The late Bowie shined as a soldier, an alien, a vampire, Nikola Tesla, Andy Warhol and Pontius Pilate
David Bowie was always more than a singer. Though he remains primarily known for his innovative approach to music, he also had an irregular but surprisingly rich career as both a stage and screen actor. In fact, Bowie, who studied mime and was at one time interested in playing Buster Keaton in a film of his life, collaborated with directors as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Tony Scott, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan. It is no exaggeration to say that the man, a singular and natural talent on screen, left his distinctive mark on the world of cinema. Here are some of the roles that defined his career.
A Mythical Creature
Bowie’s first role was as an extraterrestrial in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 science-fiction drama The Man Who Fell to Earth, which was perhaps inevitable, because of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. He certainly looked otherworldly in an almost effortless way—so frail, his lover carries him in her arms when he faints, his vaguely reptilian features contrasting with his bright orange hair. His character comes to Earth selling new technologies as part of a rescue mission, which parallels Bowie’s last significant role, as the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla, a man of mystical knowledge and possibilities, in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.
A Defiant Hero
The high point of Bowie’s acting career came with Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 war drama Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. As Jack Celliers, a rebellious British soldier in a Japanese prison camp, Bowie reached far beyond his natural charisma to deliver a performance of lasting emotional power. A daring and dignified leader with a deep sadness on his mind, his character steals the show whenever he appears. Bowie’s acting is in fact so strong that a flashback scene in which he plays a schoolboy, which sounds laughable on paper, instead works as effective allegory. It is a role not to be missed.
A Biblical Villain
The character of Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ could have been fully evil or showy, especially considering Bowie’s love of spectacle, but he is instead portrayed as a restrained, confident bureaucrat who interrogates Jesus in a half-bored and half-curious manner during a scene that sadly lasts only a few minutes in a 162-minute film. Bowie’s Pilate stands out as a lonely but imperious British voice in a film dominated by American actors.