondering what is the right way. Resonating with some audiences while offending others, Scorsese’s account of Christ’s last days has been accused of being an offensive and ungodly film.
In The Last Temptation of Christ, Bowie steps into the role of Pontius Pilate. He plays it so subtly, softly and skillfully, almost sounding sympathetic as he kills God.
MGM/UA Entertainment Co.
For every musician-turned-actor, it seems the vampire movie is a rite of passage, and Bowie made a debut in the genre in 1983’s The Hunger. In the hyper-stylized film, Bowie plays John, the lover of the immortal vampire Miriam (Catherine Deneuve); the vampire pair find themselves trapped in a love triangle that tests their loyalty to each other.
The film stands out for showcasing its gothic aesthetic, and Bowie’s hauntingly seductive performance only adds to its appeal — his chemistry with Deneuve simmers and adds a layer of daring sexuality to the proceedings. Bowie’s penchant for performance art has served him well, as he translates his glamorous showmanship to film very effectively here. The Hunger was not a critical success, but has since established a cult following and is considered one of Bowie’s most iconic feature film roles to date.
4/10 Twin Peaks: fire walks with me
New line cinema
Few performers can become an iconic character in a single scene, but Bowie managed to do it in his role as Philip Jefferies in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. David Lynch is one of his most powerful performances, and while he’s only really present in one scene, he owns more than his screen time. Bowie brings an angsty intensity to Jefferies and demonstrates a real dramatic presence here.
Bowie’s role is considered by many to be one of the film’s most iconic moments and has been widely embraced by the fandom. It’s a testament to Bowie’s talent that despite the brevity, his role as Jefferies remains so important and impactful.
3/10 Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Pictures of Palace
Although Bowie had acted in films before 1983, it was with that year’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and Hunger that he laid the groundwork for his acting potential. The film follows Bowie as a prisoner of war during World War II and his relationship with a ranking commander evolves in unexpected ways. The film finds the actor in his most serious performance, and he manages to rise to the occasion with conviction, sincerity and emotion.
Bowie is also in a more low-key mood here and manages to retain his charismatic presence in the process. It’s a heartbreaking film throughout its runtime, and while it would be easy for an actor to pull it off, Bowie’s restraint here is extremely powerful. His performance in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence won him critical acclaim and helped establish his credibility as an actor, and his work in the quiet, mysterious, and often beautiful film remains one of the best dramatic performances in Bowie.
Pictures of Tri-Star
While Bowie may have had “more serious roles,” few remain celebrated and adored like his turn as the Goblin King in the 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth. Bowie’s performance is gloriously over the top and theatrical, and he puts his glam rock pedigree to good use. Bowie is known for being a flamboyant performer, and he uses that strength immensely in Labyrinth, owning every scene he’s in.
Credit also goes to his comedic timing, as he manages to easily interact with the film’s many animated characters and young performers. Bowie’s turn as Goblin King is celebrated by many and continually introduces him to new generations. For many, Labyrinth serves as Bowie’s gateway and one of his most important on-screen performances.
1/10 The man who fell to earth
British lion films
One of Bowie’s first starring roles came in the 1976 science fiction film The Man Who Fell To Earth. With a main character inspired by Bowie’s stage persona, the film follows Bowie as an alien who crash-lands on earth in the form of a human while navigating modern society. The film is known for its existential and philosophical themes as it explores morality, corruption, desire, and the human spirit. Bowie’s performance as Thomas Jerome Newton makes great use of his unearthly presence, and his intensity and vulnerability are powerful to watch. Bowie also organically demonstrates an intimacy and understanding of his character that allows us to gain deeper resonance for his plight. Refreshingly, her performance lacks vanity and is organic and heartfelt throughout.
Like many of Nicolas Roeg’s masterpieces, The Man Who Fell to Earth polarized audiences at the time, and Bowie was not entirely accepted as an actor of respect; he would direct only one more film for seven years after this one, until Hunger and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The film, however, became cult and is considered one of the most influential science fiction films of its time. Bowie’s performance here has also been noted as one of his most defining roles, with many automatically associating the Starman musician with the film’s star man. While Bowie has starred in numerous films, his role in The Man Who Fell To Earth remains his most definitive.